What Lies Beneath

The title of this dissertation is a classic ‘double entendre’ that was provoked by one of the typical Spirella wedding photographs. As we have shown, Spirella made much advertising mileage from photographs of the females at a wedding, with a caption detailing the sorts of foundations that they were wearing. This intimate knowledge was volunteered by the corsetiere (with her clients’ permission of course) whose presence in the wedding photograph revealed her status as an adopted member of the family.

 

   

Even in the 1960's, a good old-fashioned corset could be called into play to fit one's daughter into her wedding dress.

All these pictures are post-war, those on the left coming from the late 1940's (Dior had a lot to do with the tightly girdled waist). In these decades, what a man saw was quite probably nothing like what the unadorned female would see in the mirror. One has to admit that the finished article is elegant and impressive, but considerable 'sub-surface' engineering was required to achieve the final effect.

Corsets, shoulder pads, uplifting brassieres and crinolines may have played a small part, but the good old bra and girdle was the mainstay for millions of women.

 

At a fashion parade in the 1960s, the shapely blond reveals, via the medium of a striptease, exactly what gives her such a fine figure. Her raven-haired colleague opens her satin duster coat to reveal that she has forgotten to wear her dress.

Spirella's Take on the Subject

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With these ladies you do not have to guess. From left to right:- Coppelia bra and Spirelette 105 panty-girdle; fashion line bra and 234 girdle; type 31 bra and 305 corset, and type 31 bra and 325 corset. This picture could well have come from 1965, a year after the 105 was introduced but when many fashionable women would wear a girdle and the older women a corset. The panty-girdle struggled to make headway until the late 1960's in Britain.

 

Surprisingly, this picture was not taken in 1965, but in 2011, some 46 years later. All the garments are original Spirellas and the clothes come from the same general period.

 

Interestingly, the lady on the left found the panty-girdle quite uncomfortable. She has a longish back and I think it was simply too short above the waist for it kept snagging her long-line Coppelia bra. The lady second on the left loved the girdle. She has had a sensitive back for years and she enjoyed the support sufficiently to ask if she could buy it from us! The third lady liked the corset and commented that once ensconced for a little while, she felt that the laces should be tightened that little bit extra. "It's years since I got into a size 14." On the right, the corset put a dramatic waist on the lady but it really did not fit very well. Whoever ordered the corset originally would have been quite scant in the hips, whereas our model was more shapely or as my corsetiere once discretely put it "she favours a larger hip-spring!"

Let us consider what a Spirella corsetière of the period might have thought about the group above. The year is 1963.

"Marjorie on the left wears a Coppelia bra and a Spirelette 105 panty-girdle. I feel that the girdle is a mistake. She bought it for horse riding when she wears jodhpurs, but a girdle would be far better with this ensemble. At least she bought from Spirella. Well, as for Amy, a Triumph Doreen bra and a Marks and Spencer girdle! How am I supposed to live off my commission when women buy from the High Street? Those foundations last for ever and do as good a job as Spirella at a third the price. I'll really have to work on my sales technique. Thank Goodness Madeleine wears a Spirella bra and her trusty 305 corset. It's what I wear myself and I think when I first met her 15 years ago, revealing my own foundations in her living room made the sale. I remember in the training classes when they told us to wear what we were selling and to be prepared to show the client as well. I couldn't believe it at the time but it has made me hundreds of sales. Perhaps I'll try that with Amy. Eilieen on the right is a Godsend. She wears a Spirella 325 corset (front and back laced). She likes the accommodation over her hips and every spring she orders three new ones and matching bras in white artificial satin (orchid material). One in the wash, one in the drawer and one on the body. I just need to work on Amy!"

So what really did lie beneath the satins and rayons, and what ‘white’ lies were told in the interests of marketing. That both Spirella and Spencer took considerable latitude with their before and after photographs, suggests that the wedding descriptions may have been somewhat exaggerated as well. I do not know, but I discussed the matter with a group of elderly friends and, apart from some disagreements, we came to the following conclusions. To be fair, our conclusions do pertain to a standard wedding of the period, rather than the idealistic Spirella wedding where, not only every women from Granny to pre-teenage bridesmaid would be regaled in Spirella's finest foundations, but Spirella’s branded stockings as well!

