HISTORY OF WILBRO, 1975-1993
by Godet, a former Wilbro made-to-measure customer and
Frangard, a former Wilbro ready-to-wear
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
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.
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"
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.
LIST OF WILBRO ADVERTISEMENTS
appeared in the
Personal Columns of
Times (UK), 1976-78
1976 TIGHT-LACING VICTORIAN Corsets for figure control and glamour.
1976 STRICT CORSET DISCIPLINE makes you wasp waisted and alluring.
Corsetry for every figure and every purpose.
1976 TIGHT-LACING CORSETS let you forget your figure worries. We will
lace and bone you to perfection.
1976 A HAND SPAN WAIST is heavily-boned and tightly-laced!
1976 VICTORIAN WASP-WAIST Corsets for connoisseurs!
1976 TIGHTLY-LACED SATIN CORSETS for well-boned waist glamour.
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!
1977 EXPERIENCED CORSET WEARERS enjoy the pull of the stay-lace!
1977 A STRICTLY-CORSETED FIGURE is the admiration of all!
May 1, 1977
YOUR CORSET-CONTROLLED FIGURE will be the envy of your friends!
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,
May 22 1977
PULL-PULL-PULL on those corset laces, and make that insubordinate figure
1977 COMPULSORY CORSETTING ensures the control and poise of well-boned
MADE VICTORIAN CORSETS to your measurements (Vollers)
1977 UNCOMPROMISING CORSETS will master the most stubborn figure!
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.
1977 TRAINING CORSETS for the figure conscious! Traditional fashion and
1977 THE GLOSSY SLEEKNESS of a satin-covered corset adds to the thrill
of the Staylace! Specialist Corsetieres in figure-training
1977 AN IRRESISTIBLE WASP-WAIST shows your enthusiasm for
Corset-training! Discipline and tight-lacing styles for all purposes.
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
1. Women requiring
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”.
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.”
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.
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
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.”
CATALOGUE - FORMAT AND DESIGN
was somewhat unprepossessing
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. .
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
In 1976 the cover
was purely factual and devoid of any artistic layout
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
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.
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.
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
ADDED IN THE 1980 CATALOGUE
By 1980 a new range of
“Special Purpose Corsetry (Made to Measure had been added by Wilbro.
Deep Suspender Belt
Boned Neck Corset
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
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.
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.“
CATALOGUE - INFORMATION
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”
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
If any reader had any
more news of Wilbro please advise Ivy