A PERSONAL CUSTOMER AT WILBRO
1 FIRST CONTACTS
The recollections of a former Wilbro customer, Godet*, born in 1951, from the neighbouring Manchester area as the firm, form the basis of much of the Wilbro History. Godet had been fascinated by corsets since his very early teens and first visited the premises, almost as soon as he left home in 1976, at age 25. About that time, he had seen its advertisement in the “Dress” section of “Exchange and Mart” and promptly wrote for the catalogue. After reading it avidly he gathered up his courage and telephoned the Wilbro number. He spoke to the woman who answered the phone, who proved to be Margaret Beck, and a consultation was arranged for what was to prove to be the first of many appointments.
At the time, Godet had started studying and doing research for his Ph.D. and by chance realised that the small flat he had rented was not far from the Wilbro “Corset Paradise”, as it came to be called, at 180, Oxford Road in Manchester.
At that first nervous appointment and discussion with Margaret, on the basis of her thoughtful and sympathetic advice, he bought his very first corset. It was a “Period Corset, Ready to Wear, the PCRW2, which coincidentally is what Frangard 2 had - could it have been presciently? - selectted from reading the excellent descriptions in the Wilbro catalogue. Clearly a mail order customer and the Wilbro corsetiere thought alike as to what might prove to be a good corset to start wearing!
During those years “my hours were not fixed and I was free to come and go more or less as I pleased, thus enabling me to take the time to visit Wilbro regularly.” Godet remained her client, and she his confidante, for close to 10 and he fondly recalls those years of their association:
“I could go on at considerable length about Wilbro - I bought my first corset from them and also I bought my first made to measure from them and also learned a great deal from Margaret - including that I was certainly not the only man who wanted to wear corsets!!”
When he visited the salon again he was planning to buy a second PCRW2 but Margaret had correctly judged his penchant for pulling in his waist. She recommended instead that he try a fluted hip style, commenting in words he still recalls “you have a very tractable waist”.
So he tried a PCRW5 which in his own words:
“felt so much better than the previous style and meant that I could wear a 28" PCRW5 rather than a 30" PCRW2. As I recall the corset was one of several samples that Margaret had had made up with a view to extending the ready to wear range and was a fluted hip style Edwardian in 'oyster pink' cotton backed satin, lined and quite heavily boned. In truth the colour was more of a lurid peachy/orange and certainly not the colour of any oyster that I have ever eaten! I believe that later this style was added to the ready to wear range albeit unlined and was designated PCRW5
"I found that I especially liked the fluted hip styles because I could get them extremely tight around the waist - a sensation that felt wonderful to me and was becoming quite addictive by this time. “
So by 1981 and after several more appointments at which ready-to-wear styles were fitted and purchased, Margaret judged that her enthusiastic client had the necessary experience of corseting,
“she suggested that a made-to-measure corset would be better so she arranged another measuring appointment and in due course was in receipt of my first MMCG5. I am still not certain of the designation but it was certainly a very waisted corset with (for a man) a quite large hip spring and fluted hip panels”
2 GODET’S CORSETIERE
Contrary to the salon figure she presented in the Wilbro salon, Godet did see Margaret tightly corsetted on two social occasions. The occasions arose when, after visiting the salon about five times, he felt confident enough to suggest they met socially after her work for a drink. He agreed with her suggestion of “The Sawyers Arms”, a fairly busy Manchester city centre pub. The time was set to give her the opportunity to go home to 'freshen up'. He arrived first and to use his own words:
“I sat there very nervously waiting for her and when she arrived I was thunderstruck when she took her outer coat off. She had a very smart grey suit with a very tailored jacket showing her fabulous figure. As I remember she was wearing black shoes with about three inch heels - but I could not ascertain whether her seamless black hosiery were stockings or tights. “.
There was no noticeable change in the timbre of her voice nor of her being a little breathless that might suggest that she was especially tightly laced, rather she seemed extremely at ease and most comfortable. They talked at length "about everything under the sun". He didn’t want to press her on the subject of corsetry too much but he “did learn that she was not married but had a long term partner who wasn’t too keen on corsets”.
They repeated the rendevous about a week later when he collected a corset from her. While she was again charming and elegant, he realised that “although this could possibly have developed into a stronger friendship, because of other relationships at the time there was probably no point in further meetings outside the salon.” Future visits to Wilbro were kept as always on a business footing, although he felt she saw him as much as a friend as a customer.
As his patronage continued she became more expansive and talked on several occasions about her interest in corsets and about the styles of corsets she liked to wear. She also talked of the 'lovely sensation” of being tightly laced into a long corset such as the PCMM5, (the Gardner's mannequin trainer with front lacing below the busk and reaching to the wearer's knees). Given the problem of self-lacing such a style he speculates that her partner must have helped her to fit them this being one of the 'time to time' occasions she spoke of earlier .
