HISTORY OF WILBRO, 1975-1993

 

by Godet, a former Wilbro made-to-measure customer and

Frangard, a former Wilbro ready-to-wear customer

 

 

1  ORIGINS

 

The origins of Wilbro, which was much appreciated by new corset wearers in the mid-1970s and early 1980s, seems to be lost in the mists of time. Certainly the name seems to be a contraction of “Williams Bros” and there was, according to Gardarma, a corset maker J. Williams & Sons, who had a shop in Blackpool, but whose main factory was in Manchester. named Williams in Blackpool”.

 

He recalled that it was patronised by women members of the north country branch of his family but again there is no definitive information. One former customer suggests the company was a successor to an old established firm that started trading as J D Williams in the 1890s selling ready to wear corsets by mail order. Moreover, he knows of a collector who has a J D Williams corset from the Victorian era in her collection. That business expanded into the home catalogue shopping market and was still going in the 1970s. He recalls that his mother had their catalogues which still had a huge corsetry section and boasted a 'specialist corsetiere' on their staff by the name of Mary Linden. Despite all that information a search of the BT telephone directories from the early years of the 20th Century reveals no such firms in the Manchester area..

 

In fact, the arrival of Wilbro on the retail corset scene in the 1970s remains an enigma to the dwindling sorority, or fraternity, of serious corset wearers. That said, there is no doubt that Wilbro did help many diffident individuals to start on their personal regime of more regular corset wearing, which they probably would not otherwise have done.

 

 What is surprising is that David Kunzle, who carried out what was laudably exhaustive research on corset wearing in the UK in the late 1970s, did  not appear to have encountered Wilbro. The final, typewritten draft of the book included a whole chapter which did not appear in the first edition of the  published version of the book “Fashion and Fetishism”, 1982 (revised edition 2004).  Among the excluded sentences was the following:

 

"various mail order only firms, which no serious tight lacer would use, use Gardner’s products notably A.D. and Joan Maxwell of Axminster, Devon, who advertise ‘Ladies Gents and children’s corsets’ regularly in the ‘Stage’.”

 

Wilbro which was very active when the research was done is not mentioned.

 

 

2  THE 1970S INCARNATION

 

In its first, or was it its penultimate, incarnation, Wilbro operated out of premises on 180 Oxford Road in Manchester. The telephone number was 061-273-5722. It was managed and probably owned by Margaret Beck. She probably purchased the name from the earlier enterprise, or started the firm, in about 1975, when she was in her mid-to late-30s. It is possible she was inspired by Waunita Monroe of Heaton Norris, near Manchester, who advertised corsets "that make you look like a million dollars" in the personal advertisements columns of the "Guardian" in 1973.

What is certain is that, as "Wilbro Corsetry”, it began advertising in the personal columns of the Sunday Times in late 1975 or early 1976. These advertisements continued sometimes weekly and sometimes every two weeks until sometime in 1978. Each add appeared in the “For Her” section and usually ran to five lines with the first few words in bold type as shown in the advert of May 15, 1977.

 

A partial transcription of the wording of some of the advertisements, each with the date of publication,  is also shown below, except the name and address of the company is not given each time.

 

PARTIAL LIST OF WILBRO ADVERTISEMENTS

 

that appeared in the Personal Columns of the Sunday Times (UK), 1976-78

 

June (?) 1976     TIGHT-LACING VICTORIAN Corsets for figure control and glamour.

 

June 13, 1976    STRICT CORSET DISCIPLINE makes you wasp waisted and alluring. Corsetry for every figure and every purpose.

 

June 27, 1976    TIGHT-LACING CORSETS let you forget your figure worries. We will lace and bone you to perfection.

 

July 18, 1976     A HAND SPAN WAIST is heavily-boned and tightly-laced!

 

Sept 21, 1976    VICTORIAN WASP-WAIST Corsets for connoisseurs!

 

Oct 10, 1976     TIGHTLY-LACED SATIN CORSETS for well-boned waist glamour.

 

Oct 17, 1976     DISCOVER YOUR NEW FIGURE as you are laced into boned Corsets!

 

Oct ? 1976        WASP-WAISTED SATIN CORSETS for tight-laced glamour.

 

Jan 2, 1977       BUSK-FASTENED back-lacing corsets for the traditional corset wearer!

 

Feb  1977          EXPERIENCED CORSET WEARERS enjoy the pull of the stay-lace!

 

Feb 13, 1977     A STRICTLY-CORSETED FIGURE is the admiration of all!

 

May 1, 1977      YOUR CORSET-CONTROLLED FIGURE will be the envy of your friends!

