Anecdotes

 

A full list of anecdotes (some with dubious provenance) can be found here

 

We have collected over the years, a number of anecdotes, recollections and letters in two sections of the web-site. For convenience, they have all been indexed here. (New contributions are in a redder font than the usual brown).

 

Many of the verifiable stories come from my husband and myself, others are from friends and acquaintances and some arrived unsolicited in the mail. Of the latter, we apply the basic checks of veracity before we publish. To a large extent they feature the older woman, for during the last six decades, the corset has almost exclusively been the preserve of the elderly. Sometimes the stories are well written, but run the whole gamut from blatant fabrication through to fantastical wish-fulfillment; these are not published. Occasionally we receive true stories about women and their foundations, however, if these women are still alive or in the public eye, we have no right to intrude on their privacy. Those for which the provenance is uncertain have only been included if they pass our tests of plausibility. In the final analysis, my husband often says "Well, I'm sure it must have happened somewhere to somebody!"

 

Corsetičres came from all age groups, but socially were quite structured into Middle and Working Class women. Their clientele, however, spanned anybody who could afford the merchandise, from the top of government to the thrifty Scottish granny.

A rare occurrence of lady from the 'horsey set' into the ranks of the corsetičres was not a success. The clientele developed over the years by her aunt, was steadily reduced by the novice's conviction that her clients were as sturdy as her horses and, to paraphrase Tom Sharpe, "She laced and buckled her charges into their corsets with a vigour reminiscent of a race meeting."

A corset (95 times out of a 100) is designed to support, not constrict. Our Thelwell refugee did not last long in the trade!

 

 

Anecdotes from Corsetičres

 

An Irish woman ordered a black corselette which was duly fitted and the corsetičre watched another presumably satisfied customer depart. A week later the corselette was returned in the mail with a desperate letter asking for a refund. Apparently the woman had not slept for the guilt of buying black underwear and she wanted rid of the evil garment.

 

A corsetičre asked her husband to pick up a pair of corsets that needed repair from a lady in the village on his way home one evening. He went to the house, rang the bell, and a large formidable lady opened the door. Plucking up courage he blurted "I've come for your corsets". The harridan's gimlet gaze burned into him. "Old Mrs.Withering lives NEXT door" she shouted and slammed the door in his face. "Never again" promised the husband, as he realised he had mis-read the address.

 

A lady's husband rushed in from work. "Get your corsets off" he shouted and raced upstairs. The lady followed, somewhat surprised by her husband's sudden ardour, to find him getting into his football gear. "I need the corset laces for my football boots; they broke in last game!"

 

Granny was looking after her daughter's boisterous kids. After a long tiring day, and an hour getting the children to bed, she retired to her own room and divested her clothes down to her brassiere, corset and stockings. She applied a face pack in an unattractive pale green colour and re-arranged her hair for the night. She heard the children begin to increase their noise and at the end of her tether rushed into their room to give them 'what's for'. The children were stunned into silence and as Granny retreated to her room, righteous in her powers of admonishment, a small frightened voice whispered "What WAS that thing?"

 

On a similar vein, the daughter of a Spirella client was lounging around her Mother's house in an old housecoat, her hair in curlers and with a hardening face pack of ghastly hue in preparation for the arrival of her boyfriend later that day. The boyfriend arrived an hour early and the girl in question fled upstairs where her Mother found her virtually in tears and frantically applying her mascara and lipstick. "Quick, get my new girdle" hissed the girl. As the poor girl successfully overcame the reluctant zip of the girdle, she cried "I want him to see me as I really am!"

 

Spirella falls into this trap (right), and claims that a properly corseted figure is natural, not the un-corseted figure!

 

It is a very feminine trait to deceive oneself by imagining that the well-dressed, well made-up woman in the mirror is the 'real you', as opposed to the rather saggy object that emerges from the shower each morning!

 

Imelda Marcos is widely credited with her extensive, even excessive collection of shoes and designer clothes. Less well known is that this sartorial magpie had an equally extensive selection of girdles from which to chose. 

 

One of the less attractive epithets for the corsetičre is a ‘meat-packer’. One man who was embarrassed to mention his wife’s profession often claimed that she was in the ‘meat-packing’ business. In Herman Wouk’s book ‘Marjorie Morningstar’, the chubby friend of the heroine takes a job in the corset department of Macys. When her experience was questioned, she replied “I’ve spent all my life forcing human putty into the shape of a women.” 

 

Life was so confusing for the young women in the 1950’s. My mother used to scold me that wearing tight girdles would give me varicose veins. My poor sister, however, developed alarming veins during her first pregnancy when she was only 28. The nurse attending her blamed the veins on inadequate corsetry. You can’t win.

 

(In the late 1960’s) I was invited for afternoon tea with an acquaintance. This lady had a young son, seven or eight years-old I suppose, and his noisy presence eventually began to irritate us both. “Get your toy cars out and stop whining” the boy’s mother told him. He returned a few minutes later with a box of cars. The box depicted a lady in a rather elegant girdle and was emblazoned ‘Gossard’. My hostess blushed to the roots of her hair, although why, I couldn’t imagine, for we all wore girdles then.  

 

We were driving with my aunt in the Ardennes of Belgium. It must have been the hot summer of 1962. My aunt's face grew redder and redder as the miles passed (there was no air-conditioning then). Finally she asked me to stop and she waddled hurriedly off into the undergrowth. Ten minutes later a cooler auntie returned clutching a large pair of white perforated rubber corsets, apparently not uncommonly worn in those days. I remember thinking that her shape seemed the same, however, her stockings had become distinctly baggy. She professed to wearing these garments every day as well as vest, knickers and her thick support stockings; no wonder she was hot!

 

A female prisoner in Britain escaped from jail using a lock pick fabricated from a spiral steel corset bone. Corsets obviously were not confiscated after the event since female prisoners still form a small but regular clientele for the remaining British corsetičres.

 

The spiral-wound stay, although a great revolution for corsetry, did sometimes cause embarrassment when it broke loose from its casing. In the Spirella magazine of October 1959, a lady recounts walking home at night when she was terrified by something that tapped her on the back of her neck. She ran home only to find that the tapping was an errant stay from her corselette that had ridden up. 

 

David Niven also recounts the episode of a large and heavily corseted actress who was dancing with her partner closely clasped to her bosom. At the end of the dance, the man didn't let go and she hissed "the dance is over". "I can't move" replied the man, "One of your stays is up my nose"!

 

Spirella set great store by their corsets' life-saving properties, although I doubt if any withstood the test that my aunt tried. In a London Hotel (and thank Goodness it was the foyer), she entered the open doors of the lift, and fell into the machinery below, since the lift had stuck one floor above. She was recovered unharmed, except for the loss of her dentures, although completely filthy and covered in grease. The hotel staff were most solicitous (as well they might be), and provided a room and a doctor in short order. "It's amazing" he said, "she could have been killed." Ever after my aunt claimed that her sturdy corsets were her salvation, although we suspected that the cushioning effect of numerous gin & tonics had something to do with it!

 

I stayed at my girl-friend's house one night (in the spare room I might add.) The next morning I went to the bathroom and flung open the door to be confronted by the back of my girlfriend's mother dressed in a pink corset, stockings, and apparently nothing else. She was bending over the basin and promptly stood up, her hands flying to her bosom. She didn't turn around of course and I stammered an apology and bolted. But I saw the toothless corsetted reflection in the mirror. It is said that a girl will ultimately turn into her mother. Whether this preyed upon my mind I don't know, but our relationship faltered soon afterwards!

 

Whilst lying in bed and attempting to finish the Telegraph crossword puzzle, the gentleman in question made a mistake. Finding that the eraser on top on his pencil had expired (his mistakes were frequent), he rose from the bed, ferreted through his wife’s underpinnings on the chair, and started to rub the offending letters with the rubber material of her Playtex girdle. This ruined both the newspaper and the girdle. This incident was portrayed in a 1960’s situation comedy starring Freddy Frinton and Thora Hird.  

