2  THE INDEPENDENT CORSETI»RE

 

2.1  THE COUNSELLOR

 

All persons with skill have great pride in their work. Iris Norris was no exception. She had been schooled in an age when even the humblest customer was quick to criticise if a corset did nor fit or last as long as was expected. Thus she brought to her trade concern for fit and, coming as she did from a humble background, concern for it being hardwearing and long lasting.

 

Like Alison Perryís manager and most other successful corsetiŤres, she practiced what she preached. She wore proper busk-fronted, back-lacing corsets. She was as committed to maintaining a small waist as the most dedicated customer, except those who wore a night corset, which she herself would never do. "You need a rest you know", she would wryly remark if ever the subject came up.

 

Iris knew of the commitment of her "small waists" and the enthusiasms of their encouraging spouses or partners. Many wore corsets day and night - 24/7 in today's debased parlance - to achieve their dream. To do so, and then maintain such small waists for 30 or 40 years, was only possible if the corsets they laced on always fitted properly. They could not tolerate the hindrance to their regime if skin breakdowns due to a 'hot spot' were to arise because of a poor fit. Above all therefore, Iris's concern was to ensure that the degree of tightness necessary to effect gradual reduction was not compromised by avoidable discomfort of an ill-fitting creation

 

She adopted the passive approach, essentially honouring the dictum that "the customer is always right." But she also knew that customers, especially newer customers with pretensions to tight-lace, are not always right, they are invariably over-ambitious. While she would always do what an insistent customer wanted, she would always stop a customer from straying into the impossible. She would always diplomatically invoke her own experience saying words to the effect. "Well I find that works very well" or "I've tried that in my own corsets and it its not comfortable," and rather than lose a quickly discouraged customer, she would retain them as they embarked on a successful regime.

 

She would add or alter details depending on her assessment of the wearer's 'corset character'.

 

She had definite likes and dislikes and would never advocate details such as:-

    Front lacing all the way - "some like it but I think a long busk and lower lacing or hooks and eyes is best."

 

She followed Gardnerís dictum and refuse to fit a zip fastener in a laced corset she made. "They rip out very quickly" she said.

 

She did not like panels that were supposed to protect the skin from the chafing of the laces. Iris knew that such a detail was found on many modern corsets but, as she would point out, many of them were off-the-peg designs, and not suitable for serious tight lacing. She would say that in the case of a sewn in panel, it would interfere with the closing of the back edges of the corset and that it could not be compared to the under-busk panels she always fitted, that are located in an area where there is no movement as the corset is tightened. She would say that the panel itself would get caught up and ruckle during lacing in, that it was almost impossible to smooth it out in such a confined tightly laced area and that it would be likely to chafe the wearer more than if there was no panel. She'd then chuckle in her usual way. As for the idea of a separate panel which can be pushed down between the corset and the body after lacing in, she would say it would not work for several reasons. Firstly, if one tight laced seriously, it would be almost impossible to push it past the waist which was where the corset was tightest and that in trying to do so one could damage or rip the waist reinforcing tape, not to mention an under-vest, chemise or camisole which usually got ruckled in the lacing process anyway. Secondly, in the way that a loose corset can 'ride up', such a panel could itself inconveniently ride up, (or down) as a result of its wearerís movements during the period that it was being worn.

 

On the other hand, She would go to infinite pains to perfect the fit of any item she made. For example, in response to a customerís concern regarding the discomfort from the indentations of the heavy hooks and eyes, she would thoughtfully fit a narrow panel of material to protect the wearer's skin and thoughtfully would provide press studs at the top and bottom of the panel to prevent it from ruckling under and exposing the offending metal to the skin during the time the garment was being worn.

 

Faced with the evidence, she was ready to change her mind and Frangard knows that her view on back steels changed over the first few years he knew her. Nevertheless she would not actively advocate the fitting of heavier back steels. She had resorted to this when working from home, but would be sympathetic if she sensed a customer might be receptive to the degree of support they gave.

