3.  FITTING CORSETS

 

 

3.1 FITTING

 

She was nothing if not formal and correct. Upon visiting for a trial fitting or to collect a new or repaired corset, one would be asked to sit down. On the desk or table would be a brown paper parcel usually about three inches wide and two inches deep and with a length a little more than that of the subject corset. “Its ready, would you like to try it on?” she would say. At this, more than one new gentleman customer would demur and would continue do so until he felt confident enough to agree.

 

Whether it was to be fitted to not, without undue ceremony, the light bowknot in the string would be pulled and the corset unwrapped. Every feature would be explained starting with the busk, followed by a description of what steels had been provided. In the days of supply difficulties she would say "I couldn't get a 11 inch busk so I've put a 10 inch wedge with a hook and eye below, if that's alright. You wanted the double spirals but there weren't enough in the three-eights so I've put a quarter and a three-eighths together." Finally she'd check if the suspenders she’d provided were right. "The back ones are on longer elastic and the sides and front are your usual," or "I know you don’t like that pink/narrow/ribbed elastic. I've got some of the belting and that’s like you showed me. I bought a roll as some others like that type too".

 

With preliminaries over, she would lead the customer into the fitting room.

 

 

3.2  FASTENING THE BUSK

Her first action in the fitting room was to open out the lacings, which she did in a tried and practised way that defies description. As every corset wearer knows, this is followed by hooking up of busk.

The genuine look of concern Iris would give on occasion, as a customer, experienced or inexperienced, would struggle to first hook the two halves of a busk was very real. She would watch as they attempted to pull the two sides of the corset together and at the same time bend the busk plates in opposite directions to push the top post or stud (bobble as Iris always called them) into the plate. Then she would take back the corset and while holding one half would manipulate the laces, allowing the force of gravity acting on the hanging half of the corset to help in opening the back lacing out a little more.

 

With that attended to, she would again watch patiently to see if the customer, who she no doubt had taught her preferred procedure of completing the task, would engage the bottom pair of studs and say such words as

 

"There, a busk gets easier with practice doesn't it, but they're all a bit different aren't they?" At which point she would ask "Are you ready to be laced in?"

 

A customer recalled the process:-

 

"I then went back in to see Mrs. Norris and said I'd had a lot of trouble fitting the busk and did she have any special way of putting on a corset that she could recommend? It was such a basic question that she couldn't answer and she had to go through the motion of putting a spare corset on over her dress and said, words to the effect "Yes I just take hold of the corset, get the top stud on and then I just pull the bottoms together till I get the studs to catch." She went though the motions of what was a conditioned reflex to her as natural as putting on ones shoes and lacing them."

 

What she actually did mirrors what is contained in the advice given in of 'Corset Fitting in the Retail Store.' In Chapter VII - Lacing the Corset:-

 

"Turn the customer to face you, and fasten the top stud. Place the back of the right hand flat against the abdomen of the customer, holding the clasp section at the bottom with the right thumb. Place the left thumb under the busk and two fingers over the top of it. Bring the clasp section forward with one firm movement, fastening the third stud. The remainder of the busk fastening will then automatically fall into position. Fasten the hooks and eyes below the busk and attach the remaining suspenders to the stockings.

 

Fuller details on fastening busk fasteners are given in Chapter X, 'Busk Front and Inner Belt Corsets' which begins with this note:-

 

"Fastening a busk; an action which must be mastered" It includes Fig. 37, the caption to which reads "The knack of doing up a busk fastening must be mastered. Study diagram and text carefully, then practise till perfect."

 

These paragraphs and diagrams is clearly shows that the top stud of say, a 12 inch busk or a spoon busk, is the key stud which when hooked causes the busk plates to form an inverted 'vee.' After the bottom ends are pulled toward one another and the higher of the bottom pair of closely placed studs (what is referred to as the third stud above) is engaged, the rest of the studs can usually be hooked without undue difficulty.

 

Iris was also most attentive if she’d fitted high-top military length corsets with a 7 point (stud), 16 inch busk. Then she advised that the key stud was not the top stud, it was either the second or third from the top, depending on which the wearer found engaged the easiest, and then proceeding as before.

