IRIS NORRIS

1921-2000

 

 

CORSETI»RE EXTRAORDINAIRE

 

An appreciation of her life and work

 

 

 

 

INTRODUCTION

1: THE LONG JOURNEY TO INDEPENDENCE

2  THE INDEPENDENT CORSETI»RE

3.  FITTING CORSETS

4.  IN THE MACHINING ROOM

5.  HER LIKES AND DISLIKES

6  CUSTOMERS

7  FRIENDS, ACQUAINTANCES AND PARTIES

 

Appendix I:  Video Clip and Measuring Customers

Appendix II:  Fluting Designs

Appendix III:  A completely revised version of the Iris Norris Text by Roger K.  

(Large file - opens in MSWord)

Appendix IV: Photographs and Letters

 

 

 

 

 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

At the age of 78, Iris Norris is dead. The corsetiŤre to committed tight-lacers all over the world for more than 50 years, is no more. Yet her spirit and understanding will live on her wonderful creations of broche, busk and bone that her grieving customers will lace on with gratitude in the years to come. No doubt each one will pause while they slot their busks, pull in the stay lacings or clip their suspenders onto their stockings to mourn and remember her as not just a skilful corsetiŤre, but as a dedicated tight-lacing woman, and their confidante or friend.

 

In her later years she became a corsetiŤre in her own right, and was known wherever tight lacers met as one of the finest practitioners of the art and craft of bespoke corset making in the last 30 years of the Twentieth Century. It is ironic someone schooled in what were essentially Victorian arts should die within months of the third millennium.

 

She enjoyed the conversations she had with her clients at appointments for measuring or fitting and, on the occasions when she attended the Bals de Les Gracieuses Modernes between 1985 and 1999. Most of these people would attest, if called on to say so, that without exaggeration, apart from her family, which always came first, the making and wearing of corsets were her life. Iris had made corsets for some of these customers for over 30 years, from 1962 right up to her demise. Not only were they customers, but after she set up alone, many became her friends.

 

The first draft of this appreciation was originally penned by one of her customers shortly after her death. This text is based on that draft which has been expanded, amended and corrected because close to 100 letters (60 written by Iris and the rest by other customers between 1981 and 1995) were recently rediscovered. Including the Gardner years and over a period of 24 years, the author was privileged to have had some 40 fitting appointments with her and to have been assisted with the lacing in of corsets perhaps 70 or 80 times.

 

The account is structured in seven parts, beginning with a short review of her life, the journey to independence, and what life was like as an independent corsetiŤre. It then goes on to record her skill, first in fitting corsets and then in the machining room. The next part writes of her likes and dislikes, her customers and finally there are some stories about her life with the friends and acquaintances she met through her work as a corsetiŤre.

 

Iris began her machining career making ordinary corsets for ordinary people, but every corsetiŤre had customers who sought the 'out of the ordinary', and Gardnerís was no exception. By the end of her career Iris had a clientele that included demanding tight lacers. For Ethel Granger, Cathy Jung. and others, she made wonderful tiny-waisted corsets with the so-hard-to-perfect fluted panels that are so essential to accommodate  comfortably any hip spring of more than 12 inches, let alone the amazing 26 inches in one case. The secret of her success was her advice being based on practical experience. She practised what she preached.


 

 

 

1: THE LONG JOURNEY TO INDEPENDENCE

 

1.1  LIFE AT GARDNERíS

 

Iris Norris began her long career as a corset maker during the War war as a machinist for the busy bespoke corset makers A Gardner and Sons (Corsets) Ltd of Barnsbury Square, Islington, in 1941.

 

She would talk fondly of her days at Gardnerís, and much of what is written in Ivy Leafís section on 'Gardnerís and Iris Norris', was related by her to Frangard.

 

To write any more of her times there would be to duplicate what is said in that section of Ivy Leafís site. Although young enough to be Alice Gardnerís granddaughter, she clearly had been very fond of the old lady whom she knew for more than 20 years. Likewise she appreciated Arthur Gardnerís skills. With Frank Gardner, who was her contemporary, the relationship was different and more formal.