 

Although it is rarely recorded, most corsetiŤres knew that certain of their customers had other reasons for corseting than mere figure control. In the face of this Iris's attitude to them was professional and correct. She would not pass judgment, even if she knew that such corsets were either central or peripherally essential to activities she would never countenance. While she was not a prude, all she would do was acknowledge the existence of such facts but she would never be persuaded to enter into discussion of such matters.

 

Happily most of her customers understood her rules and respected her for this. Those who did not, or would not, soon realised they were not welcome in her salon, neither at Gardnerís, nor at her home.

 

Thus she could equally be a friend and confidante to the most modest and the most outgoing of women and, to the most diffident as well as with the most self-confident of gentlemen. Her principal concern was that no one took advantage of either sense of propriety, or of her business, or tried to compromise any confidences. To do so was to challenge her tolerance and join the small group of individuals who were no longer welcome in her salon.

 

In retirement, it was clear that the orders she got from individuals did not suffice, and as machinist at heart, she did what is known in the 'rag trade' as outwork. In her case, she produced dozens a week of ladies dresses for an outsize department store. With the modest revival of interest in corsetry by the mid-1980s, she started to produce bulk orders for standard size corsets for what is now one of the UK's largest corset mail and web order agencies. After the demise of Gardnerís she did a little work for the US market.

 

Oct 31, 1982 "You can fetch the corsets with you when you come and I will alter them if possible. I've changed the bones on the one you left me and put the loops on (for detachable suspenders.) The new one is ready, all but the shoulder straps. Iíll put them on when you call for the fitting. The suspenders are made. I think that was all. Did you want shoulder straps on the old one? The repair is £10 and Iíve put you a new panel where the elastic was. The new one is £55. I think you paid me £40 but if I'm wrong let me know. You looked worn out when you came in last time and I thought you needed a good night's sleep. I've had another few orders from people and have got another 10 to make."

 

   

2.2  MEASURING

 

Iris had an outstanding eye for the wearer's form and all would attest to the fit of what she produced. But she was not so proud of her effort that she did not offer a trial fitting before completing the work, which her deft hands could do within the space of the half hour usually allotted for a fitting appointment.

 

Knowing the style you wished to wear, she would quickly take the measurements, pausing to write each one down as she did. She began with the waist and asked how much you wanted to reduce. Then she judged the distances, waist to top and waist-front and back and there youíd rely on her to size accordingly. She even accounted for the slight increase from natural circumference to accommodate the displaced flesh.

 

So skilled was she that on the mere provision of three measurements, the waist, the top and the hip she could sew up a garment ready for a trial fitting.

 

This was a typical confirmation:-

 

"These are the measurements on the corset you had in August 1980, so hope this is the one 28-37-36, 17 back, 14 busk, 1 hook and eye top and bottom. 10 above front, 12 above back. 8 suspenders, 6" and 5". Double bones spirals, wide steel back, shoulder straps adjustable like a suspender." 1st May 1981

 

There was no style of corset she had not made. From a cinching six inch deep waspie to the elegance of the high-waisted knee length mannequin trainer. Whilst at Gardnerís she had made corselettes, but was never satisfied with what she achieved that, once running her own business, she would try not to make them. She preferred to take dimensions off an existing one and replicate and even improve upon the fit it offered in the new pair she made.

 

 

2.3  ADVICE ON FABRICS

 

Often enthusiastic customers would bring material for facing of corsets. Many of the materials were not suitable for the rigours to which service as part of a pair of corsets would impose on them. Iris would always thoughtfully point this out. Hence she did not like to work with leatherette or silk based satin. It was far better to bow to her superior knowledge and go with the items that she held in stock.

 

She would show a number of single rolls in the drawers where they were kept. Some with silver or gold broche, the gold spot, 'regency' satin in white, cream, pink and black as well as red and black leatherette. She often worked in kid or patent leather and even bought lengths from a market stall in her town.