 

 

3.3 LACING THE CORSETS

 

The test of the corset is how it fits one laced in. Having it done by an expert corsetičre is undoubtedly one of the most satisfying aspects of wearing such corsets. Those privileged enough to have been accepted for such service by Iris would never forget the experience. To be laced in by her was to gain an appreciation of what her understanding of 'tightness' really was. There is no doubt that she never pulled laces any harder than she thought was necessary, based on her understanding of what was right and appropriate, and gained over a lifetime of making and wearing corsets at a level of tightness that would deter many a novitiate corsetee from continuing to corset. Thus she was scrupulous in staying the ambition of over ambitious newcomers at all stages and would even disobey the customer’s wishes if she believed them to be foolish. It is to be doubted if many such customers ever complained

 

The first moments of lacing-in never ceased to surprise even a regular customer. First she preferred that the corset was fitted directly next to the skin, not over a camisole or vest. Then the high-heeled customer was invariably pulled slightly off balance backwards and had to check their balance as she started to pull in on the laces. Then she initially pulled the laces though the eyelets at such speed that as the lace passed across the customer’s skin it caused a sharp almost painful burning sensation which would almost make the customer involuntarily call out, but as the excess lacing was pulled back the speed reduced and the moment, so to speak had passed.

 

One customer noted that in what must have been as many as 70 lacings-in, never once did she resort to that image of fantasy, much loved of artists and writers, in which the fierce lacer puts his or her knee in the wearer’s back to pull the corsets closer together.

 

It would be difficult to express in words her technique, in which somehow she managed to maintain tension in the puller loops and at the same time was able to 'pluck' the crosses of lacing to effect additional closure. That must surely be the stuff of a slow motion film on the subject!

 

With an experienced customer, if she sensed that the customer was experiencing discomfort sooner than she thought was correct she would discreetly stop and on her own initiative tie a knot and suggest a cup of tea before lacing the customer tighter. It was in such moments that she confirmed to the customer what is innate property of corsets and that is they are precisely made to the 1/4 inch, saying "This is still open just over and inch. A little more and I think you should stop there," or "If you want to go any smaller you’ll have to raise your arms above your head. That's what they say is the way isn't it?"

 

After such a remarks she would chuckle, clearly enjoying the interaction between customer and corsetičre at such times. And indeed the customer would raise the arms and rapidly feel Iris exert more pull on the laces and hear her sudden exhalation after she had given her all in the final closing effort.

 

With long corsets, invariable there would be a spaghetti like mass of lacings on the floor behind the customer. It was always far too much to form a bow at the back, so she would pass the loops forward into the customers hands and wrap them around the waist until the judged there was the right amount left to form a bow, wherever it suited best be it at the front, at the back or at the side.

 

In conversation, she would point out that there is a sensible reason to discourage loose lacing since most ladies who cultivate a small waist will have had the waistband of their skirts or frocks cut to suit, and if the corsets weren’t tight, the waist couldn't be closed.

 

 

3.4 SUSPENDERING STOCKINGS

 

If stockings were worn by the customer, she preferred that the customer kept them rolled to the knees and not put them on after lacing in, and while she left a customer to prepare for lacing in might say reminding them to leave their stockings on. She had a deft and sure hand when fastening suspenders. As soon as knotting off was done she would start to do up the customer’s back suspenders. As she did so, she would make one think, if one did not know otherwise, that she imagined that sheer stockings were indestructible. She would grip a top and pull it up to its suspender with almost enough force to unbalance a customer in the high heels most women wore at fittings, at her suggestion.

 

If a customer used more than her suggested three pairs of suspenders she would wonder out loud at how they managed them alone and joke that she’d get confused, and again introduce a light-hearted note to the proceedings at hand. When all were attached, and customers often did up the front ones while she attended to the back pair or pairs, she would again commence to shorten the elastic with a sharp hard pull to a degree of tension which she clearly thought necessary. In comparing notes customers even remarked that on occasion they had really felt they were going to disappear into the stocking, which felt as it would be up over them. Each shortening action would end with the sound and sensation of the teeth of each regulator in turn was folded into position on the suspender elastic.