   

 

1.2  FAMILY

 

She had raised her own family and, in the early years, especially during clothes rationing, sewed many of their clothes and continued to make her own clothes, skirts, dresses and frocks, for the rest of her life. This was necessary because her clothes had to be shaped to accommodate her hip spring properly and of course they were cut to emphasise her waist. Not unnaturally, many were cut so that she had to tight-lace to be able to close the waistband when wearing them.

 

She enjoyed her annual holiday, especially when her daughter and family moved away from London, first to Dorset and then to one of the Channel ports according to demands of her son-in-lawís work with a financial institution. Not being a car driver, she relied on her husband driving to visit them since train journeys were irksome. Yet the introduction of cross London trains in the late 1980s pleased her very much because she could travel directly from Bletchley to the Channel coast all on the same train, probably unaware that in doing so, she was actually to pass within yards of her old work place at Gardnerís in Barnsbury Square.

 

Her son and daughter-in-law lived in St Albans and it was their granddaughter ZoŽ who was taught by her grandmother and who is in business as a corsetiŤre today.

   

1.3  A PROUD WOMAN

 

One way to understand Irisís personal pride in her appearance is to realise that in the harsh post war years, while still in her twenties with young children and limited means, Iris had been very impressed by the elegance of sharply nipped waists, flowing skirts, seamed stockings and suede high heels that were all so much part of Diorís 'New Look' in 1947. Such fashions were only available to wealthier people that could afford to buy clothes during rationing. Then in some nostalgic way, and as if she could freeze time to make up for what she had missed, she subconsciously tried to dress as much like that as she could for the rest of her life, and she did it with poise and confidence.

 

One customer recalled going with her one cold winterís day to a pub by the Grand Union canal at Bragenham, near her home. She wore a fur coat, but kept on her ankle length boots. Conscious of the effect she knew her waist would have, she took off her coat on entering. One of the party carried it for her to the table and recollectst that the combination of her figure, deportment and straight seams of her obviously real stockings turned heads.

Iris (1960's) poses for the camera in a way that would become famous on the cover of the "Corset Question".

In business, Iris was not tolerant of arrogance which she described as 'pushy'. However she had a great empathy for the sincere and those with a quiet disposition regardless of class. Many of her customers became her friends though she still called those she regarded as her social superiors as "Mr. A or Mrs. B."

 

She had native intelligence far beyond the level of her formal education, having left school at the end of the depression to become a machinist in a clothing factory, sewing dresses. Her years at Gardnerís had made her into a good all around businesswoman. She was scrupulously fair, and if any criticism could be made, she was too generous. She had strong views on the direction in which British society was moving and was, if anything, a working class conservative

 

John, her husband, was four years older and born 1917. He worked in a paint business three and sometimes four days a week. She referred to John in cockney parlance as "My Chap", causing more than one customer to think she was a widow and that he was her lodger!

 

One would expect someone from her background to have been at least mildly censorious of men who wore any item of what society regarded as women's clothing, but she was not. Over the years she came to know many such gentlemen customers and would say that what they did in private was their own business. She did however remain somewhat critical of the increasingly brash attitude of real transvestites after the onset of more liberated times in the mid-1980s.

 

However, it was clear that she usually liked a man more if, like his wife, he wore corsets. On reflection it is also clear that she especially liked those men who also wore suspenders and stockings with their corsets. As noted, she was proud of her waist and figure and she freely admitted that she liked to feel tightly corseted and to wear seamed stockings. She thought that men might like the feeling too. She would no doubt have agreed with the following three sentences contained in a response by Simon when asked: "Is your fascination for corsetry based on tightness or material?"  

 

  "I think the derivation of pleasure comes from the rigidity of the corsets, and that firm reassurance that at every move one makes, the stiffness never goes away."  

 

  "...similarly the tightness, providing you have not laced in too tightly, though ever present, becomes natural and you just donít think about it."