Thompson's Glove Fitting Corset used the technique 100 years ago!

Warners in the 1920's revealed the benefits of rubber corsetry (click)

Even the Swedes were at it in 1964

This amazing advertisement comes from American Spirella

Even in the 21st century, Ardyss uses the same technique

 

For over one hundred years, manufacturers have shown us literally what lies beneath!

 

The lies about what lies beneath              

 

Granny always seemed to wear the complex, heavy and formidable 325 corset. These still turn up at auction and we have half a dozen in our collection, however, this is probably because they weren’t that popular and thus were preserved.

 

Mother as least was credited with a standard 305 corset, or, if particularly young and trendy, a 206 or 234 girdle, perhaps even a Coppelia girdle in the late 1960’s. These semi-made-to-measure girdles suffered by comparison with the high street brands, particularly in terms of cost.

 

The Bride never wore a corset*, always a girdle, or at the very least, a special brassiere and waist-nipper. I know of one bride (not mentioned by Spirella) who had a back-laced 315 corset made for the occasion. Her dress was Victorian in style, and she claimed the back-lacing was a nice period touch. *Except in this charming piece of whimsy recently discovered.

 

Did the Bridesmaid, in her 20’s, really wear a 305 corset. Admittedly in some of the pictures, the circularity of the torso suggests that this might be so, but this, even in the 1950’s would have been rare.

 

The Guest, of course could wear anything that suited her age, and Spirella provided just that. Certainly, their garments were very expensive, but they lasted and fit perfectly (in theory). In the transition period of the late 1960’s, a teenager might be wearing a high-waisted, well-boned girdle, whereas her friend’s mother might be in a panty-girdle.

 

The Corsetiere could be relied on to wear the firm’s garments. You never knew when a prospective customer might want a quick preview of the latest 305 corset in tea-rose orchid rayon.

 

 

 

and       what really lies beneath

 

Granny probably did wear a corset in the late 1950’s and early 60’s when most of these photographs appeared. The Spirella 305 was very common, but not the front- and back-laced 325.

 

Mother would certainly wear a girdle, and, in the hands of a persuasive corsetiere, Spirella might be the brand, however, times were changing, and the girdles on offer from Marks and Spencer were, I’m afraid to say, the equal of Spirella’s offerings; and, much cheaper too!

 

The fact of the Bride comes closest to the fiction, since, on this special day, special foundations would be worn. Spirella did make excellent strapless brassieres and waist-nippers, and for once, could steal a march on the high street.

 

The Bridesmaid almost certainly would wear a girdle, or a panty-girdle as soon as they became more common. In reality, a women (outside of the acting world) rarely laces herself to fit into a dress; she simply buys a larger size.

 

The Guest of the 1950’s might well be wearing Spirella, Spencer, Strodex, Alstons or any one of the made-to-measure foundations, but as the concept of long-lasting quality was replaced by the impulse buy of the booming 60’s, the off-the-shelf market blossomed.

 

The Corsetiere might be wearing her trade garments, and I know many that did, however, I know an equal number that never wore Spirella’s corsets at all, and despite having sold thousands, never ventured beyond Marks and Spencer panty-girdles!

Obviously, these photographs were Spirella weddings, and the women that made it into the pictures would be clients of the corsetiere, and wearing Spirella’s best. However, particularly as the 1960’s grew to a close, the world had changed. A woman that had grown up with corsets cannot abandon them overnight and Granny would take her corsets to the grave, but the girdled mother would soon become panty-girdled. For a brief period, a well-preserved granny might wear a panty-girdle and the young bridesmaid, a corset, but this was rare. Spirella, although they did not know it, were facing extinction, since the fitting of an elastic garment will never be as critical as that of a non-elastic one. The premium that Spirella charged would ultimately doom them in a world where, if a woman could be bothered to wear  foundation at all, it would be, at best, a panty-girdle. I must add, in Spirella’s defence, that their Coppelia 51 and Spirelette 105, were extremely powerful and strong garments that could not be purchased on the high street. Alas, not many women appreciated this or even cared.