 

 

2.4  HER ADVICE ON BUSKS, UNDER-BUSKS AND BONES

 

In every detail of corset design, Iris would ultimately defer to an insistent customer's wishes. In the course of that conversation she would invariably tell the customer what she did in her own corsets. Busks and boning were no exceptions.

 

Selection of the correct length of busk is part of the corsetiŤreís metier and Iris knew the difference between a wedge busk, straight plate busks and how the gauge of the metal (the weight) used in the busk plates affected the performance, and that while long busks were made in lighter weights they made it harder to hook up busks with six or seven points than if heavy plates were used.

 

She recommended that an under-busk be fitted and lamented the fact that many modern busks were not made as carefully as in earlier times. The result was that without the protection of an under-busk, the wearerís skin was prone to get pinched in the gap between the two busk plates. In talking of busks Iris had her own idiom and called the hooking posts, studs or points of the busk the 'bobbles!'.

 

 

2.5  SPOON BUSKS

 

The classic 'Spoon-busked' corset

She herself was devoted to the spoon busk, which she regarded as the being basis of helping to achieve the 'tulip' shape below the waist of the larger hip spring which had been carefully cultivated with a well-shaped fluted hip corset.

 

She set her own 13 inch spoon busk, they never seemed to came in any other length, to reach three to four inches above the waist and nine to 10 inches below in her Godet L267 corset. Above and below the busk she would set hooks and eyes as required to help pull taut the upper edge and the lower skirt of the corsets.

 

However, spoon busks are not like others busks in that the base plates are made not of spring steel but of mild or stainless steel. Such steels are less flexible and have properties that allows the stamping process to give them a permanent set with convex and concave curves, yet remain reasonably flexible to conform to the wearerís form as the corset is tightened to the desired degree. The gauge number of the metal sheet from which they are cut is higher. This is done in an effort to make their ability to conform to the wearerís shape to be equivalent to the flexibility of busks made up with the heavier spring steel plates.

In service, a busk is subject to flexing stresses as the wearer bends forward or backward or even while he or she breathes. In time the repetition in mild steel leads slowly to failure rather like when a wire paper clip is repeatedly bent back and forth. Metallurgists call it 'work hardening'. Thus, the physically active women like Iris who opted for the spoon busk also break the busks more frequently than users of spring busks. As she was to write:

"I made myself a corset with the spoon busk then one side of it broke in half , so I had to take it out" Mr. G sent me one for Xmas so very likely I'll make another one for the fine weather." Jan 22, 1984.

One would think that for someone so seriously corseted that Iris eschewed physical work. On the contrary, she was quite the handyman about the house and did much of the digging in the garden and was even known to paint the outside of her window frames ,actually sitting outside the frame and lowering the upper and lower sashes in turn in order to paint them. All this was done while wearing a spoon-busked corset. It is small surprise that she broke them so regularly, perhaps as often as every six months.

 

In the mid-1980's, she was relieved to track down a source of spoon busks in Germany but in the meantime her husband managed to get one pair repaired at his work and the admirer who took her to the LGM ball found her two others while she obtained some through the good offices of Michael Garrod of True Grace Foundations. From about 1986 she and Michael were able to help one another with difficult to find spiral and flat steels and busks of various lengths. Another customer gave her two spoon busks he had been given by a German contact.

 

 

2.6  SPRING STEEL BUSKS AND UNDER-BUSKS

 

Spring steel busks were not without their breakage problems for some of Irisís customers. As anyone who has attempted it, a piece of spring steel can be bent a long way but the process of making it springy makes it brittle so that ultimately it breaks very suddenly and always without any warning.