 

At such times she was known to air her views on the life of suspender elastic and comment that black dye especially shortened the life a lot. When all was complete she made a point of standing back and asking the customer to turn around. Ever the professional she would remark that the corset looked very good or that they were a nice set of suspenders. That said, she did observe that it wasn’t so much of a problem for a woman but did believe that the small waist was the only way one should be able to tell that a woman wore corsets.

 

With gentlemen customers who were concerned with the top edge of the corset showed though a shirt, she would patiently wait while they redressed and would look them up and down with her critical professional eye and usually would reassure them. She was patience itself with nervous customers, typically a gentleman with a barrel chest, that she was known to alter the top edge as many as three times to get things right.

 

Mrs. Norris never advised wearing the newly fitted corset for the journey home. She knew all her customers were well capable of self-lacing themselves back into the corset they had arrived in, but she was always politely insistent and would lace them back into the original corset. It should also be emphasized that at all times, even when a relationship had evolved into friendship, in the fitting room her attitude was as formal and professional as the first time they had met.

 


4.  IN THE MACHINING ROOM

 

4.1  CORSETS OF EVERY KIND

 

First and foremost, Iris loved her sewing machine. She was at heart a machinist. Indeed, apart from the bespoke work she really enjoyed, she still spent most of her time producing off-the-shelf corsets in various waist sizes en masse; individually sewn but en masse. If she wasn’t making corsets, she would be doing what is known in the 'rag-trade' as 'outwork'. She would cut out and sew up women's dresses by the dozen destined for sale in a chain store specialising in outsize clothes. Such work always had tight deadline but such was her speed of working that they were always ready when the customer called. One customer recalled that Mrs. Norris said she could not only see her that day and measure her, but could make the corset for collection the next day!

 

For the last few years at Gardner’s, Iris became acquainted with all aspects of corsetry. In addition to machining and sewing, she could do the cutting out, either bespoke or in bulk, and she could sew in any material from the finest broches to utilitarian twill, leather and leatherette. She could fit busks of all lengths and type, make corsets of every kind including under-belts for those needing them.

 

She made deep, boned suspender belts and could make suspenders of all types; sewn on, detachable or trolleyed together with an under-belted corset. To watch Iris Norris work at any aspect of corset making was to watch a professional. To see her run the machine down the seam between corset panels, with her fingers deftly altering the run of the seam to accommodate the changes of direction between top and bottom of the panels was to marvel at an expert seamstress.

 

 

4.2  ADDING THE BONING

 

When it came to inserting flat or spiral steels between the facing and lining, she used a specially designed push in tool. This comprised a long solid piece of wood which appeared to be cut from the old-fashioned kitchen utensil tool to mash potatoes. At its end was a narrow slot half an inch deep into which could be located the bone to be inserted. First the bone would be pushed as far as it could by hand. When resistance was met the tool was engaged with the bone and, while stopping the bone from bending, it would be pushed right into position in the corset panel. When the requisite bones were all inserted, the bones would be individually sewn in place.

 

Her attention to detail with needle and thread when sewing a busk in place showed that whilst the machine was quicker, she could always resort to hand sewing if necessary.

 

Anyone who has made up a suspender from its parts will know how easy it is to reverse one item or another. Not Iris Norris; she had done it hundred and thousands of times. She could make up suspenders six at a time. To watch the skill in sewing suspenders onto a corset hem was equally amazing. She would double fold the elastic and sew though as many as six or seven layers of material and would turn the work to double and redoubling the stitching to ensure a secure item.

 

Likewise, what kind of a mess does the average person make in threading a replacement stay-lace through the eyelets. Of course it helps to have a tailors' chalk at hand to make the eyelets where the puller loops are formed, but to see Iris at work, almost always threading laces which lacked the end tags was amazing. Likewise, the skill of opening out a corset ready to be clasped around a customer formed part and parcel of the service and skills a proper corsetičre brought to the business.