 

May 15, 1977    WITH BREATHE HELD TIGHT and the lacer’s knee in your back, let your corset lacing begin! Catalogue of Tight-lacing Corsets and Fashion Corsets, 35p

 

May 22 1977     PULL-PULL-PULL on those corset laces, and make that insubordinate figure submit!

 

May 29, 1977    COMPULSORY CORSETTING ensures the control and poise of well-boned confidence!

Also HAND MADE VICTORIAN CORSETS to your measurements (Vollers)

 

June 12, 1977    UNCOMPROMISING CORSETS will master the most stubborn figure!

 

June 26, 1977    COUTURE CORSETING gives irresistible wasp waist allure!

 

Sep 4, 1977       INFLEXIBLE BONING and stern lacing for the exacting demands of the corset-conscious woman. Luxury corsets of all types.

 

Oct 16, 1977     TRAINING CORSETS for the figure conscious! Traditional fashion and rubber corsets.

 

Oct 30, 1977     THE GLOSSY SLEEKNESS of a satin-covered corset adds to the thrill of the Staylace! Specialist Corsetieres in figure-training

 

Nov 13, 1977     AN IRRESISTIBLE WASP-WAIST shows your enthusiasm for Corset-training! Discipline and tight-lacing styles for all purposes.

 

Jan 22, 1978      YOUR SEVERELY-BONED and strictly-laced figure is the hall-mark of the determined Corset-trainer. Traditional and discipline corsets.

 

 

 

 

Wilbro also advertised in “Exchange and Mart” at that time and one of the co-authors Godet says “ I can’t remember the exact wording of that ad(vertisement), but one that stuck in my mind (said) 'The popping of the busk studs means that the tight-lacing can begin'. To use that would-be corset-wearer’s own words that phrase was “poetry indeed!”

 

Whether this advertising campaign was associated with the establishment of new management is unclear. As to the intended audience, given the gradually changing tenor of the advertisements, it is clear that they were aimed at inducing individuals, women or men, who had a latent predilection to try serious corset wearing, to patronise the firm. It is also noteworthy that the advertisements clearly encouraged another actual maker of corsets, Vollers of Portsmouth to place similar adverts in the same section of the same newspaper, sometimes in the same week, as can be seen by the last quoted reference in advertisement list). That said, Wilbro’s business plan , to use business school jargon of the 1990s, appears to have been to serve the needs of two groups of customers requiring foundation garments:

 

1. Women requiring post-mastectomy garments.

2. Ready to wear or made to measure corsets for ladies and gentlemen.

 

The first group were almost always personal callers at the salon, while the majority of second group were served by mail order. Personal appointments for an initial consultation for a corset, or fitting of a partially complete corset in the salon, were provided on advance payment of a fee “for a 30 minute session”. A comprehensive, 24 page mimeographed corset and lingerie catalogue and separate price list was produced. It included basic sketches showing the key features of the main types of corset sold. Inquiries were always answered by “M. Beck”.

 

In 1980 consultations were available “Monday to Wednesday, 10-4 and Thursday and Friday, 12 to 4". Delivery was approximately 3 weeks and “as much notice as possible“ was required for an appointment with a minimum of “7 days”.

 

 

3  PREMISES

 

Number 180 Oxford Road, Manchester, where Wilbro was located, was, and still is a large Georgian house located to the south of the city centre. There was a large and ornate front door which gave access to the building. Wilbro was one several businesses, in the building. Door bells on the jamb of the front door, summoned the business of choice with the door opened by remotely controlled lock. By 2002 the building housed an architect’s practice.

 

The Wilbro salon comprised a suite two rooms at the rear of the ground floor, a consulting room and a smaller back room. The suite was reached along a fairly long, dingy passage and was entered through a heavy panelled wooden door, which opened directly into the consulting room, which was about ten feet square. In the words of a customer by appointment it was furnished

 

 “quite simply with a sofa at one end, one of those long Victorian free standing mirrors and a couple of dining room type chairs, all administration and correspondence taking place in the back room. The walls were adorned with pictures of corsets and lingerie of all descriptions.”

 

All discussions, measuring and fitting of garments took place in the consulting room which had no window of its own. To ensure privacy during fitting, a large key was turned in the lock of the entrance door. At such times, the dividing door leading to the back room was also closed because it had the only window in the Wilbro suite. The window looked out onto a small private yard at the rear of the building.

 

The back room served as an administrative office and stock room but was not adequate to store much more than sample boxes in each size of the entire range of over one hundred plus styles of off the peg corsets that were sold, (see Table 1) It is not known if the main stockroom was in the building or elsewhere or whether in the case of ready to wear garments or whether Wilbro relied on a fast turn round service from the actual makers.