 

 

 

 

As we have said, when these photographs were taken, it is right to assume that that some of the older ladies (over 60) would be wearing a corset. Only one woman is wearing a pantie-girdle, however, this garment was not that common in the mid 1960's in Britain. Therefore, all the others are wearing traditional girdles. The two exceptions are the bridesmaids who are wearing corsets despite being in their 20's. One is a little 'chubby' and appears obviously under the influence of some constraining foundation garment. The other looks quite slim, and to be fair, the 515 was described as a girdle and could be ordered without lacing. To any woman of her age today, however, that garment would be called a corset, assuming that the woman of today knew was a corset might be.

 

In the early 1960's, the girdle was still (literally) the mainstay of the middle-aged woman, and the houses of the corsetieres  proudly displayed their professional signs. Unlike any other industry, Spirella and Spencer, anticipating Yellow Pages by more than a decade, bought full pages in the county phone directories to advertise the numbers of their corsetieres. 

 

The counters of the department stores groaned under the weight of corsets and girdles, and in  Marks and Spencer, girdles of an amazingly high quality could be purchased by the average woman. 

 

In 1967, this charming lady of my acquaintance (left) displays what the perfect middle class lady in her early 60's would wear to a wedding. Silk twin-set and pearls, hat, gloves, long-line bra from the Triumph Doreen range, zippered high-waisted girdle from Marks and Spencer in Sutton, and support stockings from Figure Foundations in Banstead High street. 

 

The flatness of her stomach is a tribute to the power of the Marks and Spencer classic girdle. Having no children, an early adulthood on horseback, and proper foundations gave this women an excellent figure. That her figure is elegant, and well-controlled by mass-produced high street items, should have sounded a warning bell to the marketers of the bespoke corset houses. Within three years, this lady's girdles had been consigned to the dustbin as British women followed their American cousins into the panty-girdle. Her figure was never quite the same again.

 

 

Indeed, the times were changing, and within a few years those same girdles and corsets would be be permanently 'on sale', the panty-girdle and then the brassiere would overtake the girdle for prime position in the stores, and the generic corset would become a sad object of fun, lying unwanted at jumble sales, and latterly charity shops.

Our descriptions of who wore what elicited such a flurry of correspondence from people, both men and women, who remembered what their mothers, sisters or grannies used to wear. After our own account (above), we received the tale of a Mother-in-Law and her expensive Barcley girdles.

 

The Wedding Party

 

 

 

Regard the wedding party! What potential is there here for the ambitious Spirella corsetière. There are 17 women here aged between 22 and 81. It is 1963, a year before the 'swinging sixties' really took hold and the consequent social upheaval would change our lives forever. Within a couple of years, some women would have burned their bras (to their sagging regret years later); the girdle would soon die, but strangely, the corset would persevere into the 21st century, a lonely bastion of the lower foundation garment until the panty-girdle, in the guise of the shaper would make a resurgence in the early 21st century. In 1963, it was quite possible for the young bridesmaid to wear a corset (although this would be far from common), whilst granny, who might have visited the USA, would sport the latest panty-girdle.

 

The potential of the eclectic crowd  above is surely, nine pairs of support stockings, five surgical corsets (325's and under-belted styles), five corsets (305's and 315's), six girdles, one panty-girdle, one waspie, 12 long-line bras and five short bras. This would earn the corsetiere a huge commission, perhaps enough for a package holiday to Spain for the early 1960's would see the beginning of such deals that would become a staple of family calendars.

 

Regard the pictures on the right that come from a solidly upper-middle class wedding of the early 1960's. The dreadful picture quality is due to transposition from super 8 movie camera to an electronic medium. The movie, however, speaks volumes for a time that few of us can remember in any detail.

The ladies all wear a sort of uniform. Court shoes with at least 1-inch heel. Seamed stockings, the denier of which is determined by the state of the wearer's veins. Occasionally two pairs of stockings would be worn, the outer fashionable pair to disguise the inner more functional ones. Two piece shiny satin, silk or rayon suit comprising a form-fitting dress and jacket or coat, jewellery in abundance (depending upon one's means) with immaculate make-up and hair styled and lacquered into immobility. Hat and gloves were optional. As for what lies beneath, the middle-aged and even younger women would be wearing a girdle and long-line brassiere. Again, whether Spirella or Marks and Spencer would be determined by one's husband's salary. The older women might wear a corset, especially if a number of suspenders were required to hold up several pairs of stockings.