 

 

4.3 SPECIAL SKILLS - FLUTED HIP CORSETS

 

IRIS Norris was one of the last corsetičres of her era who were able to make corsets with fluted hips for large hi-springs. It is not surprising that lady customers with 20 inch plus hip-springs remained faithful customers, or that Cathy Jung made a repeat order within days of accepting her first corset from Iris. While she would never aspire to produce a corset with the degree of glamour evident on many that Kathy laced on, there was no doubt about the fit and their ability to comfortably reduce and maintain a 15-inch waist.

 

She could also work in leather, but as noted on June 18, 1992, "The leather will be a bit of a job (to purchase) especially if it's got to be long. Mr. Gardner used to have a job getting long ones and they're not very cheap so I think we ought to skip that. I don't mind leatherette you can buy that by the yard."

 

4.4  REPAIRS AND ALTERATIONS

 

Iris, like Gardner’s, was always popular with customers unskilled at sewing because they were ready to do even small repairs and alterations. However Iris was always keen to say, that while any corset can always be made smaller, they cannot be made bigger and that, while it was possible to do so, it was cheaper and wiser to get a new corset that was cut to the right size. This is a direct quote written by someone who has taken their corset for alteration.

 

"What happened then really amazed me. Mrs. Norris took a safety razor blade, the one-sided type set in a tiny chrome holder, and proceeded to quickly cut the stitching on the hem of the corset at the top and at the bottom. She did the same with several of the panels and exposed the white lining. I was horrified by the amount of work she had undone in about a minute. She then cut pieces off several of the panels, and in next to no time began to sew it up on an automatic sewing machine that sewed a panel length in literally five seconds or less. In no time the panels were re-stitched and she then began to sew up the elastic edge trim of the top and bottom. In about five minutes flat, she had opened, altered and sewn up the corset as it was before ready to be tried on again. The improvement in fit was amazing."

Iris hard at work in the 1980's

 

She understood that all corsets needed running repairs as lacing grommets pulled out, suspender elastics frayed and stretched beyond serviceability. She would happily sell, at cost, any a length of elastic or lacing, and if she was reassured that a customer could use a hand eyeletter, she would give them a small number of eyelets and reinforcing rings. As one customer recalls:-

 

"On the subject of eyelets she was willing to give them me but said that they needed a machine to fix, and that the silver steel ones were harder than the brass to fix. I said that I had a hand tool that worked and she was pleased but surprised and gave me a whole lot of them of both types. She also said that it was best to glue patches on leatherette which did rip easily and gave me a piece. When I said that I found that it was much easier to lace up an old corset, she explained that it was

because both the lace and the eyelets get a shine when you’ve worn them a bit."

 

For bones that had punched though the lining she would often add bone casing or plush ribbon as strapping over the bones full length.

 

 

4.5  ATTENTION TO DETAIL

 

Among the special details she was known to provide for individual customers were the following that she had learned while at Gardner’s, and to which the reader is referred for fuller details.

 

-Closer pitch for eyelets near the waist where the eyelet pitch is reduced from 3/4 inch to close to half an inch for the three pairs of eyelets on either side of the waist line which was defined of course by the mandatory tape reinforcement.

 

-Use of buckles and non-stretch, never elastic webbing, petersham or ribbon for shoulder straps of high top corsets.

 

-Provision of split rings instead of the more usual 'bra-type' hooks to proof detachable suspenders against pulling off at the inevitably most embarrassing moment.

 

-Elastic 'vee' chest gussets to allow the wearer to breathe more deeply if required in high-top military style corsets.

 

-While she would fit inverted 'vee' elastic gussets on the front of the hips, she believed the bottom of a corset should be cut to fit without such a need.

 

-Use six panel designs, five for longer corsets.

 

-All lacing eyelets were fitted with brass reinforcing rings on the outside, a decision she made soon after setting up alone.

 

-All corsets are interlined to give the 'weight' and strength that tight-lacers appreciate, and which readily distinguishes the real bespoke corset from imitations.

 

 

4.6  THE SEWING TEACHER

 

She was generous with her advice, even to those who others would perceive to be rivals. In point of fact she knew that others could not match what she did and make money doing it because they lacked the essential machining skill to sew up the panels and layers quickly. Even more tricky was inserting the busk and hand sewing the materials around the protruding pieces of metal, studs and hooking plates.