4  MARGARET BECK

 

Reply letters to Inquiries and advice notes with parcels were always signed by “M. Beck”, who was well-known as “Margaret” to Iris Norris. Margaret Beck was the manageress, corsetiere and possibly the owner, and in the words of one personal customer was of an “ample figure with wavy, collar-length, black hair, and about 5'5" tall” and “Its hard to say but she certainly had the bearing, carriage and manners of someone who was used to the finer things in life. She was always impeccably dressed in what were obviously very expensive clothes.”

 

Despite her build she made a point of wearing only a panty girdle during business hours and never a real corset, which might have suited her better. Since a large part of her business was fitting mastectomy bras, she felt that showing the tiny waist and large bust, that would have been created by a corset, was not appropriate when dealing with ladies who had just undergone such traumatic surgery.

 

While Margaret was not married, she did have a partner and lived with him in the Worsley area of Manchester, a very wealthy suburb with large detached Victorian villa type houses. While it is only speculation it would not be difficult to imagine that the partner had assisted her with the financing the establishment of the business possibly on account of a personal appreciation of the corseted woman. However in one customer’s words “From what Margaret said he wasn’t that much of a corset fan although he did appreciate her wearing them from time to time.

 

 

5  THE CATALOGUE - FORMAT AND DESIGN

 

Wilbro’s catalogue was somewhat unprepossessing (to put it mildly - Ivy) and it and the separate price lists which changed frequently during the high inflation days of the late 1970s and early 1980s. They were inexpensively produced by the mimeograph, Roneo or Gestetner, process which necessitated the use of porous paper essential to the printing process. However what those catalogues lacked in presentation was more than made up for in being very comprehensive with information aimed at the serious corset wearer. Basic, sketches belied the lack of artistic flair on the part of the person who had produced them but the accuracy the details drawn for each style vouched that the person was if not an experienced corset wearer was certainly experienced in the design and the selling points demanded by a serious customer in that each one showed the key features of the main styles of corset sold. .

 

Each catalogue request elicited a package which included 1) the catalogue; 2) The price list 3) order forms for a) ready made; made to measure corsets with space to record self-measurement one each for ladies and gentlemen and 4) Several leaflets publicizing special offers on corsets in ranges that had been discontinued. The 1976 version of the catalogue ran to 24 pages plus a separate price list, which was very necessary in that time of high inflation. To distinguish them price lists were usually printed on pink or green paper while pink paper was used for ladies made to measure and blue for gentlemen. There were also order forms one each for ladies and gentlemen and a self measurement form. Special offers were printed on white or yellow paper.

 

In 1976 the cover was purely factual and devoid of any artistic layout (see below), that is with simply the company name in large, black, solid, sans Serif font, below which were the following lines:

 

LADIES AND GENTLEMENS CORSETIERES

SPECIALISTS IN FIGURE TRAINING AND PERIOD CORSETRY

VICTORIAN AND TIGHT-LACING CORSETS A SPECIALTY

READY TO WEAR AND MADE-TO-MEASURE CORSETRY

INDIVIDUAL AND POSTAL SERVICE

SPECIALIST CORSETIERE ALWAYS IN ATTENDANCE

 

  

By the time of the October 1978 catalogue, the words “The Corset Paradise” appeared on the second line and after the words ”Specialist corsetiere always in attendance” were added the words “(Consultations strictly by appointment only)” and “(No callers)”. In the information on the inside cover was the sentence “customers please note that there is a fee payable in advance for this service” that is, for Consultation and Fitting.

 

Also added to the October 1978 was a touch of art - two sketches of ostensibly modern women in their 30s, with demure but modern hair styles. There their modernity stopped for, their slim figures notwithstanding, there ladies entrusted their forms to serious foundation garments of the most traditional design. Each wore boned a long-line bra and over it a high-waisted corset, not a girdle. Of the Godet style these corsets were cut to create a finely nipped waist and produce a truly enviable hip spring. Their corsets were sufficiently long, and hip-containing as to require additional closing above and below their seven-point busks. One had two pairs of hooks and eyes and the other a lower front lacing,. Finishing off their under-ensembles were six suspenders. Their elastic was unfashionably wide and they were clipped of course to stockings, proof if more were needed that our modern ladies were sufficiently rooted in tradition to eschew the switch to tights.

 

For the October 1980 catalogue the modern women had been replaced by two Edwardian beauties in charming high cut straight fronted corsets with ample flounces below and front and “vee’d” side suspenders.