 

Reunions and weddings can be guaranteed to send women into a frenzy of discomfort if not actual pain. Trying to don a uniform that fitted in one's early 20s when one is 50 is a recipe for disaster. The tight waist-band will pull the shirt into vertical creases and the collar will not actually fasten without throttling the wearer. At such re-unions, the bulging eyes and red complexion speak not of thyroid and blood-pressure but rather collars and corsets!

 

An elderly widow was asked if she missed her late husband, "Oh yes, I really do" she replied. "I've nobody to do up my back suspenders any more!"

 

There was a British TV drama in the 1960's which featured the attractive proprietress of a corset shop in the Midlands. She was having an affair with an older man. The man's rather dowdy wife found out and decided to get her revenge. She invited the corsetičre round to her house to be measured for some new underwear. The corsetičre turned up to be greeted by the lady and her friends. Armed with some formidable corsets she suggests that the older lady try them on since they were suitable for 'someone of her age'. The older lady keeps her cool (remarkably) and asks what the corsetičre is wearing. "I'll show you" says the younger woman (this was common practice for corsetičres in the 1960's). Predictably the corsetičre is wearing a rather pretty lace overlaid basque. At this point the older lady says "I think that's just what my husband would like" and proceeds to show the corsetičre a photograph of him. As much it can on black & white TV, the colour drains from the young lady's face. The friends of the older woman grab the corsetičre and eject her, in her underwear, into the rain. One assumes the affair ground to halt after that!

 

The corset, inevitably one feels has to be the butt of many music hall jokes:-

 

My wife went into the corset shop and said "I'd like to see a corset that would fit me." "So would I" laughed the rude salesgirl.

 

Our family was so poor, my Mum used the bones in her corset to make the soup!  Les Dawson

 

I'd love to slit my mother-in-law's corsets and watch her spread to death.  Phyllis Diller.

 

I always wanted to wear my mommy's girdle but I didn't have the guts.

 

I went into a store to buy a new bra. "What bust?" asked the salesgirl. "Nothing" I replied "It just wore out!"

 

(Professor) Jimmy Edwards always referred to Rimsky-Korsakoff as Ripzem-Corsetsoff. A bit crass, even by the late Professor's standards.

 

Vivian Vance (remember the "I Love Lucy" TV series?) once said before meeting the Queen, “If I wear a girdle to fit into my dress, I can’t curtsey!”

 

On the Mavis Bramston Show (1965), Maggie Dence says "British doctors have warned that accidents can follow if women wear tight panty-girdles - Dahling - I'm more worried about the accidents that might follow if I didn't!"

 

A lady politician once threatened to "Eat her girdle" if such-and-such an event took place. One catty opponent was heard to murmur "She needs that girdle outside her tummy, not inside!"

 

 

Maggie Dence 1965

Indeed, a woman like that would wear a panty-girdle in 1965

A mother was reading in the sitting room. Through the open window she heard her seven year-old son discussing with his friend, and apparently with quite some knowledge, her own girdles. "My Mummy's got lots of girdles. She wears the really tight one when she goes out with Daddy. You can tell 'cause she walks funny!" Her son's friend was less of an expert but volunteered that 'Gran' wore a corset. Later that evening, she was sufficiently concerned to ask her husband if she did, indeed, walk funnily, and was re-assured that she didn't. But the doubt was always there afterwards!

 

Weight loss is a common problem in the older woman, just as weight gain plagues her younger sister. Several years ago I visited a lovely old-fashioned corset shop in Rouen, France. The proprietress appeared from behind a screen and asked us if we would mind waiting for five minutes, as she was fitting a customer. My husband, who was with me, is quite used to the interior of ladies' shops, however, the groans and struggles from behind the screen eventually unsettled him and he wandered outside. He later explained that he felt dreadfully embarrassed and that somehow he was intruding on a rather private moment. After 10 minutes the corsetičre and the lady emerged. The lady was in her 70's and explained that her corselettes were too big for her and she had decided to buy a smaller size. The groans were caused by the effect of the first corselette, which was far too small, and the ensuing struggle with the zip until the corsetičre intervened and procured a larger size. Typical of French underwear, the corselettes she had chosen were beige, constructed from heavy elastic, well-boned and zipped up the front. Sadly, the charming satin panels were no longer included.

An exchange of letters to a British ladies' magazine in the early 1970's was prompted by an opening shot from a retired 'Colonel Blimp' character. He suggested that women were poor drivers since if they wore corsets like his wife, then they were quite unable to look over their shoulders to reverse! The final letter of a heated exchange came from a woman who said that if male driving standards were any indication, most men were also wearing their wife's corsets!

 

In the early days of the metal zip fastener, there were some catastrophic zip failures on girdles, which is why, these days, all such zips are backed by hooks and eyes. The old corset shop in Croydon, sadly extinct, refused to stock zippered girdles for several years. Talking of which, yet another euphemism for girdle was ‘zipper’. It wasn’t so common but I’ve heard of a mother asking her daughter at a wedding “I hope you’ve got your zipper on today”. My husband speaks of a girl-friend who referred to her ‘waist nipper’ as a ‘zipper nipper’, although whether this referred to the garment’s zip fastener, or to the poor girl catching her flesh in the zipper was more than my husband dared to ask! This girl, who was somewhat overweight, later purchased a basque, however, the boning on the garment simply wasn’t up to the task, and every time she sat down, her tummy would force the front bones to fold back on themselves. 

 

The origin of the phrase “My girdle’s killing me” is lost in history. It was probably uttered too often to be associated with any one source, although Playtex cemented it into advertising legend in the 1960's. My husband claims that at least one girlfriend uttered the phrase after a long (and expensive) dinner. A female cynic might add that the phrase originated from the first woman ever to wear a girdle.

 

This was heard at a restaurant in Aberdeen, amazingly in 2001. "Oh, my girdle's killing me." My husband and I turned to identify the source of this archaic expression and were stunned that it came from a pre-teenage girl, and by no means plump or chubby. We were astonished!

 

 

Another amazing story from my husband, which he swears is true, was the woman who he gallantly drove home after a ball. She invited him in for a nightcap. “Could you help me remove my brassiere?” the girl asked my astonished husband. Gallant to a fault, my husband replied in the affirmative. The girl vanished to the kitchen and returned with the back of her gown unzipped and a pair of pliers in her hand. Apparently, the girl’s only strapless bra (which she called a ‘cathedral bra’) had been stolen from her washing line, and the solution was to modify an ordinary bra with wire twisted to secure the shoulder straps out of sight. My husband removed the wire and was bidden farewell!  

 

A beautiful Twiflit 'cathedral brassiere' from the late 1960's.

In the days before central heating (Britain in the early 1960's), a woman wrote to an 'agony aunt' that her latex girdle was so dreadfully cold to put on in the morning. Rather than receiving a helpful suggestion (my old aunt slept on top of her rubber corsets to avoid this problem) the 'agony aunt' retorted that one must suffer to be beautiful!

 

British public schools (which in the quaint English terminology mean private schools) to this day boast the position of matron, a female cross between house-mother and nurse. As late as the 1970’s, this character would wear, as part of her office clothes, the full regalia of a nursing matron from the white head-dress to the watch pinned to the left bosom. At a famous south London public school, the matron was very much a formidable character in true ‘Hattie Jacques’ style. At the beginning of one Easter term, the assembled staff were surprised at the laughter that greeted the raising of the school flag. As their collective gaze swiveled to the flag-pole, there, for all to see just below the school flag was a large pair of corsets. Any doubt as to their owner was dispelled by Matron’s scarlet face. There is a small addition to this episode. A school-wide hunt went out for the perpetrator of the act, and a 15 year-old pupil was found to have secreted away beneath his mattress, a good collection, not just of Matron’s foundations, but those of some of the masters’ wives as well. The pupil quietly vanished from the school.