 

Because of the many layers to be sewn though to form seams, an industrial strength sewing machine was mandatory. Such a machine was reliable, and needles didn’t break frequently. It could be done with a domestic machine but it would take a long time and this is not appreciated by would be corset makers. Furthermore, seams form the weak points when the corset is tightened every day

 

Once a rival did purchase the necessary machine which proved harder to use and taught a salutary lesson.

 

"Mr. A came to see me the other week to ask me about his new machine as it wasn't working right." Oct 7, 1986

 

"I don't think that Mr. A knows a lot about corsets only what he's learnt himself."

 

"I don't really know how Mr. A's corsets hold together. I should think one hard pull and they would come to bits."  8 Jan 1985.

 

Of one of her lady customers who thought to make corsets, having had success sewing tent repairs for a youth group:-

 

"I could not imagine (her) making corsets. She mentioned it to me once but she did not seem all that interested", April 15, 1984

 

 

4. 7  ADVICE ON LAUNDERING AND DRYING OF CORSETS
The following summarises how Iris laundered her own corsets:
1       Leave lacing in.
2       Make sure the length adjuster flaps of all suspenders are opened and pull away from stocking clips.
3       Immerse all of the corset in water for a few minutes.
4       Wash by hand in warm water.
5       Lightly scrub with a soft nail brush as required.
6       Squeeze out as much water as possible by hand - DON'T WRING.
7       Lay out on a new dry towel and roll both corset and towel tight for about half an hour to remove moisture.
8       Repeat if necessary.
9       Lay out on a new dry towel and roll both corset and towel around a hot towel rail.
10     Check periodically and change towel as necessary till dry. (Depending on the heat in rail, it should never take more than a day).
11     If desired, iron out wrinkles.
12     Roll up until needed.
 
 
 
 

5.  HER LIKES AND DISLIKES

   

 

5.1  IRIS'S OWN CORSETS

 

She was proud of her corsets. "I'll have to show you my new ones" she would say; “I've just made myself one”. She would retire upstairs and reappear holding the white cylinder of rolled corset with the chrome suspenders glinting and jangling on their pure white straps. She would open out the roll proudly showing a the wonderful spoon busk, and the "Godet" cut, with single spiral steels.

 

At all times Iris wore a "Godet" corset, also sold as style "Jean" by Fanny Copčre. Hers were 17 inches long. Five inches above the waist and 12 inches below, a length that fully contained her ample hips and derriere yet allowed her to sit comfortably at her machine. The top came close up under her bosom so as to be overlapped as far as the waist by the lower elastic of her long line bra.

 

5.2  A FINE FIGURE

 

Customers, both female and male, would speak of how much they felt inspired in their own commitment to corseting just to see Iris's figure and deportment. In a phrase, she lifted the heart of every admirer of the well corseted figure. As one lady said, not long after she had given up wearing seamed stockings because they were becoming hard to find, she had visited Iris for a fitting, and seeing Iris’s figure, her shapely legs and seamed stockings made her resolve to emulate her. The question was posed and Iris gave her the names of several nearby stores where she bought seamed stockings and another person returned to the elegance of the cinched waist, seamed stocking and point heel.

 

Another customer said that any doubts about continuing to tight-lace melted away when was greeted by Iris when arriving for a fitting. Just to sit there knowing she probably more tightly corseted than the customer could ever be and to know, that she owed the straight seams of her dark brown seamed fully fashioned stockings to being pulled up by a set of suspenders that were so tight that the customer would be complaining about them all the time, actually inspired them to do the same.

In response to a comment that being corseted and suspendered lifted the spirits Iris concurred. She would no doubt have agreed with Isobel’s observation to Ivy Leaf that:-

 

"..as so many women discover, there is something addictive about a really firm girdle, and after a while I found myself missing the tightness, support and control at weekends, when my foundations would consist of little more than an elastic roll-on and short bra. Consequently, when my casual foundations needed replacement, I started to substitute them with things of ever increasing firmness and length, until my lingerie drawer boasted little at all in the way of light control garments."