The overall effect is to confine the wearer in powerful elastic from her toes to her shoulders. If the woman has made the mistake of wearing new shoes or a new girdle, they will become agonising as the wedding progresses. Even without the latter torment, the ladies' locomotion is severely compromised by the tight skirts and elastic confinement. This is what struck us while watching this movie; the way that women walked. Almost like marionettes, the women on the left walked in step to the front of the church. Before climbing the steps into the church, each women paused, adjusted her fall of her clothes and then, with quite some apparent effort, mounted the steps precariously thrown forward by their heels and without the necessary freedom of leg movement to mount the next step with ease, all the time wondering whether their foundations would show through the tight skirt and whether the suspenders would give way under the strain.

We have forgotten life in the 1960's. Cigarette smoke would pervade the air; perfume would partially disguise this as well as camouflage the odour of mothballs and the pungent odour of rubber for those women who literally stuck to their latex reducing foundations for these torture devices were still worn by a stoic few.

Mind you, the women at the wedding all looked incredibly well-groomed and smart; would that they looked as good today!

 

Getting into it all!

It was never easy but it did make a girl feel good.

Spirella's Attempt 

Spirella attempted some charming photographs in the 1950's of what a lady might be expected to wear under her stylish dress of the period. This is similar to several US girdle advertisements from this era that I've shown below.

  

From the Spirella (UK) house magazines of the mid-1950's, come a good idea of the correct underwear to match the outfit. But just a moment; the two British women are almost certainly wearing their proper foundations beneath their dresses, but the American Spirella lady below gives the strongest impression that she removed her bra and corset before putting on the figure-hugging dress.

 

From Vogue 1955

Weddings and girdles prominently featured in one of the 1955 editions of British Vogue magazine. In this instance, the model guests at the wedding are not revealed in their underwear, however, the suggestion is that the late 40's mother and early 20's daughter will both be wearing the latest 'hi-waisted' or 'nip-waisted' girdles. Of course, fashion can conceal much, and the bigger-hipped bride can always resort to the crinoline to disguise what no girdle will ever achieve.

 

From the USA

Permalift, Maidenform, Gossard (1930's) and Sears (1958) used 'what lies beneath' to good effect.

       

     

If nothing else, these pictures reveal how American womanhood beat her European cousins into the panty-girdle by more than half a decade. The Silf Skin advert is slightly odd in that the lady in her girdle is shorter than her twin, but I suppose that in her underwear, she would not be wearing heels. On the right we have 1960's 'liberated' girl, although not quite liberated yet from her panty-girdle. The weirdest in the Maidenform series has to be the lady in the fluorescent bra, posing incongruously by 'Big Ben' in a London fog. As all Londoners know, when there is fog, there is no wind.

The lady (above left) is so proud of her Sarongster girdle that she even carries a picture of it. The advertisement is interesting. Is the lady on the right feeling smug that she alone wears such an excellent girdle? Certainly, the central lady is definitely not wearing a proper girdle. Once again, the marketing department capitalise on woman's weakness for 'one-upmanship'. On the right, another proud Sarongster wearer disembarks from an aeroplane. Is this where the 'stewardesses and girdles' rumour originated?

 

From Germany

 

In the original advert, there was a prize if you could match the underwear to the outerwear. Bizarrely, the prize was an Italian car, not a German one.

 

 

 

From Dior

 

 

These stills from a well-known newsreel clip show the lengths to which women will go to achieve a desired shape (usually created by a man it has to be said). The model is laced far tighter than had been seen since the Victorian era to satisfy the wasp-waist fantasies of M. Dior. Shoulder pads are then secured to the bra straps and little pads pinned to the hip area. Apart from these artifices, the woman wears a bra to enhance and lift her bosom, stockings to smooth her legs, make-up to render her face flawless and she may even wear a wig or hair-piece. For an older woman, the first step might even be to insert one's dentures (20% of British women were toothless after the War). When one then considers the bloomers or panties and slips that form such a large part of 1940's life (see the Trousseau at the top of this section), getting dressed was not that simple. Indeed, what the young swain saw, was not necessarily what he might get! The lady on the left even sports a girdle to hold up her stockings and a cinch to achieve the nipped-in waist.