 

I must confess that during the mid 1960's whilst at boarding school I too played a similar prank when I noted our own Matron's Marks and Spencer white satin-panelled girdle on her washing line billowing gently in the breeze. Clandestinely, I removed it and hoisted it up our particular flag pole. I made the mistake of bragging to other boys of my prank and an unknown school snitch reported my misdeed. Fortunately I was not expelled like the other boy. However, our headmaster was furious and I was given six of the best with one of his canes over the seat of my own white Marks and Spencers "St Michael" underwear! They were far less substantial than the girdle so the Head's cane really hurt!

 

Still on the subject of schools; between the wars, at a girl's boarding school near Perth in Scotland, the girls would wait until after lights out to start making a noise. The new housemistress, who slept in a separate room at the end of the corridor, was a young and inexperienced teacher. If the girls timed it properly, the teacher would rush in to scold them without taking time to reinsert her dentures. A lady in her late 80's recounted this tale (for she was one of those girls) and added, it's hard to take anyone too seriously when they're standing in their corsets shouting "Go to shleep, girlsh!"

 

My husband and I were walking past the Corset Shop in St. Leonards (It sadly closed in 2009 - Ivy) when I saw a stout old women emerge from the shop with her daughter (perhaps even grand-daughter). The old lady was crammed, not to put too fine a point on it, into a classic twin-set over a white blouse. A rather lovely Jaguar saloon car pulled up and the younger lady’s husband emerged. Jaguars look superb, however, in reality, they are very low and quite cramped in the rear. The performance that ensued with husband and wife, at first helping the stiff old biddy into the car, and latterly pushing and pulling, was quite comical, but rather sad. The whole story was clear to see. The old lady would come to the shop once or twice a year to replace her corsets. This expensive habit precluded the purchase of newer more fashionable clothes. Ironically, if she had purchased even a new suit that fitted her stouter body, she might not have needed such tight corsets in the first place. The proprietor of the shop (for it is owned by a man), confirmed that she came in every six months for two brand new Twilfit corsets; one in white, and one in tea rose brocade.

 

Walking along the Embankment by Waterloo Bridge in 1988, my husband saw the most obviously corseted women he had ever seen. He takes up the tale. “She was a big woman, but her waist was incredibly small by comparison. About 42-26-42 I would guess. Stunningly dressed”. I asked him if he was sure it was a real women; there are many theatres in the area, and Covent Garden is only just across the river. "You know" he replied, “I’ve never been certain, and I never saw the woman again”.

 

Madame Chang Kai Shek was famous for wearing a pair of bullet-proof corsets. When her husband was forced to leave China, they left behind many items in the rush, and her pink satin corsets became the proud trophy of one of the bandit chiefs.  

 

A woman hurried into the restaurant at Selfridge’s in a waft of powder, perfume and parcels. As she joined her friends for coffee, she gushed in a voice audible several tables away, “I’m so sorry to be late. I was trapped inside my panty-girdle!”

  

A modern tale from a few years ago (2001). Three student girls were walking down a street in Sheffield when two of them started to lag behind the third. They started to giggle, as did several passers-by. "What's so funny" the third protested. "Look at the bottom of your jeans". And there for all to see, was yesterday's discarded panty-girdle hanging out and being dragged along the street. Mortification knows no bounds!  

 

In Britain, well before the advent of the Charity Shop (Thrift Shop in the USA), or even the car boot sale, was the Jumble Sale. These sales took place in Church Halls and the like, and represented the unwanted items that clutter a person’s life, yet cannot really be discarded as pure rubbish. During one such sale in the late 1960’s, whilst rummaging through a pile of old clothes, a teenage girl discovered an old pair of corsets that she held up and showed to her friends. Waving them in the air she crowed “Coo, just look at these; can you imagine anybody wearing these things?” All the assembly laughed, except, that is, for the haughty lady, who had in fact organized the event. Shortly afterwards, the corsets were discretely purchased by that same lady. The elderly women who recounted this tale laughed at the memory. “Those were her own corsets. I know that because the Spirella lady visited me after fitting her. She couldn’t bear to see her old corsets flourished in public and had to buy them back!”  

 

Tom Sharpe in his extremely funny book ‘Porterhouse Blue’ had this to say about the Dean’s wife:- “Lady Mary adjusted the straps of her surgical corset with a vigour that reminded Sir Godber of a race meeting”. Very eloquent, and very true. Mr. Sharpe, I’m sure had a standard Camp corset in mind here. Later in the book "Lady Mary disembarked languidly from her corsets."

 

My wife was preparing to go out and, as was almost a ritual in the 1960's, called me into the bedroom to 'do up her zip'. My wife stood up, turned around and asked me how she looked. I resisted laughing and slowly built up for the punch line "You look like a million dollars, your hair's fantastic and that dress will drive the other women wild." She almost purred. I turned to leave the room and added "What's that hanging down?" My wife looked and squeaked as she saw that a corset lace had broken its moorings and was dangling for all to see. Cats can hiss as well as purr and a good five minutes of 'engineering' was required to secure the errant lace. My wife's confidence was ruined and throughout the evening she kept asking me if she looked alright.

 

My ancient auntie was visiting us for the afternoon. As we toured the garden looking at the flowers, I noticed our recently acquired kitten beginning its stalk and dash game. I looked around for the object of its attention and noticed that auntie’s corset laces were dangling down. Before I could intervene, the kitten pounced on the laces and swung there, its front claws firmly caught in the laces. Auntie and the kitten panicked as one. The kitten went mad, auntie screamed, tripped and fell. The kitten killed the laces, disentangled its claws and rushed off after the next victim. Mercifully auntie, although slightly the worse for wear, damaged only her pride.

 

My husband was so pleased to hear of this tale. He said he was sure it must have happened somewhere at some time, and indeed it did in Wyke Regis in the late 1960’s – Ivy.

 

On a camping trip one year, I heard my two sons laughing and sniggering behind the tent. They were making fun of a pair of sturdy pink corsets drying on the line beside the neighbouring tent. I quickly scolded them, concerned that the occupant might hear their rude remarks. They were, however, a seriously firm garment and must have been a nightmare to dry. Sometime later a large, humourless woman retrieved the corsets and cast an angry gaze in my direction. I did, however, enjoy the five minutes of sound effects that followed. Donning corsets in a tent is apparently not an easy task!

 

My gran always came to stay at Christmas and she always wore what she called her 'Christmas outfit'. This was a long black velvet skirt and a ivory coloured satin blouse. I later learnt that this blouse was a construction from her wedding dress; that would explain the sumptuous quality of the garment. Getting a cuddle from gran was a treat but also a surprise. I loved the feel of the satin and velvet but was always surprised at the hardness of her body - quite unlike my mum who was less extravagantly attired, but oh so much softer!

 

For several years pre-university, I would watch as my daughter struggled into heroically tight pantie-girdles. After a year at university she abandoned her foundations with “I can’t believe I used to suffer like that!” I then found her reclining in the bath one day wearing a pair of new jeans. She was ‘shrinking’ them onto her body in the style of the mid-60’s. So tight were the jeans, that the zip had to pulled closed with a shoe-lace (a trick she learnt from her girdle days). I pointed out the similarities with her girdles but she retorted “this is the uniform of freedom (a contradiction, but I didn’t interrupt); my girdles were objects of male subjugation.” Youth!

 

My son 'discovered' corsets in 1962. We were on holiday in Berwick and our walk down the High Street was interrupted by the loss of his presence. He was 20 yards behind us gazing at a shop window that was, embarrassingly, full of corsets. "What is that for" he asked, pointing at a particularly complex Camp creation. "They're women's things" I replied, hoping that would suffice. It didn't. "They keep their tummies flat" I explained. That same week, we had travelled onto Edinburgh and were staying with relatives. Their elderly neighbour had a pair of corsets hung on the washing line. We met her for tea subsequently and my son came up to me and said in a quiet, secretive voice, "I know why she's got a flat tummy!"