 

As noted earlier, unlike a number of her customers, Iris never wore a night corset. She believed her own regime was as effective. The first thing she did in the morning, the moment after she had got out of bed, was to put on her corsets and lace them as tight as she could. She claimed that if she waited even seconds that she found lacing in more difficult. She insisted that, in even such a short time, the figure would 'spread', a word that she used very often. She would then put on her stockings. She noted that while one might be able to lace down enough to achieve the same waist size, she had found that the corset would prove to feel less comfortable for the entire day ahead. Only when laced in, would she put on her dressing gown on and go down to make a cup of tea. All this at about 5 am before she travelled to London. She would remain laced in until retiring at between 9 and 10 each night. And Playtex thought they had invented the 18 hour girdle.......??

Her movements revealed to the cognoscenti the fact that she was tightly-laced. Bending was never easy for her, partly because of her subconscious concern not to break a busk which, as she pointed out was dangerous as she herself had been cut by a fearsome jagged edge of spring steel on one occasion when it suddenly snapped as she bent and instantly cut its way out of its pocket. She was proud of her figure and would say how "I pull in eight inches every day and that gets me down to 19 inches." 1972.

No longer subject to the rigours of commuting, in the later years after retirement she did gain weight and for the LGM Bal, (Section G), could only reduce to 21 inches, while in 1991-2 she routinely 'pulled in six inches for '22 over' and pulled a little more in for her best clothes in April 1989.

 

"I did not slim for the do. I think it's just that I've got thinner and when I’m indoors I do not bother to pull myself tight because of moving about."

 

While in her 70s in the 1990's, she lost a little weight and but still kept to a six inch pull-in to 22 inches.

 

Whilst she would never call her self a tight-lacer, Iris certainly followed a much stricter regime than many who profess to be such persons. Yes, she was proud of her figure and those privileged to escort her out were aware that the few minutes discreet retirement before doing so, were to allow her to pull in that little extra, change her skirt or dress and no doubt to ensure her stockings seams were as straight as she liked to keep them. The seams of her stockings looked straighter, if that was ever possible, and the addition of a more stylish belt had necessitated a good hard pull on the waist of her beloved Godet style she had worn for over 50 years. Until then she had worn a typical thirties style tubular corset without which a cockney working class married woman from Islington would ever go out. While she bridged more than half a century which saw the corset go from 'de rigueur' attire for all classes of woman, to an item that was worn as outerwear and had been espoused by the 'dressing for pleasure' movement, she accepted the changes with equanimity.

 

 

5.4  ON CORSETING IN HOT WEATHER

 

Skin breakdown is a particular hazard for the tight-lacer particularly in hot weather, which is no friend of the tightly-laced waist. On one visit she responded to a customer’s question:-

 

"Well I'm glad the hot weather is over, my bones rubbed me raw on the waist when I was gardening.".

 

On enquiry how to deal with it, she would say "Sponge on either side of the place with sticking plaster to hold it in Place" was one solution. Corn plasters were another solution she offered . "I can still pull in 8 inches then," she'd say.

 

She never compromised on lacing herself in and always wore a corset in the hottest weather. She once wrote:-

 

"I can't say about tight-lacing in hot weather. I suppose its either stick it out or take them off like you did." Oct 1983.

 

However, she once admitted that on one hot evening at 8 pm, she loosed off to watch television.

 

 

5.5  IRIS NORRIS AND STOCKINGS

 

David Kunzle noted that many of the tight-lacing women he met wore stockings with straight seams. No doubt he would have met and noted that Iris fell into that category when he met Frank Gardner in the late 1970's doing his research.

 

Iris had come to like fully fashioned nylons in the 1940s and wore them in that style right to the end of her life. She would probably have preferred to wear the styles with square cut heels which were really the only type available in Britain in the 1940s and 1950s. Apart from wearing Brettles cuban heeled hose when that style was briefly available during the short-lived British 'seamed stockings revival' of 1979-80, for most of last 30 years she wore Aristoc's 20-denier which went under many brand names beginning with 222's in the early 1970s and ending up at the time of discontinuance in 1993 as "Harmony Points."