 

  "I have never been able to ignore, nor wanted to, the lovely stiffness of a very firmly stayed pair of corsets, they talk to you at every step, and it is an ever present sensation, to me totally enjoyable and exciting. I suppose that wearing corsets is a total package of many parts, all of which contribute to oneís enjoyment and satisfaction. As I have said, it is the control of the boning that is the most important single attribute to me."

 

Yet this feeling of pride was not shared by her spouse. In response to an observation that he was lucky to have such an attractive woman as his wife she wrote:

 

"I don't think he thinks he is lucky to have me. If you told him he very likely would not make any comment. I don't think he worries as long as he had got his food and the house is clean. He just sits and worries about himself. I think I could not tell you how he is as he never says. I just have to go by the way he carries on. He goes to work Monday and Tuesday but nothing more, otherwise he sits and looks at the telly or reads." (19 Feb 1987)

 

Whilst Iris Norris was proud of her figure and deportment, the realisation in her mid-40s that she was hard-of-hearing, while not causing despair, bothered her very much. She knew that to continue in work she would have to resort to a hearing appliance and was not pleased. She knew that the hard-of-hearing are often the butt of jokes. She knew that most of them were readily identifiable as they had to wear the earphone and the bulky amplifier/battery unit available on the National Health Service. The less visible behind the ear types were not common at the time and had to be purchased privately. Micro-aids had not been invented.

 

As a corset wearer she was aware of another problem that made her feel uneasy. One of one of her more elderly lady customers, who was deaf, once complained that her aid even amplified the creak of her bask, with every breath. Iris always remembered this and not only did she not want people to know of her affliction, she certainly did not want to hear her busk creaking. The answer was the style, which fitted into spectacles, which she had recently begun wearing for close work such as machining and reading. The price was high but Iris wanted the style, paid for it out of savings, was satisfied with it and wore the style for the last 30 years of her life.

 

Few of her customers were ever aware of her problem, which in characteristic fashion she bore with grace and equanimity. Yet, in retrospect, former customers might now understand the reason for the very loud ring of the bell at 28, Barnsbury Square that she could hear from the basement where she worked in the last years at Gardnerís. Likewise they would understand the real reason behind her request to go to the side door of her home "because I can't always hear the front door bell". That door was by her sewing machine where as often as not she could be found at work and see the customer approach.

 

In general conversation during appointments with the customers with whom she had good relationships, she would talk frankly about her hearing aid problems. One of her regular complaints in later years was the price of replacements. Likewise the rates charged by the few remaining personnel who could to service the style, though in the mid-1900s she talked happily of having found a technician who could service them more economically.

 

Despite all this she could be self-deprecating, writing on 27 Oct 1988 "Mr. C 'phoned on Monday to have a chat but I think sometimes he's harder of hearing than me he never seems to understand what I say, so I give up!"

 

 

1.4  A WOMAN OF DISCRETION

 

Iris Norris was essentially a private person. She was no gossip. She had all the discretion expected of someone who ministered to customers of every possible taste and reason for wearing corsets. However, let it be said that while she would, if asked, make such items as posture collars, she tried only to make corsets. Her attitude might be summed up in this written note to a customer:

 

"No, I didn't know a Mrs. Butler. You want to be careful what you say to the Ms otherwise it may travel; also that Mr. H he's the same. Don't tell them any think; they are too nosey. I should not give any address away as he (Mr. H ) is always asking me. I should write to Mrs. R first to see if she wants to write to him. I don't really want to write to anybody just for the sake of writing as you say they're nosey. I don't mind writing to you that's about all and if any body wants a corset."

 

A review of the correspondence over 15 years shows that from November 1980 until April 1983, she signed herself as 'Mrs. Iris Norris' then 'Iris Norris'. until July 1983, then simply Iris.