 

In the 1970's, before property buying for personal gain became common, a retired couple bought a villa in Spain. In those days, selling the property and exporting the money was prohibited by Spanish law. (The Spanish believed that price inflation of property would kill the market for local people, and lead to rural and social decay - as it has all over most of Britain. It seems that the Spanish were rather perceptive, but I digress.) Eventually, the lady's husband died and she wished to cash in the value of the villa. Transferring the money legally was out of the question so she bought an oversized pair of corsets, withdrew as much as the bank allowed in cash (they were not stupid), and stuffed the corsets with as many pesetas, dollars and pounds as she could manage and fled the country. Paper is an excellent insulator, and she nearly passed out several times from heat exhaustion in the attempt to relieve rural Spain from 20% of her property's inflated worth.

 

Another corset smuggling episode was widely reported in the British press in the early 1980's. A middle-aged lady shop-lifter modified a pair of corsets to carry all manner of hooks and straps. She wore it over her dress but underneath her voluminous coat. She would enter a supermarket and surreptitiously hang items beneath her coat on the corset. The theory was that in emergency, a quick unfastening of the busk would drop the evidence and she could then make a dash for it. Unfortunately, when she was queried by a suspicious saleslady, she panicked, tried to release the busk whilst running and tripped over her stays. This lady, at least, was caught; red-handed, and one presumes, red-faced as well.

 

Old women and their corsets!” This was the despairing cry of an Edinburgh corsetičre with whom I used to correspond. Old women, who, she had to admit were the mainstay of her income, seemed to drive her to distraction. The purchase of a corset seemed to imply to these ladies that a lifelong confidante was also acquired as part and parcel of the service. A corset is hardly a complex garment although some of the creations that these old biddies ordered were indeed not easy either to don or to remove. We’ve mentioned elsewhere that the term ‘Granny Knot” almost certainly comes from the habit of these ladies to fumble their corset laces into an impossible knotted tangle. How many times was my correspondent called out late at night to help some arthritic victim release herself from her stays?

Certainly, the 'Thief Knot', (that is a knot tied in a particular way so that any illicit undoing of the knot will be obvious) was used by jealous husbands when fastening their wives' corsets.

 

This tale had been backed-up on several occasions. I know of a London Spirella corsetičre who gave up the business. Apparently, having sold a corset, the elderly recipient would often regard the corsetičre's lifelong attention and advice an integral part of the service. More than once at bed-time, the poor fitter was called out to untangle the back-lacing on some poor old biddy's corset!

The charming lady on the right was asked to try on a relatively simple Spencer front-lacing corset. Despite being in her 80's (2009), she had never worn such a device although knew exactly what was required. This didn't stop the inevitable tangle that sooner or later had to be sorted out by a friend!

Older ladies love to talk about their ailments - Ivy

 

Granny used to talk freely about her surgical corsets and surgical stockings. I wondered why her bra was never called 'surgical'; it certainly qualified on lacings and number of bones! My sister and I used to snigger out of earshot "I wonder if she's got her surgical teeth in today?" or "Pretty surgical blouse!" Oh how we mocked our poor granny.

 

Another reference to armour: R's mother was anything but coy about her underwear. "I've got my armour on today" she would announce, slapping her rigid stomach with gusto. "But isn't it uncomfortable?" chorused our young daughters. "You'll find out when you're my age" she promised them as they shivered in horror. Watching her sit down was basically fascinating. She'd lower herself gingerly toward the chair and then, unable to resist gravity, she would collapse into the seat. She would exhale noisily, the seat would creak and her thighs would spring apart revealing her old-fashioned bloomers. Most dramatically was the alarming rise in her bust, as her corset impacted the seat and forced everything violently upwards.

 

In contrast to the tale above, a client refused to accept a corsetičre's measurements and demanded that a couple of inches be removed here and there to accentuate her waist. Despite the fitter's protests, the client prevailed and a month later was fitted with her new corsets. She then had the nerve to complain that they fitted badly and refused to accept them. This could have cost the fitter dearly except for the fact that they actually fit her quite well and she wore them regularly (against all the advice from her training) for several years afterwards.

 

On the bowling green at Eastbourne I was involved in a mixed tournament. My partner was a lovely, if rather stout, elderly lady and an excellent bowler. Half way through the match I realised that the sprinkling of spectators were amused by something when it was my partner's turn to play. I moved behind her and realised that as she bent to play the ball, the ridge of her corset top was revealed taut against her blouse. Each time she played more and more of the blouse was pulled from the waist-band of her skirt. I discretely drew her attention to the fact. She was most grateful but it ruined her game, and I suspect the enjoyment of the crowd!

 

My father used to comment that women had an unfair advantage at bowls because of all the elastic that they wore. My mother agreed about the elastic (she always wore a firm girdle whatever the occasion), however, she maintained that it put women at a disadvantage.

In the snooker hall of the Conservative club in Stafford there used to play a disagreeable fellow. We laughed behind his back since when he leant over the table to play, the outline of a surgical corset was clearly visible. He was notable for taking his ale from a quart tankard although not in the presence of his wife, who was similarly abrupt and 'tweedy' in that ex-military family sort of way. I suspected she was as stiffly corseted as her husband, for when she sat down her back never left the vertical. They were a classical 'shoulders back, stomach in' couple, and with the sort of corsets available then, there would probably be no other choice! We often joked that the 'old Major', as we used to call him, wore his wife's corsets, and in the jovial male preserve of the snooker room, this supposition would call forth a bevy of ribald jokes and supposedly true anecdotes.

 

One of the strangest accolades for a corselette comes from a lady who was an unfortunate passenger on the ‘Morro Castle’, the ship that caught fire off New Jersey in the 1930’s and was a total loss. The poor lady spent some time in the sea, and later wrote to congratulate Spirella that the bones in her corselette didn’t rust after the harrowing experience.

 

I’ve known several people, usually women, who cannot wear watches. I’m not talking about the allergic reaction to base metals, but simply that the watch would stop or keep bad time. On other women, the same watch would be fine. I mentioned this to my husband who was about to retort along the lines of “silly women”, however, he thought for a bit and said “Take some old biddy with alloy ‘stays’ in her corsets, steel under-wires in her bra and chromium plated suspenders. As she walks through the Earth’s magnetic field, she probably generates enough electricity to stop a watch!” “What about the poor old soul’s heart of gold” I replied, and the argument came to rest there. But I wonder if he has a point.

 

Famed Olympian and golfer, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, was once asked how she managed to hit 250 yard drives. "It's not just enough to swing at the ball," she replied. "You've got to loosen your girdle and really let the ball have it!"

 

When I started working on the south coast in the early 60’s, I stayed in digs owned by a stout, elderly woman called Ada. She was a member of the Salvation Army and had strong attitudes towards drink and staying out late. Every Thursday wash-day, the hot water pipes in the kitchen would receive their weekly insulation in the form of a pair of sturdy pink corsets wrapped around and between them. They were a “devil to dry” she would say, but dry they must by Sunday since, she candidly admitted, that without them, she would never get into her uniform skirt.

 

The wearing of corsets over one’s nightie is simply the recourse of the elderly when forced to walk around after having prepared for bed. Virtually unknown today of course, thirty years ago, there were women who had worn corsets most of their life and any physical effort without their support was almost impossible. Gerald Durrell and Ian McRoberts both describe elderly women arising from bed and putting on their corsets before venturing further.

 

When my mother came to stay, our crowded Monday washing line received an addition with Mummy’s pink corsets enjoying their weekly wash. Our young son was always amazed at these heavy garments and would ask what they were. I would explain that older women wore them to keep their figures trim. To this he would ask if I wore them. How do you explain to a seven year-old that a 36 year-old mum is not an older woman. “No. I wear a lighter support called a girdle,” and I would show him one of mine to avoid any unnecessary curiosities developing. At this my 10 year-old daughter assumed a haughty air and announced that in a few years, she too would have to wear a girdle. My ex-naval husband simply used to comment in his dry way “I see the Admiral’s raised her flag!”  