 

It is instructive to bend forward while corseted and observe the way the busk will bend. With very little effort the middle searches for and finds a zone of lower resistance in the wearerís abdominal area so that, very quickly the busk, even with a spring steel under-busk to assist it, can almost be bent back upon itself so that its ends are only a few inches apart in a U-shape. In fact, at least two of Irisí longest standing customers were able to break their spring steel busks in this way and even if not cut were quite annoyed.

 

To redress the situation, their admiring husbands who encouraged them to maintain a small waist, solved the problem by making their own under-busks. One of them had produced a heavy curved plate for a spoon busk permanently set to conform to her corseted form, made of thick mild steel and understood to weigh close to a pound.

 

Another husband (of the midlands couple noted in section 6.2), was prompted to act when his wife was cut by the jagged edge of a broken under-busk. He made her one of mild steel an inch and a quarter wide and ⅛ inch thick and 11 inches long, with all edges careful filed round. Again he carefully bent it to assume the required body shape she had when she was fully laced in. His wife observed that the half pound plate solved the problem since using it she had never broken a busk and laughed that she had become much more ladylike in her movements, even in her physically active work as a school nurse.

 

For such customers, Iris would make up the appropriate under-busk casing as usual, but she added press-studs so that the under-busk could be taken in and out and moved from corset to corset and at the same time be prevented from sliding out. In more than 20 years of service, it remained as unyielding as the first day it was used, almost up to the moment of the customersí untimely death.

 

 

2.7  ON THE AVAILABILITY OF BUSKS

 

The availability of busks of any length became progressively difficult and when the makers shut down, a serious personal concern of Iris was the availability of her preferred spoon busks. She even wrote to customers on other continents or countries to inquire of they were available there. With spring steel busks she wrote:

 

 "I got six 13- inch busks off Mr. Gardner for you as you canít get long ones anywhere else. I think you will have to have a lace (and eyelets) at the bottom of the corset, as I can't put in the hooks and eyes or it would mean me going up to London and using Mr. Gardner's machines. I don't think he is going to part with the machines. I know somebody else who does the eyelets for me", 25 August 1981

 

She lamented the reduced quality of busks made in the 1980's and her concern ran to lack of rigidity and the idea of equal spacing, rather than the two studs about an inch apart at the bottom, which as every one who had used them in their corsets will know greatly facilitates in achieving that all too difficult hooking them closed when first fitted.

 

"The (16 inch ) busk M has sent is only a light-weight one, not so strong as the one you've got. I don't know if they make that length now in that weight, only the 14". I don't want any of those 16" busks as the bit where it tucks under isn't a very a good thing and I think as they are a light weight one, also they are a bit long for me. I still have couple of the old ones I bought off Voller a long while ago, but he hasn't any more heavy ones now." Sept. 27, 1992.

 

"I'm writing to ask you if by any chance you can get me some of them 15" busks you got me, as M says he cannot get any more as he as not heard from that chap in Germany. I wonder if you will have any luck. I don't like to bother you but I may want a couple if possible." 11 June 1995.

 

 

2.8  ADVICE ON THE BONING OF CORSETS

 

As to the weight of a corset, Iris claimed not to like a heavy corset and favoured single wide spiral boning. If only light-weight boning was available then she would double her bones. She did not like Nuli bones. Faced with requests for particular combinations of boning she would as likely respond "It'll be very heavy with that you know." She was always concerned to point out if a customerís choice would mean a heavier corset than she herself judged best.

 

When discussing the efficacy of flat or spiral steels, she would advise a customer that she can do whatever they favour, except she liked spiral steels in the sides and flat steels at the back.

 

In the face of over ambitious customers wanting flat steel boning, she would say that she knew who had told them that and, while some people might swear that flats all round were best, she was loyal to the old corsetiŤres dictum "flat steels front and back but spirals in the sides". She thought that while some people would insist on flat steels they only wore the the corsets sometimes. She thought spirals were enough if a corset was worn from early morning to late at night as she did.