 

 

1.5  THE 1970's -MOVING OUT OF LONDON

 

On the domestic side of Iris Norris's life, she had seen a son and daughter marry and grandchildren appear. But now Iris and John were in today's terms 'empty nesters'. This coincided with the time of redevelopment of the part of Islington where they lived. Growing up in the depression and raising her family in the post war era of rationing, Iris and John had saved little and lived in rented accommodation in Islington. Her dream was to own their own home. As her brother and sister-in-law had done a year or two earlier, they took advantage of the London resettlement scheme which meant that qualified persons could take advantage of preferential rates for mortgages if they moved to a 'New Town', the last of these designated in Britain was Milton Keynes some 60 miles from London on the Birmingham line. Its boundaries took in Bletchley, Old and Far Bletchley which had a stock of Victorian and Edwardian houses not too far from Bletchley railway station.

 

In keeping with their roots, in the early 1970s, they chose to move, not into a new house but to one of Edwardian age within the new city in nearby Old Bletchley, Bucks. None of this would ordinarily be of note except that, in deciding to buy a home for the first time, albeit with the children off their hands, Iris and John were faced with paying the mortgage and that meant them both continuing to work full time.

 

Whilst the adverts will tell you "Only half an hour from London" that is the time on the train, reality is different. It meant rising at 5 am, driving two miles in an older model Rover 2000 to the station and park, to catch an early train, three or four days a week to Euston, and even then their respective journeys weren't over. Iris took the 14 bus along Euston Road, left at King's Cross station, up Caledonian Road as far as the stop by the library at the corner of Lofting Street. From there she'd walk east up the steep hill cutting left into the former mews of Barnsbury Terrace and across the west side of the square to No 28. She had a key and would let herself in. Then she'd work 10 hour days and face the return trip. They would leave the house at six and be out until seven or eight in the evening. Recall that she always wore tight-laced corsets and did this journey, wasp-waisted with straight seamed stockings - a proud and elegant example to the modern generation - for close to a decade.

 

In the last few years, Iris's duties at Gardnerís had extended beyond simply machining, to taking all calling appointments at which she would give customers advice, expertly measure them or give trial or final fitting for newly made, partially complete or complete corsets. She dealt with most of the mail order side of the business that required careful record keeping, secure and discreet packing of parcelled corsets and trips to the Post Office. She met with sales representatives to ensure that a sufficient stock of material and findings was maintained in-house at a time when suppliers and manufacturers were closing and such things were not easy to find. In many respects she was Gardnerís in all but name, yet, was still an hourly paid employee. This breath of experience with all the contacts was to stand her in good stead after she retired.

 

 

1.6  SETTING UP THE BUSINESS AT HOME

 

Although only 60 miles from London, actually finding No. 114 Church Green Road in Milton Keynes was never easy since, until the late 1980s, Milton Keynes was expanding and new road systems were being added. Once a route was learned it seemed that new roads changed everything and a car driver would have to start again. Some customers from overseas preferred to take the train from London and then a taxi.

 

It was to be the first home the family had owned. It was a semi-detached house on three floors built with red brick, manufactured in the brickyards, which flourished in profusion in the area. It was one of the only three storey homes on the street and easily the most imposing house on Church Green Road. Although never discussed, it is almost certain that Iris Norris paid the mortgage.

 

The house had two rooms on the ground floor and, and the passage to the kitchen had been shut off to make a storage area for all the material and fitting for making corsets. So to go from breakfast room/kitchen to front door one had to pass through the dining room. The garden began at the side of the kitchen and was long and narrow, and tended by Iris. At the end was a garden shed in which, before she built the extension, she first set up her the two eyeletting machines. From the day she moved, her industrial sewing machine was housed in the kitchen. From the moment she set up independently, her kitchen served as a consulting room. These customers would be shown a seat at the table and, depending on the journey that they had made, would be offered a cup of tea, a piece of cake or sandwiches. After the extension was built, it housed her chest of drawers for her supplies and her cutting table. Setting up to make corsets was harder than she thought. Gardnerís had a machine for every conceivable activity a corset maker might perform. Cutting and sewing she could manage, as she had the patterns, but eyeletting was all but impossible without a standard machine and a mini eyeletter for securing strong hooks and eyes such as were provided on Gardnerís 'Hook-side, lace-side'í, L 227 style.