 

When 'Bob-a-job' was common (Boy Scouts searched the area for job to do. One shilling - a Bob - was given to the scout movement for each job) my son used to roam the houses of our neighbours. Apparently one arrogant woman, who I disliked, had little time for boy scouts and in an effort to be rid of him just handed him a plastic bag and told him to dispose of it somewhere else. My son's curiosity was aroused (why didn't she throw this in her own bin?) and he investigated the contents and found a pair of sturdy pink corsets. They became a clandestine trophy of his troop, and I got one up on my snooty neighbour!

 

I visited the daughter of a famous British politician (this was in the mid-60's) to fit her for a girdle. When I arrived at the house, a party was in full swing although it was early afternoon. The lady was gushingly enthusiastic and wanted to be fitted in front of her friends, however, I had my standards and refused. Reluctantly she retired to her bedroom where the fitting was accomplished. (What a sign of the times. Even when intoxicated, a women put a girdle fitting high on her list of priorities - Ivy)

 

A fanatical bridge player used an opponent's corsets as a weapon against her. The opponent wore corsets of such a severity that she could only sit in the most upright of chairs. Our fanatic always arranged the seating so that the poor woman sat for hours in the softest and least supporting chair that she could find. Her concentration never lasted the match and the hostess unashamedly won a regular income from the unfortunate woman.

 

I love understatement. This gem comes from the dressing rooms back-stage in New York. Everyone turns around, and suddenly Ethel Merman bolts into the corridor, wearing only bra, panty girdle, hose, platform shoes, wig and jewelry. Somebody asks, "Is anything wrong, Miss Merman?" Miss Merman's panty-girdle is well displayed on several occasions in the hilarious film 'It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World'  (1963) and another such garment remains on display in a museum on Hollywood Boulevard.

 

"Suit, shirtwaist, hats, stockings , girdle. I can go into a ladies' room any time and emerge a complete Amerikanka, full of indignation and waving dollars." Thus quoted the heroine from Herman Wouk's 'Winds of War'.

 

 Vivian Vance once said before meeting the Queen, “Well, I can’t get into my good dress with my girdle off, and I can’t curtsy with it on!"

 

Movie star Lana Turner is credited with saying: "I'm telling you, the merry widow was designed by a man. A woman would never do that to another woman."

 

As a teenager in the 1950's, I was called in (and not for the first time) to help my granny lace her corsets. She was accompanying granddad to some function. I was quite impressed by these 'evening corsets' being far more Victorian looking that her normal day corsets. "Would you like them any tighter, gran?" I asked after a few minutes struggle. "If you hear two pops, that will be just too tight," she replied. I must have indicated some confusion for she added "That will be be my eyes popping out!"

 

My son must have been only nine or ten when he returned from school one day and asked me "What's a girdle?" Ah-ha I thought; he's growing up. Better to explain and get it over with rather than let him develop some terrible closet desires later on. I explained all about girdles and corsets and even selected my expensive Excelsior girdle from the wash to demonstrate what these garments look like. He looked on in that irritatingly blank manner that confused children adopt and after some time said "I thought a girdle was for cooking!" Oh Good Gracious! Here was I trying to avoid confusion and I had done the opposite!   (A girdle is a Scottish iron plate used for scone making - Ivy).

 

At the Eastbourne Hydro, a hotel that used to be patronised by geriatrics, I heard an elderly lady booming away to her companion in the manner of the rather deaf "I really can't get on with these new corsets!" A vigorous tugging at a point near her waist put action to the words as her friend mimed a volume switch being turned down!

 

An elderly Scotsman was accosted by a Edinburgh bobby* for a driving offense.

"Did ye no see the STOP sign?"

"Aye. I did fine."

"Well, why did ye no stop then?"

"I cannae obey all yon daft signs. I'm no goin' tae wear Spirella corsets and tha's a fact!"

Across the street was a huge advertisement 'Wear Spirella corsets'

 

My husband received this story (warranted true) from a Scottish policeman.

*For our American readers, a 'bobby' is a policeman, derived from Robert Peel who conceived the police force. Policemen were also called 'Peelers'.

 

 

"Auntie M. used to stay with us. When she went to her room each night I could hear this terrible ripping sound. My mother explained that it was the velcro on her corsets!" Many older women tried Velcro fastenings; it was marketed as easier for those with arthritic fingers, however, the sound effects put as many off!

 

On the death of my aunt, my uncle asked my mother and me to help clear out her 'effects' (her clothes and smalls). These were dutifully sorted for the charity shops until mother exclaimed "Well! I never knew she wore these!" as she brandished a couple of obviously rather expensive corsets. These lace-up items that bore the Spencer label were 'rescued' by mother for more discreet disposal as she tut-tutted about the vanity of her poor sister. Good for you Auntie I secretly thought! I had always admired her figure.

 

When shopping for a new girdle with my mother, she always used to exclaim "If it can't stand up for itself, it won't stand up for you!"

 

My sister returned from a teenage party (this would be in the early 60's) earlier than expected and rather red-faced. Our anxious mother was concerned for a variety of reasons and the interrogation began within seconds. "What has been going on?" she asked. "Nothing's going on, but this is coming off!" She dropped her skirt there and then and with unexpected force pulled down a waspie over her hips. She stormed upstairs where I found her struggling out of her not insubstantial panty-girdle. The marks of the bones were livid on her pale skin. No wonder she had come home. I noticed that mother found it all rather amusing and she explained later that only one foundation garment is required; two simply adds to the bulk and discomfort. Personally I preferred none at all, but that was quite unacceptable then.

 

Our mother used to let us play with her cast-offs for fancy dress. Occasionally this would include her girdles and corsets. She showed us how they worked and we knew by then that they helped mummy with her figure. Whether she hoped this would lead us to wear 'proper' underwear we never knew, but my sister always wore firm foundations from the time that mummy allowed her, whereas I avoided them like the plague.

 

Why was it that a girl could romp and play in that indestructible way that all children possess until somewhere in mid-teenage when, unless covered from shoulder to knee in layers of industrial strength elastic, she would somehow fall to pieces?

 

My daughter recently discovered 'shapers' and discovered, as I did many years ago, that wearing more than one foundation garment compresses the torso about as much as the extra layer of elastic adds! If the first girdle doesn't get you into the dress, the rest won't either!

 

I got my first grown-up panty-girdle when I was about 16. I felt so proud now that the womanly things in life like make-up, heels, proper adult clothes and all the accoutrements were permitted to me. Shortly afterwards, I was helping my mom by bringing in the coffee for the bridge friends (an adult game still denied to my developing brain) and I overheard one of her friends say "I see Stella's into girdles now." How did she know? Was it my age and demeanor, or was it the slightly controlled way that I walked? It is strange how an off-hand comment can ruin a girl's confidence.

 

My 11-year old son wandered in from the garden one summer's day and I could tell that he wanted to ask a question but was embarrassed. All mothers will know the feeling. What is coming next? What answer will I be able to give to possibly a difficult question? Can I palm this off on his father? "Mummy" he asked eventually, "Why do sister's knickers have a zip fastener?" OK; not for his father this one! I explained that his sister has reached that certain age when she was becoming a woman and needed more support than that provided by a simple pair of knickers. I explained that the garment was called a girdle. He nodded. "Do you wear a girdle?" I explained that I did, but I did not dry them on the washing line. "Why?" In reality because I was not going to have the neighbourhood ogling my somewhat substantial foundation garments. So I lied about them drying better indoors around the hot water pipes. "Does granny wear girdles too?" Biting the bullet I launched into a rambling discourse on panty-girdles, girdles and corsets, brassieres, and the female requirement for support (I omitted the bit about vanity). "Will I have to wear one when I grow up?" I explained that men didn't wear such things and his little face relaxed. Problem solved!