 

As such, she never made orthopaedic corsets, but would often say that regular corset wearing by ladies or gentlemen could alleviate or prevent the onset of chronic back pain without the discomfort and loss of mobility of the orthopaedic styles. She was also of the opinion that back trouble had become more common since women stopped wearing boned corsets and could be cured in many people if they wore them again.

 

On the matter of back steels she would again say it was what a customer wanted, but readily related her own experience. She had always used only spirals until in the mid-1970s when she suffered from persistent back trouble and eventually fitted two heavy spring steels on each side of the eyelets. That quickly cured the problem and she had fitted them ever since. "It stops you slouching as you get older" she'd say. No truer words could have been spoken since to sit with Iris while one consumed the tea and sandwiches she had prepared was to see what correct corseting does for the wearer's posture. She would sit at the table on her preferred upright carving chair, the type with side arms much favoured by tight lacers. Her right arm folded below her fulsome bosom and the faint but clear sound of her busk creaking in response to her breathing.

 

 

2.9   HER ADVICE ON SUSPENDERS

 

She was of the opinion that although boned, corsets, like their junior sister the girdle, fit more comfortably if worn with suspenders anchored to stockings to pull the hem and corsetís skirt smoother than the boning alone could ever achieve. In this she would no doubt have agree with the comments on suspenders in 'A Harmony in Dress' [2], that on page 20 says:

 

"They are really needed to hold the corset down in order to avoid the formation of a ridge at the lower edge."

 

Given the dictum that the customer is always right, she would provide suspenders in the number, elastic strength and length requested. While her own preference was for three pairs of suspenders, the back pair of which were always clipped to the seams of her stocking tops. That pair were positioned on the corset 's hem so that, when tensioned, the pull would keep the seam on the correct lines on her legs, even though it meant sometimes sitting on a suspender clip. Her front pair was sewn as classically close to the inside of the leg as the width of a spoon busk will allow. Mid-way between the other pairs were the side suspenders. The strap lengths were graduated, with standard 4Ĺ inch straps at front and sides with the back suspenders comfortably longer so that the elastic did not become too strained when sitting. A customer commented:-

   

"Mother had always used 10, and sometimes as many 12, suspenders on her corsets" and who herself said "I still prefer 10 suspenders, even if they are more trouble."

 

The following comment is typical of her concern if she could not meet the customer's wishes:-

"For the suspenders I think you may have to have plastic ones. I could get you some ĺ inch pink ones off Mr. Gardner as he plenty of those, but no black, as they don't make the sort that you like." 25 August 1981

She used white elastic for her own suspenders, and would say that suspenders should really be in white or pink elastic if the customer wanted them to last, but admitted that they would look silly with a black corset. She believed the chemical effect of black dye resulted in more rapid breakdown of black suspender elastic. Likewise she knew the grades of elasticity of the suspender strap elastic and would use stronger grade for back suspenders. As is traditional with proper corsets, unless otherwise requested she used standard 1⅛-inch width elastic for suspenders. The more fashionable narrow ĺ-inch elastic was of course available. On the matter of elastic width, she would implicitly betray her preference for wide suspender elastic by saying of a customer:-

 

"Its funny, but Mrs. R. prefers the narrow elastics, you know."

 

On number of pairs:

"You know that Mrs M she got me to put seven pairs on her last corsets, I think she has to do that because her husband wants it. I know you like more but I find threeís enough."

She was always happy to discuss the trials and tribulations of suspenders. At one appointment, in response to the usual salutations, she remarked that she was much irritated by the fact that she was having difficulty "keeping my stockings on my suspenders." She thought it was the shininess of the nylon, and in typically practical fashion, she eventually solved her problem temporarily by screwing up tissue paper to bulk out the knobs. Later she was to crimp the metal clip to increase friction between the stocking shrouded button and the metal.

Proper suspenders and the ones that could let go in embarrassing moments!