“She showed me on one occasion a delightful and very curvy, heavily boned Edwardian S line corset that had several flutes and what was obviously a large hip spring that she was making for herself out of a broad black and white striped cotton backed satin - very striking!”
3 CORSET FITTING
He recalls that on his first visit he was shown into the consultation room and the key was turned in the lock 'We don’t want interrupting do we?'
She was “very friendly and put me at ease” and recalls her “saying something like 'You told me on the phone that you want a corset - I’m sure we can find the ideal one for you' She didn’t make it seem any more out of the ordinary than buying the morning paper. I said that I liked the look of the small waisted Victorian style and had seen the PCRW2 in the catalogue that I had previously sent for.”
In response she said that it was “A very good starter corset let’s see what size you need”. He recalls her rising form her chair and standing expectantly with her tape measure in hand. Expecting to be measured over his clothes he was certainty not ready for the disarming way in which she said “'If you take your shirt and trousers off Ill measure you and you can try one'
At this point he recalls he “ was shaking so much I could hardly undo my shirt buttons! but she was so soothing I was soon quite easy again. I got undressed and put my clothes on the sofa while she stood to take measurements and went into the back room to get a corset she thought would fit”.
She went through the door to the stock room and returned with a box which she laid on the table and took out the white corset with its suspenders dangling and displayed it for him to see.
“I remember to this day the first time she wrapped that corset around me I was so nervous but she was so calm and reassuring you would think she was selling me a sports jacket. When she laced me in it was a truly wonderful life changing experience and so different from the sensation of very tight belts I had been wearing from time to time and the secretive fumbles with grandmother’s corsets when we had visited her many years before.”
Once she laced him in she observed “That was a bit easy - you need the next size down - Ill go and get one”
He recalls that the words
“Sounded like heaven, the one I was wearing felt absolutely fantastic and yet she was going to get an even smaller one! When she came back from the stock room she removed the one I was wearing and replaced it with the new one which she laced down all in less than two minutes. I must admit it did feel even better and when she measured me she said 'There you are, that’s about a 3" reduction - in time you will be able to close the corset but take it very slowly - I wouldn’t try to close it completely for at least two months and that will reduce you by 4 inches"
This really was a bit of a mixed message as the way I felt and looked in the mirror I thought she must have reduced my waist by at least 8" - how little I knew at that time! 'Do you want to leave it on to go home or take it off?' she asked. I decided it might be best to take it off as I didn’t know who I might meet on my way back. 'Id better show you how to take it off and put it on yourself then' and she proceeded to show me the intricacies of unlacing and lacing it again - it was almost impossible doing that behind my back but she said I would soon learn to do it easily if I kept trying. I thanked her and paid her and as I was going she said 'If you have any problems or queries don’t hesitate to phone - I’m always happy to help' I thanked her again and made my way home.”
4 SALON ETIQUETTE
As for the corsetry customers at the Salon, they were in Margaret’s words were “about 40% men”, and she was never judgmental. Indeed, one letter writer to a magazine in the early 1980s wrote that she was in fact quite empathetic to male customers’ motivations:
“Once a year I visit Wilbro Corset Salon in Manchester and there in the presence of a very charming lady who is the resident corsetiere can try on my knickers in front of her. Which I cannot do in an ordinary lingerie shop.
On my first visit four years ago I was rather shy but she gave me self-confidence and now I parade in front of her in corsets, stockings, knickers and high heels . (The corsetiere) has helped me a great deal with my purchases both made to measure and off the peg. They have a great selection of corsetry for all tastes and I cannot praise them too highly”
At the time, several readers thought the magazine was imprudent to publish the letter in case an unwilling Wilbro owner would get pestered by new customers wanting the same “service”.
On this point Godet, said “Knowing Margaret as I did I strongly doubt the validity of this claim and feel that it is far more likely to be 'wishful thinking' than actual fact.” Given the tenor of the adverts however it is just possibly true. That discretion was used and as it turns out was abused in return.
On reflection this however may have been un-advertised but intended part of the Wilbro service, especially at a time when the type of customers was changing as was the range of corset accessories offered.
* The nom de plume “Godet” is inspired by the Godet cut corset which the author liked to wear. It was sold by Wilbro as the MMCL5 or MMCG5 styles. As a made to measure corset it was made for them by Gardner’s using their L267 pattern. The style was also sold by Fanny Copere as its “Jean” style. The L267 was much favoured and was always worn by Iris Norris herself. The adjective Godet is used in reference to both skirts and corsets. In the latter it refers to the flutes or gores, inserted between the customary full length panels, to accommodate sharp changes in girth as with the hip spring, in excess of about 15 inches without giving rise to undue and ultimately uncomfortable creasing or puckering of the fabric of facing or lining