 

At the Conservative Club in *****, the rule that ladies were barred from the snooker room was lifted in 1976. In order to make a point, a young thing from the country determined to enter this hitherto male bastion to have a game. Although she was rather attractive, no man dared to play with her for fear of the opprobrium from his peers. Eventually, the girl's mother joined her for a game that was watched avidly by the men. The snide comments did not help the standard of play which was a shame since the girl had quite some skill. The mother, however, was less successful at the sport since it was quite obvious that her corsets prevented her from bending fully to address the ball! As she lowered her torso to the table, her corset would only go so far until it ridged up alarmingly through her blouse. The pair retired embarrassed to the lounge and the snooker room returned to its male preserve thereafter.

 

In a similar vein to the 'groke' story above, friends of my parents used to visit and stay overnight from time to time. The husband was a large, shambling 'hail fellow well met' sort of chap whereas his wife was tall, thin and very elegant. Everything she did was measured, her speech, her movements; all were carried out with delicate precision. I remarked on this to my mother who seemed to take it as some sort of personal criticism (that was not intended) and being unusually catty she retorted "She talks and moves just as fast as her dentures and corsets will let her!"

 

I can understand why weddings bring out folk in their best clothes, but why oh why don't the women break in those new shoes and corsets before suffering agonising hours of standing around at the ceremony. I remember well an old friend of my mother who decided that her cigarette-stained teeth let down down the rest of her admittedly elegant appearance. "I'm getting them all yanked out" she told my mother. "You'll regret it" responded mother who had worn dentures for decades, but to no avail. I saw the woman two weeks later at a rather posh wedding and it was pitiful to watch her struggling with her teeth. She was "corsetted half to death" as my mother put it and obviously in agony from her pointed shoes. She looked fantastic provided she stayed still and didn't attempt to speak, but it must have been a horrible experience for her.

 

In conversation with some girlfriends, I mentioned that my granny was quite inflexible. My young son piped up "Was that because of her corsets?" We all laughed and the poor lad nearly burst into tears. "No; that was just her attitude." I explained, but in fact, my son was actually quite right as well.

 

I read about multiple foundations in your diary of November 2013. I remember a friend of my mother. Now as both of them and all the other ladies of their group are gone for nearly two decades, I can tell the story. This women in her late 60's always wore firm panty-corselettes since she had large breasts and was very conscious regarding her physique. Often she also wore a long-leg-panty-girdle over her corselette to achieve a very molded and flat abdomen. This was very effective, but in addition her bust was very prominent. For this reason my mother and the other female friends of this group of ladies sometimes called her 'armoured cruiser Potemkin'.  But to be honest, although I was a man in his 20's at that time I liked her trim figure very much. This lady was widowed some years later and - together with my mother - went on holidays together. Mom later told me that her friend used to relax on a lounge chair on the lawn of the hotel but only dressed with her skin-coloured corselette. I don't know if she only forgot her swimsuit or wanted to attract men, but very likely the latter was the reason. Of course my mother strongly disapproved this.

 

At a family gathering one Christmas, a young boy was heard to ask his Aunt whether she wore her corsets too tight like his own Granny. Apparently, like his Granny, she suffered from the slightly pronounced eyes of the thyroid sufferer. The young boy had been told by his Mother that it was a side effect of too tight underwear.

 

My Mother, who lived for many years near Ascot, regularly visited the big horse races since, like many of her generation, she was a firm royalist and loved to get a glimpse of the late Queen Mother or the Queen herself. One year, by dint of queuing, and not a little elbowing and shoving, she got right to edge of the Royal enclosure where the great ladies and a retinue of lesser Royal mortals would walk past. Oh dear. My poor Mother, how disillusioned she was. “Pancake” she told me later “Pancake makeup and corsets! There was one old dowager Duchess who looked like she was wearing a mask. She could barely move her face and there wasn’t an inch of movement in her torso.”  

 

Vanity and its consequences are well-known to the St. John's ambulance crews who attend Royal Garden parties. These days it is usually heat exhaustion and the blistered feet caused by new and tight shoes, however, (and it still occurs but rarely - IL), in days gone by, the word would go around the marquee for a female helper. This almost always meant that some woman, often in a dead faint, required the loosening of over-tightened corsets. Pursuing this theme, I have seen women in such tight dresses that not just walking and sitting was an effort, but the very act of eating and breathing was impeded.

 

From Boston in the 1940's - the cartoon is not connected with the story, but shows the technique.

 

My mother was short and stout—very stout. In those days before Spandex, she wore a steel-reinforced heavy cotton undergarment called a corset to hold herself together. Mother’s corset laced up the back, and to completely contain her, it had to be laced tightly. Each morning she’d step into the corset, pull it up around her and loosely tie the laces into a bow. Next she’d reach behind and drop a loop from the tied laces over the bedpost, then lean forward and walk away from the bed to tighten the contraption.

 

One morning while Dad slept, Mother went through her usual routine and was walking away from the bed to tighten the laces. Holding her breath while she tugged, she decided to give it one more good pull. That poor bed just couldn’t take it and gave way with a great crash! We children and Grandpa came running into the room to find Mother standing in her knee-length bloomers and full-length corset and Dad sitting up in the demolished bed, looking rather dazed.

 

I was lacing an elderly aunt into her corsets one morning when there was a sudden popping sound. "What was that?" I cried in alarm fearing some injury to the old dear. "That was just my eyeballs" she laughed "that's tight enough you know." My old aunt had a wicked sense of humour and had popped her finger using her mouth in the time honoured tradition of children the world over.

 

I realised from an early age (I had two older sisters), that women can usually absorb any amount of flattery, however exaggerated or preposterous it might be. I could always score brownie points with the women in our family simply by saying "You look really good today" or "I like your hair" - simple stuff. It was the older relatives and friends that produced the most interesting responses. One old aunt (actually I was a teenager then so she was only about 60 or so - old in those days), always was over made-up, over-dressed and over-bearing, however, a "You look smashing Auntie" always produced a clucking, a touching of the hair and a cooing worthy of the most over-acted pantomime dame. Shame about the lipstick on your dentures would have been more appropriate, but flattery will get you anywhere; it always got me a few shillings at Christmas anyway. The only riposte that really floored me was from one old virago who tottered through the front door. In response to my cheery greeting she stared at me for a few seconds and said "Would you like to try on my corsets young man? Then you'd look smashing as well!" I was mortified and was never quite as flippant again.

 

My mother introduced me to my first girdle when I was still  at school. This was not the bitter argument you might have expected for my peers all wore girdles then, but on one thing I was adamant "No zipper!"

 

I have read on these pages how the daughter would reject the underpinnings of a previous generation. I have an example of something entirely opposite. In the early 1960's, my teenage daughter was a huge fan of the Springfields, in particular the female singer Dusty. Against my wishes and copying her heroine, her eye make-up became more and more pronounced, although I had no objection to the tight fitting all encompassing satin blouses and flamboyantly petticoated skirts. One day she approached me as she was preparing her ensemble and asked with some embarrassment if she could borrow my corset. "I don't wear a corset!" I retorted quite sharply. "But I've seen it" she persisted and I realised that she meant a laced waspie that I used to wear for formal occasions (sadly rather rare). I dug out the white laced article in question that I had bought years before at Dickens and Jones. Fastening it around my daughter we laced about three inches off her natural size, far more than I thought healthy, but my daughter was delighted. For a girl effectively covered from neck to knee, I felt that the combination of the narrow waist, the impossibly flared skirt and the shiny blouse were very attractive. I was somewhat concerned that the teenage boys would think so too!

 

 

   

I well remember wearing a similar outfit when I was a teenager. In those few years between the 'sensible' 50's and the 'bra-burning 60's', I wore a panty-girdle and bra; both were boned as well. By the standards of the day, a boned undergarment on a thin teenager was certainly not exceptional. I remember that my outfit sported a broad belt, just to make the point of the attenuated waist. No Victorian corsetted heroine ever sported the weals that I did after an evening thus attired!

 

One of my parents' friends, who I called Aunt Ada, was pleasant company except when she observed any woman that she considered to be over-dressed or over-styled, in fact, compared to my rather plump and frumpy aunt, most other women. It would only take an elegant figure to enter a restaurant for my aunt to hiss "She'll be well strapped up underneath you know" or "Without her make-up and corsets she'd be nothing." I used to whisper to my mother "Without her make-up and corsets she'd be like Aunt Ada."