 

On the suggestion that she should consider using more suspenders she was clearly set in her ways and relied on three pairs, and despite her fine hip spring did not personally subscribe to the observation on page 21 of 'Harmony in Dress', that states:-

 

"For women who are very stout or have full hip figures, eight supporters are sometimes used."

 

Writing to a correspondent in May 1983 in regard to her problem of slipping clips she said:-

 

"I don't think Iíll have extra suspenders as I sometimes sit on the ones I've got at the back."

 

Her concern about slipped suspenders became noticeable during a fitting session, when she give an extra push to the button in the clip and remarked that one had to be sure to push the buttons properly.

 

When suspenders ends again became in short supply in the 1990's, she wrote on 13th Oct 1993

 

        "I've got some of those ends if you want but they are off old braces." and on July 30, 1994

 

        "The chap in Kent sent you some ends for your suspenders I'll keep them till you come with the other."

 

 

2.10  HER ADVICE ON CORSELETTES

 

She did not like making corselettes because of the problem of fitting the bra. Lady customers tried to prevail on her to make them a corselette, only to get the curt response. "I never do corselettes." Pressed for an explanation, she would explain that she found that there was too much guesswork because she could not estimate how much a wearers bust size would change when their corsets were tightened, and flesh or fat was relocated. That might need as many as three alterations to get it right which was too time consuming and was not satisfying work.

 

At this point she would counsel that they do as she did and to lace on the corsets and to shop for a long line bra while laced in the desired amount. The request to make a bra was met with the same curt refusal by someone who would only counsel the customer to do as the corsetiŤre did. She was on record as saying:-

 

"I don't really like making corselettes; I prefer to stick to the corsets I made at Gardnerís as these can be very awkward with different cup sizes which I'm not very good at..... I get a few orders (for ordinary corsets) here and there and they keep my head above water, that's all I really want. I now have six to make. I donít mind) making them (padded corselettes) for men to dress up so long as I get the right size." Nov 27 1983.

 

This simply meant that with a male customer who wanted a corselette, she could simply form false cups on the outside of a high top corset, which for her was relatively easy work.

 

On 8th Jan 1985 she wrote:-

 

"I don't mid doing corselettes like I used to do at Gardnerís, (for men) but I don't like the bras on their own as it's hard to get nylon elastic for them unless you buy lots, so I'd sooner not do them."

 

Like many women who wear corsets, Iris agreed with a 17-inch waisted customer from Birmingham, see section 6.2, who said simply "I wear corsets because I abhor bulges." She found that the combination of the strong elastic and boning of her bra and the upper part of her Godet corset gave her the reassurance she wanted, and allowed her to wear the close cut bodice type blouses and dresses she favoured, even for every day wear. Of another small-waisted customer she wrote:-

 

"That E -- is very slim. He has got her that way, she never was when I first saw her a few years ago. Itís the high heels that make you look thinner."

 

 

2.11  LONG LINE OR MANNEQUIN CORSETS

 

No account would be complete without a note on the long line, or mannequin corsets, which Iris learned to make at Gardnerís, though the style was never featured in their catalogue.

Most of her customers had one or two of these in their wardrobe and usually took them to be fitted at corset soirees. One of her extrovert customers, Mrs B, told how her husband laced her into one at home and how hard it was to slide, almost horizontally in fact, into and out of the back seat of the car and to stay reclined on the trip!

 

In the images of note, the rear view of the light coloured one shows the improvised arrangement of the back suspenders to deal with too short a gap between corset hem and the top edge of the stockings. On this point, both Iris and other corsetiŤres recommended that Mannequin Corset wearers who wished to wear stockings as well, should wear a separate deep-boned suspender belt under the corset. Iris made such belts bespoke to suit ladies or gentlemen.

 

The front views clearly shows the eyelets of the front lacing section below the busk, before the lace is threaded. As you see in this case, the model has her stockings clipped to a separate suspender belt worn underneath.

 

 

continued...