 

Let me leave you with some eloquent prose from the pen of Ian McRoberts.

 

"The stout matron grimaces rather than smiles. If you had seen the effort that it took her to lace tight that unaccustomed corset, you would not be surprised at her expression. Her eyes bulge, her bosom is hoisted inches higher than even Howard Hughes intended by the hip-quenching force of her formidably over-tightened stays. Her corsets have removed her feminine hips and she tapers like a female tent-peg into the arrow-head agony of her stilettos. Nevertheless, the agony is not without effect for she looks very attractive and is well aware of this."

 

"Her spectacularly elevated bosom eclipsed the food on the table when she sat down to eat, a feat accomplished not without effort; both sitting and eating that is. Like her friend, her corsets were tightened to life-threatening levels. The groom secretly wondered (as all grooms do) if this was what the future held for his new bride."

 

"Her assets spectacularly moulded by layers of elastic. Indeed, the woman in elastic is a formidable sight and not for the faint of heart."

 

 

 

 

From the Film Industry

 

    

 

 

The film industry sells fantasy in various packages and "Further Up the Creek" (1958) is a very enjoyable romp of its genre. It does however fail to pass the test of authenticity (what film ever does, although "Titanic" comes very close). The stills above reveals a few classic howlers. Let me set the scene. A naval lieutenant, whilst fiddling with the controls of a jet aeroplane, manages to blow off half the clothes of a group of Wrens. Jolly good fun and all that in the great British tradition but:-

 

A jet would blow the Wrens and their clothes half way down the runway;

The shadows show that this is an interior set;

Wrens might (if they could afford it) wear basques and guêpières to a ball, but never, ever on parade. Nor would they wear black underwear beneath their white shirts. That was as strictly forbidden as it was for British Caledonian stewardesses. A friend of mine who was actually in the WRNS claimed that a good white or flesh coloured girdle with six suspenders was the best safeguard to keep those stockings taut on duty.

 

This raises the point of the visibility of underwear showing the casual observer what does actually lie beneath. These days this is done on purpose, however, in the 1960's, to reveal one's underpinnings was a sartorial crime and this theme is expanded in

 

 

The Visibility of Underwear

 

 

 

 

Washing Foundation Garments

A corsetière was trained to tell her clients "One on the body, one in the drawer and one in the wash." This is actually excellent advice for the preservation of one's foundation garments; a regular (weekly) rotation of a girdle or corset will make them last far longer, however, if you are into bespoke corsetry, then buying three of everything can be ruinously expensive. The corsetière, however, was trained to counter any arguments and she would usually win; her commission depended upon it.

My own corsetière (who started with Spirella in 1957 and is till going strong) suggested that many clients simply did not bother with multiple foundation garments. When asked how long a girdle or corset would last she spoke at length about perspiration acidity, whether the garment was worn next to the skin, the wearer's level of activity and even exposure to ultra-violet radiation (drying the garment outside on a sunny day). She reckoned that using the triple rotation method, the corsets would last over three years.

She lamented the state of some of her clients corsets. She recalled a very wealthy woman who was always well dressed and groomed yet her underwear was basically dirty. The woman wore her corsets over her slip and claimed that they never needed washing. My fitter suspected that the lady was sufficiently vain that she did not want her maid to see her somewhat substantial supports. On the other hand, my friend talked of elderly women whose corsets were a patchwork of repairs with mismatched suspenders but still in good condition and regularly laundered.

The effort of drying a pair of corsets may have put off many women. My husband's landlady used to wrap her corsets around the central heating pipes for a couple of days and a neighbour in Scotland hung her best Twilfit corsets on the washing line. Mind you, the risk of ultra-violet damage in Scotland is fairly remote!