 

My aunt used to live in Indonesia in the 1950s. On the rare trips that she and her husband took back to Holland by ship, she would stock up on several years' supply of corsets which she always wore despite the tropical heat. What she hated was the customs inspection on arriving back in the Far East. On one occasion, a curious customs officer rummaging through her personal effects grabbed a corset and waved it at my aunt asking "What is this for?" My aunt was mortified particularly since half the ship's passengers witnessed the display.

 

I remember a conversation between two women at a reception; one was rather academic and the other was rather theatrical: "Do you think they'll ever invent anti-gravity devices?" "Dahling, I'm wearing one!"

 

Before the 'swinging 60s' came into full force, my daughter was a dedicated fan of panty-girdles. Not that she was overweight or anything but I suppose her friends wore them so she did as well. I had no objection since I saw them as sensible underwear and at the back of my mind I felt that they provided a latent barrier to advances from her casual boyfriends. Personally I didn't like them being brought up on conventional girdles; I felt them to be a bit constricting but I suppose that was their purpose. What fascinated me was that my daughter would buy her panty-girdles in a size 24 when I knew for certain that her waist was about 28 inches. This normally presented no major difficulty until one day, she tried on a new Liberty brand girdle that we had bought together. Well, those Liberties did not stretch like the others that she had. She tried all the tricks: inverting the garment and pulling it up, walking it up her thighs but after five minutes all she had achieved was to get the crotch into position and the legs in place but there was now a bundle of fabric and bones in a roll below her hips. I pointedly read out a warning from the girdle box that tears to the garment voided its warranty. Eventually she wriggled the girdle into place and indeed, svelte she looked but her bottom was as tight as drum. Needless to say, she survived her evening out but on returning home she went straight upstairs and removed (not without effort) the offending garment. "I'll never wear Libertys again" she said. I was about to retort that they made good girdles if you bought the right size but I thought better of it.

 

 

Letters 

We often get letters from browsers of the web site, occasionally from corsetičres and, more often from women who have experience of corsets. The browsers provide a wide range of subject matter from the 'unbelievable', through 'wish fulfillment' to genuine interest and curiosity. Those with corsetry experience, however, are always gratefully received. Often, it is not a personal experience, which would be unlikely these days, since traditional corset wearers, and email familiarity don't cover the same target groups. It is usually, daughters, or even sons with a somewhat prurient interest in their female relations' underwear, that provide the best detailed accounts of what was actually worn during the 'halcyon days of corsetry'. Sorting the 'wheat from the chaff' is neither an easy task, nor even probably accurate. We've included letters that bear the hallmarks of authenticity such as correct dates, reasonable grammar, and appropriate attention to detail. Others, that we find equally interesting, but without the credentials that befit this page can be found elsewhere

One substantiated letter is shown below. The letter mentions Spirella (hence its inclusion here), however, it is quite honest in its description of the trials and tribulations of growing old. The dates quoted indicate the period of the story.

The Eccentric Lady  (Cobham, Britain 1954 - 1990)

I know the history of this lady unusually well. She lived before and during the War in South America, returning to Britain in 1950, where she settled with her husband near Dorking in Surrey. At age 40, she adopted the conservative dress of her peers, which mandated a girdle and long-line brassiere. The girdle was a Berlei, which, although not made-to-measure, did come in a wide variety of lengths and hip-spring sizes. Like many women of her generation she suffered badly from varicose veins, and the girdle that she wore was not so much to control her enviable figure, but to anchor the powerful surgical stockings that she loathed but needed to wear. Her posture was excellent, but once again, this was nothing to do with her foundations but simply years of horse riding on the pampas as a young woman.

In the mid 1950’s, she experimented briefly with Spirella, in order to get extra suspenders fitted. She ordered a girdle (which I believe was a model 234) with five suspenders on each side, three for the elastic stockings and two for a pair of fashionable stockings worn to disguise the shiny elastic of the stronger pair. This was not a success. The marginal improvement to the appearance of her legs failed to outweigh the discomfort of the suspenders. She also felt that the girdle was too expensive, although undoubtedly of a high quality. As she said at the time, “It’s beautifully made, but who’s going to see it?”

In the late 1950’s, resigned to her surgical stockings, she decided, like the majority of British women, that Marks and Spencer’s girdles were the equal of the more expensive brands, and she bought three high-waisted girdles from M&S each year for a dozen years. These were originally the famous satin elastic girdles, that latterly evolved into the equally strong, but less elegant, nylon-fronted girdle.

In 1971, now into her 60’s, a visit to friends in America convinced her that she had fallen behind the times. She returned to Britain armed with Sears and Roebucks’ best panty-girdles and her M&S girdles were consigned to the dustbin. Over the years, she had developed a blind spot for the ‘knobbly’ appearance of her legs, however, she was acutely conscious of her thinning hair and her yellowed, and somewhat random teeth. In the post-War period in Britain, an amazing 25% of adults over 25 year-old wore full dentures, so, in fact she had lasted rather well. Deciding not to wait for her hair to turn silver (or fall out, whichever might come first), she bought an elegant, and very expensive wig. Against strong advice from my Mother, who lost all her teeth as a young adult, she went to the dentist and had all her remaining teeth removed. She suffered from this mistake, and although immaculately coiffured and with gleaming white piano keys, she thereafter talked as if she was rather tipsy; a bit like the dotty old Aunt Clara in 'Bewitched'.

In her late 70’s, this hitherto remarkably energetic lady, suffered a bad fall that exacerbated a back problem caused by a horse-riding tumble many decades before. She developed a pronounced stoop yet still managed to live alone in her large house, her husband having passed away in the late 1970’s.

I lived abroad for a few years and didn’t visit her again until 1992. Into her 80’s, she was, once again in excellent shape. Her hair and teeth were, of course unchanged, but the face was older, the lipstick bearing only a passing acknowledgement of the edge of her lips. She still slurred her words but she was once again fully erect with a remarkable figure for her age. I noticed that she elected to sit down only in upright chairs and then quite carefully. I asked after her back and she commented that it was fine just so long as she wore her ‘armour’. On further enquiry she confessed, that for the first time in her life, she had started to wear a corset provided by the same corsetičre that she had briefly encountered over 45 years before. She told me “You won’t believe it, but it’s got 28 buckles!” Was she complaining or boasting I wondered, however, she was right, I didn’t believe her and it must have shown on my face. She strutted off to the study that had become her bedroom, the daily assault on the stairs being too much for her. She returned with a Spencer dorso-lumbar support, and indeed, it had 10 buckles to close the front, four on each side for an under-belt, four for the shoulder straps. This total of 22 buckles was standard Spencer. However, I thought that the under-belt was totally unnecessary. The corsetičre had modified the back lacing and inserted three cluster-lacers (never a Spencer option), which would allow for much easier adjustment of the garment. I felt that she had been taken advantage of by her corsetičre since the corset could have been far simpler, and of course cheaper. I noticed that the corset was fashioned from white orchid material (washable satin), by no means the cheapest option.

The rest of the tale becomes rather sad. A few years later, her car was stopped by a policeman. She had been driving erratically (she always had done in fact), however, her slurred speech was misinterpreted by the law. She was asked to accompany the officer to the police station. As she alighted from the car, he saw that she was in her stocking soles, and as her coat fell open, wearing her corsets and very little else!

The end was near. She was getting very eccentric and was transferred to a nursing home that she tastelessly, but not inaccurately, referred to as “Death Row”. We visited her several times and I do believe that she became the bane of the nurses’ existence, although I suspect they admired her spirit. She died after a short and probably disagreeable stay in the home. She was found in bed, corseted, with her teeth and wig immaculately in place, in total defiance of her nurse’s instructions.

“They don’t make them like that any more” I told my husband. “Corsets?”  he replied. “Don’t be silly. Women!”