 

 

1.7  EYELETTING PROBLEMS

 

Observing a well made corset such as those produced by Gardnerís or Iris Norris, one sees that the pitch or spacing between eyelets' centres is rarely more than ĺ inch and closer on the six pairs of eyelets by the waist. Thus a 12-inch casual corset typically has 14 to 16 -pairs of eyelets and the Godet 267 has 22-26 pairs depending on the height of the wearer. Such work requires a serious eyeletting machine and in no small part was Iris's reluctance to set up alone, the fact that she didn't have machines.

 

Fortunately she found a person near her home who allowed her to use his machine to do the work she needed. However the hook and eye eyelets remained a problem. Anyone who has examined 'real corsets', knows that the type of hooks and eyes used in corsets are not bought in ready made strips from a haberdashery department. For a start they are much larger and made of a lower (thicker) gauge of wire. For attachment to the fabric they are to close, they are actually secured by two tiny metal grommets produced using a tiny specialist eyeletting machine. Thus the set of hooks and eyes does not rely on stitching, it relies on the combined strength of the facing and lining material of the corset into which the little eyelets are crimped.

   

For a year or so, she was be forced to take all the corsets that needed these eyelets to London and use Mr. Gardner's machine. In this regard, there was no doubt that after she retired, Mr. Gardner had the not unrealistic hope of finding someone to wholly or partly replace Mrs. Norris and resume business. He may have even hoped that she would come out of retirement and work for him. Thus he did not want to part with his equipment.

 

By 1983 it was clear that Iris was determined to succeed on her own. Only then did he allow her to take them on permanent loan, a fact of which she was always mindful. She set them up in the new extension she built to her house to accommodate the volume of work she had succeeded in attracting.

 

In the meantime she was faced with the problem of making lacing eyelets. One can use a hand tool and do the job individually, but the job takes so long it is impossible. A machine to hand is the only answer. As she was to write on 1st May 1981: "I have written to somebody I know who I think has an eyeletting machine to see if he will do me some eyelets. I think I will be able to get the material but if you get stuck for getting one send the pieces out of the old corset, and then I can use them if they are alright."

   

Until the extension was built she did her eyeletting in the garden shed.

 

1.8  MEETING CUSTOMERS

 

Coping with customers was not easy after her husband began part time work. Initially she tried to limit customer visits to the days on which he worked. This proved to be impractical for many, and she had to ask him to retire upstairs or go down to the shops or the New City, which he often did of his own volition if a customer called.

 

"I don't know what days my husband will be working as he's still waiting for his pension but I think it will be Monday and Thursday but will let you know for sure, but don't worry I can always ask him to go upstairs." Jan 22, 1984.

 

"My husband didn't mind you calling but don't think he will stop in when I'm doing things for you." July 8, 1984.

 

Her fitting room was her dining room and was accessed by a sliding door from the kitchen after the passage had been blocked off. When a customer was shown in, the curtains would be discreetly drawn to conceal the activities of the customer and corsetiŤre from the passers-by, who regularly used the passageway between 114 and the neighbouring house. In typically British fashion, it was a public right of way and they would pass close by the side window.

 

Lacking a key to an inside door of the fitting room cum dining room, she would discreetly angle a chair-back under the door knob to preclude her husband inadvertently disturbing her and her customer during a fitting. The room lacked proper mirrors but she had set a carefully angled mirror high over the mantlepiece to which it was possible for a customer to observe their reflection as matters proceeded. Photos of the grandchildren were always proudly displayed, on the mantlepiece.

 

In the early 1990s she became restless and missed her daughter and grandchildren and decided to move to live near them in one of the Channel ports. They went to the extent of putting the house on the market, even accepting an offer and planning the move. But it was not to be, the buyer failed to get the mortgage and the deal fell through. Such plans strain relationships and led them to think hard. They withdrew the house and she and John were destined to end their days in Bletchley where she died in April 2000. Iris was disappointed but compared to what she faced in the war and in childhood it was nothing and she carried as usual.