 

 

6  THE RANGE

 

Wilbro offered a very extensive of corsets. Excluding special offers, 113 styles of corset were offered in 1976, as indicated in the list, taken from the February1976 catalogue (see section 2).

 

Wilbro were also agents for Camp Corsetry and for Pulfront and Strodex made-to-measure corsetry for which no consultation or fitting fee was payable. It is thus likely that their corsetiere was, if not actually trained, at least approved by those companies to act as their agent and hence to measure customers and provide follow-up service.

 

One group of corsets offered in the “Made to measure corsets” range were outsourced and were actually manufactured for them by specialist firms like A Gardner and Sons. In fact, of the made to measure corsets for both ladies and gentlemen some of the Wilbro styles conform almost exactly to the styles in Gardner's mid-70s catalogue. Mrs Iris Norris dealt with "Margaret" while at Gardners right until it closed and continued to do so while working on her own account in the early 1980s. The comparison between the list of “Extra” available in the two catalogues indicates this relationship noting the mark up on the Wilbro prices.

Wilbro                                                                                                                     Gardners     

 

It is also noteworthy from the “extras” how during a consultation one might see how a discriminating corset wearer find the price of their intended corset could almost double when compared to the basic price quoted in either Gardners or Wilbro’s the catalogue. Simply by requiring double boning, reinforcing eyelets, back steels and ten, rather than the basic four, suspenders would increase the basic price by about 80%.

 

 

7  ITEMS ADDED IN THE 1980 CATALOGUE

 

By 1980 a new range of “Special Purpose Corsetry (Made to Measure had been added by Wilbro.

This included

 

Padded Brassiere

Flattening Brassiere

Padded Corselette

Deep Suspender Belt

Boned Neck Corset (Posture Collar)

Shoulder Brace

Gents Bodice

 

The items were all available in materials to match corsets.

 

All the times are self explanatory except the Gents Bodice which was similar to a bra but without the cups. At 11 inches long front and back and 10 inch at the sides it can smooth the line between the top of a medium height corset and the male wearer’s shoulders.

 

7.1 Ready to Wear

 

It The ready to wear section was “a representative sample by leading manufacturers such as Twilfit, Excelsior, etc”

 

is likely that many of the ready to wear corsets were produced by firms like R.&W.H. Symington & Co. Ltd, which drastically reduced production in 1980 and that the reduction in Wilbro’s ready- to-wear range in 1980 was indicative of this.

 

7.2 Extras

 

A “new item” was really an old item - detachable suspenders of the “traditional style with clasp. Sold singly , Narrow or wide, Black or White, 70p each.“

 

8  THE CATALOGUE - INFORMATION

 

The sketches accompanying the descriptions of selected corsets in each class lacked artistic penmanship. However the detail of information given in the text and depicted in the sketches more than made up for those deficiencies.

 

The reader was given a description of the style, the material sed, the design with flutes or elastic gores. Its length was given, either qualitatively or in inches above or below the waist or overall at back as well as busk length, boning, back steels. It was clearly written by someone who understood that a corset is more than a name, it is something that has to meet the wearer’s needs or ambitions. with an excellent knowledge of what features are important to point out . This is well illustrated by the accompanying excerpt from page 8 of the Feb 1976 catalogue showing the range of four “Back Lacing Bust Fronted Corsets with Underbelt”.

 

 

 

Take the description of the BLBU2 from that page:

 

“Long back lacing corset designed for figures requiring the additional support of an underbelt. Cut from strong cotton material with elastic insets at waist and thighs. The underbelt fastens with hooks and eyes, and the corset has a covered busk fastening, 4 suspenders, Depth 16", Hip Spring 10" to 11". Waist sizes 26" to 42" (Even sizes only). Tea Rose”

 

 

 

9  THE LAST DAYS

 

Our source last saw Margaret on his last visit to the Oxford Road Salon in about 1984. He does not know the reason “loss of trade, loss of the premises, a desire to retire, illness - its could (have been) be anything. After that Wilbro moved first to Lincoln and then back to 204 Corn Exchange Buildings, Cathedral Street, M4 3BQ. However, by January 1989 the name was bought and Wilbro traded out of a PO Box in Wales. The owner was a Dr. Yvonne Cawcutt, who for some time produced a small very informative catalogue and a Wilbro newsletter from about 1991-93. One customer recalls that:

 

“The first catalogue that I received from her was a photocopy of some of the original Wilbro pages with several of the styles crossed out. In the beginning I think she only offered three or four styles. I remember from one of the newsletters that as a girl in the 1930s she was brought up in the colonies or somewhere and was subject to quite rigorous corset training by a governess which started her lifelong interest.

 

If any reader had any more news of Wilbro please advise Ivy Leaf