Waddle In; Wiggle Out   (I must apologise. This was taken from the internet. It is, however, so real, and it corresponds so well with a Spirella magazine cartoon from August 1958, that I couldn't help but include it.  Ireland 1958).

The Spirella corsets were fantastic feats of engineering. I remember suggesting to my mother that she would be far better off without a corset, as I thought that they caused more trouble than they were worth, but she was horrified at the idea. "They are a great source of warmth and comfort", she told me. "Plus, they have the added advantage of pulling in the stomach, and making me look in much better shape than I am". "But Mummy," I protested, "You tell me that they’re most uncomfortable, that they hurt when you kneel down, and the bones stick into your ribs and thighs, that they are impossible to dry after they are washed. Why do you have to put yourself through such torture, just to feel that you are looking right."

 

My protestations were met with a tight lipped. "Just you wait until you have lost your figure through having babies and you’ll know why people need corsets for their self-esteem". To get back to the corsets on approval, I remember, on one occasion, my mother getting trapped into a corset that she couldn't get out of. It had the usual hooks and straps, but, in addition, it had a zip which went from the thigh to the waist. When she got into it after much difficulty, she couldn’t get out of it. I was called to assist. Eventually, I had to make her lie on the bed while I endeavoured to get the zip down. After a long struggle, I was able to get the zip down and I unleashed the hooks and clamps. Her reaction was, "I don’t think I’ll be buying this one this year".

   

Granny’s Old Corsets   (Ayr, Scotland  1974)

I’ve mentioned this episode elsewhere under ‘number of foundations’, however, it is worth repeating in this context. The aged widowed Grandmother of my cousins passed away, I would guess it was in the mid 1970’s. The lady had married into wealth and travelled extensively with her husband, well before tourism had become commonplace. When the family started to clear her house, they came across the usual prized (but sadly worthless) trinkets collected over the eight decades of her life. In her bedroom cupboards they found the unfashionable, but high quality clothes of the wealthy that were either consigned to the dustbin, or perhaps the local jumble sale. Amazingly, they found 20 Spirella corsets in nearly identical sizes, give or take the odd half inch. They were all white, but in different materials, brocade, satin, nylon and a light aertex quality. They were all front-laced and secured by a long, offset row of hooks-and-eyes. These were passed on to me as the family had little idea of what to do with them.

The corsets were all in very good condition, about three were unused, and the others exhibited all the signs of normal use, but with regular washing and attention to little details such as wear in the elastic. I would guess that none of the corsets was more than four years old. In today’s money, her ‘bottom drawer’ represented an investment of about US$5,500. I can only surmise that the lady obeyed the rule of three’s ‘One in the drawer, one in the wash and one on the body’. This is the corsetičre’s advice to promote longevity of one’s lower foundations. Actually, two would do, but a persuasive corsetičre with a rich client, would normally recommend three. The corsets were, indeed, roughly grouped into fours, indicating three active garments and a fourth ready to replace the oldest corset of the trio when its controlling days were numbered. The brocades would have been for winter, the nylons and aertex for the hotter climates that she and her husband used to enjoy visiting. It is the largest and most expensive collection of one woman’s corsetry that I have ever encountered.

I forget who once wrote “…bereavement, complicated by disposal of the mysterious underpinnings of the elderly woman;” but the idea is quite correct.

Most women are, not unreasonably, quite private about their underpinnings and the disposal of such articles after use. Concealment in a plastic bag and disposal into the bin is a preferred method. If the garment in question is expensive and substantial, it may take on a second life as an item on the shelves of the local thrift shop. Do not do what a paranoid acquaintance of mine did and that was to throw her old girdle onto the garden bonfire. The clouds of noxious black smoke brought her grandchildren running to the scene, as the woman stood mortified before the blackened, melted remains of her girdle, the spiral bones and metal suspenders adhering in a horribly fascinating way to the leaves and twigs of the garden refuse.

Disposal at a jumble sale carries its own problems. Nobody wishes to witness their once expensive corsets being tossed around the sales room by hysterical teenagers “You don’t mean people still wear those things?” Of course, there is the terminal disposal of some superb collectible items by relatives completely unaware of both the historical and financial value of Grandma’s satin Spencers. As I’ve said before, your Granny just might be wearing her most valuable heirlooms.

                 

Fitting for a girdle in 1963

I was away at boarding school and over the summer term I’d had quite a growth spurt, so early in the holidays my mother had taken me to buy some bigger sized suspender belts and knickers.  The woman in the shop we went to suggested that I might find a girdle more comfortable and although I was still pretty uninterested in clothes at that stage, I tried one on - it was pretty lightweight - and found it cut in less round the waist than the suspender belt I was used to. Later in the holidays we had a fortnight at the seaside when I wore my regulation school swimsuit, but found it increasingly uncomfortable as it was always pulling up over my bottom which felt to me increasingly large and wobbly, so when term came again I was really glad of the girdle.

By the half-term, when my mother came down to take me out I must have grown again, because when we went to a big department store to get a shirt-waister dress I’d set my heart on, in spite of wearing stockings and a girdle for the event, a size 12 dress – which was perfect on top – didn’t really go over my hips.  A 14 was much too big over the shoulders as well as the bust, so I tried on the 12 again, and the assistant came to take a look.  She said straight out, ‘That’s the right size; but you need to wear a girdle for that style of dress.” I protested that I was, and she said straightway, “I don’t mean a roll-on, I mean a proper girdle.  You’ve a good basic figure, but you’ll need to start wearing the right foundations to make the most if it.”  My mother overheard this from the cubicle, and upshot was that the assistant took us over to the corsetry department, as it was rather intimidatingly called, and found a young assistant there.  She explained that I had what she called a ‘heavy, low-slung rear’, a long back and a high stomach which meant that a conventional roll-on, even a firmer control one, would always be pulling up over my bottom and fail to give any control to my little diaphragm bulge, and that a properly fitted deep line girdle would give proper support as well as being far more comfortable.

So after trying on a series of girdles, we found one that seemed to do the job really well: it was made by Berlei, and called Sarong, if I remember right. It was incredibly firm, and certainly stayed down over my seat. It had what I remember her saying I’d always need – a downstretch satin-elastic back panel to flatten and lift my rear, and I remember seeing myself in it in the mirror, and seeing how flat and firm my wobbly bottom looked and felt. So in spite of never having worn anything like that before, I knew that this was it.  I was secretly quite excited that I could have such a good figure, when I’d come to imagine that nearly 40 inches round the hips ruled this out.  My mother was less convinced. She like the look of the girdle, and agreed that the dress fitted a dream, but she was concerned that I would ruin my muscles if I started wearing firm foundations more than very occasionally.  The sales girl was very good, and explained that all teenage girls needed the right foundations for them, and that there weren’t any muscles in the flab in our bottoms anyway, and that if I was to look and feel good in the right sized clothes, this was what I needed to start wearing.  She then asked my mother how many I needed. My mother, who had thought that just one would be all we were going to get, looked amazed when the girl said that I’d need at least three – two white and one black – so that I’d always have a fresh one to put on.

In the end, my mother would only be persuaded to buy one, but said that if after a week or two it seemed comfortable and I was sure, then I could come back and buy some more.

And that is what happened. I got used to a quite different style of dressing, and what with wearing stockings and skirts every day, soon felt comfortable with a new and improved shape.  And clearly it was visible to my friends too, as they noticed and wanted to see what I was wearing.  But once you get a better shape, it’s pretty obvious if you suddenly revert! So when I washed my new girdle, they noticed and I felt curiously floppy in the rear – not a good feeling!

This led to my going back to buy more, and also to a long search to find what the games staff at school called a sports brief back then but we would know as a panty-girdle these days.  I can recall that too, and later episodes – like discovering that the rather heavy foundations I was wearing (and partly a bit embarrassed about needing!) were not in fact a turn-off, but rather the reverse to my boy friend at the hospital where we were training, but won’t write that down unless you are interested. For me it was just been part of how things were, but I see that it may be of cultural and social significance too.