   

1.9  THE ANXIETY OF RETIREMENT

 

Iris finally retired at early 1981 at the age of 59. Before she gave in to her imploring former customers, Iris had high hopes of finding work locally, but unlike today, part-time for older people was not common. On 1st May 1981, she wrote:

 

"I haven't got a job yet but hoping to get a part time one if I can. It's nice not to have two hours journey night and morning but I always seem to find plenty to do in the home, cheerio for now"

 

John continued his work in London with a paint manufacturer and was coming close to retirement with the loss of income that full time work provides. These were the concerns she had:

 

"My husband is going on to a two day week after Xmas as the firm is putting him off. I think its because he's getting older. He was 67 in October its one way of making him retire." 3 Nov 1983.

 

"When my husband packs up work and gets his pension, I also will get a little bit, so don't suppose it will be that bad and if I've got my odd jobs to do." Nov 27, 1983.

 

"My husband retires on May 5 and will do two days, Monday and Wednesday but itís alright to come when you wish.". April 15, 1984.

 

 

1.10  CONTACTS

 

As noted in subsequent sections, Iris had customers all over the world. Sadly despite efforts made on her behalf with companies in North America, she did not retain any of the customers who had patronized Gardnerís. In compensation she did gain the business of a well regarded firm in the UK for whom she made off-the-shelf corsets for about 10 years.

 

 

1.11  SUCCESS

 

Clients, were originally, totally sourced by word-of-mouth, but latterly she accepted having her name published in the directory of several magazines catering to interests that appreciate the wearing of corsets. In practice, few orders materialised as the potential buyers were more interested in the image of the corset than in the intrinsic pleasure of wearing a bespoke garment. Attendance at the LGM Bals (Chapter 7) helped too.

 

By October 1988 her business had expanded to the point where she was doing much more writing, even investing in a rubber stamp to give her name and address. She corresponded with customers all over the world, and it is noticeable how much more articulate her letters became over the years.

 

With the help of a customer she produced her own typed catalogue, which included the former Gardnerís range as well as new leaflets describing other styles. A group comprised of corset wearing individuals circulated her details to members of the group under the name ďLa GuÍpiŤreĒ and in this way she gained a number of new customers.

 

continued ...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FLUTING DESIGNS

 

In the 1990s, my late cousin, who had been a director of the London Corset Company before it closed in the 1980s, corresponded with and met Iris Norris on numerous occasions after she retired to gain insight and practical observation of her method of fluted-panels in corsets.  Since Edwardian times, she said, this technique has almost died out.  It was their intention to issue a short training monogram on the technique but Mrs Norris became too ill and died in 2000.

 

I attach some images to illustrate the following:

 

      

The first figure shows the triangular inserts (flutes or gores or gussets) in the corset to produce a shaped waist-reduction over the hip bones without extreme curvature in the corset panels themselves.  Mrs Norris believed that the other panels in the corset should be as straight as possible to maintain their strength.  She never wanted to make a hip-spring of more than eight inches in the 'straight' panels, so that the rest of the reduction would come from flutes. The left image shows two flutes. In the middle, the picture shows the inside of the corset with the sewing of the flutes under the waistband. The pattern on the right shows the shape of the flutes she used for a particular corset.  Note that the reduction over the length of the panel was three inches (not counting the hems).  So a corset with four flutes (two each side) would show a total hip-spring of 4 x 3inches plus the 8-inch in the 'straight' panels.  That is a waist 20 inches less than the hips.

 

  

The left picture shows the inside of the finished corset.  Note that the waist band is not fixed all along its length; shown by her pen placed underneath the band. On the right is the finished corset with its satin cover also cut to show the flutes.

 

Mrs Norris used this technique on most of her tight-laced corsets.  For a greater hip-spring, she would introduce more flutes; their width and length depending on the design desired by the client. She says in one of her notes, that one corset had "...three flutes a side, with two at  three inch and the third at four inch over the hipbone itself...". In addition to her normal 8-inch reduction in the straight panels, this totals a 28-inch hip-spring. That would be worth seeing, don't you agree?

 

I wonder if that corset was designed for Cathie Jung? - Ivy