 

She was fortunate in that to the end of her life she had shapely legs which were marvellously free of unsightly veins that are the bane of many women's lives. She knew they were enhanced by the straight seams which graced her calves and the long point heels which graced her ankles. As personal customers would know, the latter would be accentuated because she routinely wore backless heeled mules at home.

No doubt, like many women, she was happy to discuss the trials and tribulations of suspenders with anyone who would listen. Irritated by modern suspender clips, she used screwed up tissue paper to bulk out the nobs. Only once in the early 1980s do I recall the exclamation of righteous indignation so commonly heard from the lips of every woman from time to time at least until the late 1940's when a clip slipped off her stocking top. In Iris’s case, it was followed by an opinion regarding the shininess of nylon used after the late 1970's to knit non-stretch hose. In her case she solved it first by and later by sing a pair of pliers to crimp the clip frame in the button slide area.

 

She favoured the Aristoc shade of 'Bitter Chocolate', although in 1978-9 when Aristoc produced 'Sheer Mischief', which had accentuated and exceptionally long point heels and thicker seams. Iris bought as many pairs of these in the shade 'Gentle Rain' as she could. The choice was not lost on her customers who noticed and in response to a question of what the style was wearing and where they could be bought she said, "Funny you should ask. You’re the second person to ask me today."

 

Interestingly, despite the shade becoming so fashionable, a black stocking never graced her legs; a point she would make repeatedly. One can only speculate on why this should be so and I think that she grew up in an era when black was reserved for mourning or widowhood and in Iris such conventions were embedded. Even her own daughter, no doubt thinking her opinion might change, once gave her three pairs in black for Christmas. In what was typical of her is that she generously gave them to a customer who would appreciate them.

 

Close observers of such things would note that her seams were always raised on her calves, indicative of their being worn 'reverse side' out from the way the makers intended them to be worn. Some will claim they are more snag free worn that way, but it was obvious Iris liked the look and risked snagging, though in point of fact on 40 appointments, one customer never saw her with a ladder in her stockings. This obviously mattered not a jot to Iris, the look was more important. When questioned she simply explained that she liked the effect and routinely reversed them from how the manufacturers packaged them, saying "I always check that the holes (finishing loops) in the tops are outside before I put them on" she said.

It was also evident that the heel reinforcement of her stockings reached further up her calves than was commonly observed with the style when worn by others. There again Iris had an answer. She liked the visual affect, which was more common in the 1950s, and she was clearly flattered by comments on the fact. To achieve the look she always bought stockings with a foot size at least half a size larger than she really needed. Where size 9˝ would do, she routinely bought size 10 or 10˝. As would be expected there were many admirers amongst her male customers who were only too happy to stop off to buy her stockings before meeting. They typically bought them at the local stores near where she worked, James Selby's or the Coop both in Holloway Road when she was at Gardner’s, or the Coop or Dickens and Jones (until it burned down in the late 1980s in Milton Keynes), before visiting her at Bletchley.

Knowing of her liking for Cuban heeled stockings In June 1984, an admirer bought her Albert's 'Classic' 15-denier stockings whilst visiting the US in the shade of 'Sparkle'. She wrote later and said, "You need not send any money as you already sent me the stockings. I have tried them on but find them short. They will just about go on my suspenders. I should not get me any more when the legs are short", July 25, 1984.

Realising the declining availability of Aristoc Harmony Point style seamed hose in the late 1980's, that continued until they were discontinued in 1993, she was happy to purchase or order Harmony Points for a number of grateful stocking wearing customers unable to purchase them in their area.

 

These interruptions in availability bothered her greatly, as is evidenced by the following quotes from her letters:-

 

'If you aren't going to wear your black stockings, I will have them off you. I’ve been getting mine in the Co-op as Dickens and Jones got burnt up in the new city, Milton Keynes. Someone put a fire bomb because they sold fur coats. I think with these new sizes they got now you have to buy a size larger to get the leg length. Does Maureen want me to get her some? I will if she wants and post them to her." 1989.

 

"I received the 20 and have bought you slate grey size 5 as there is no black going in that style. I may be able to get you some more slate grey if you want them, but I don't think there's many of that colour left."  3 Sept 1993

 

"I've written to the makers (Aristoc) about the (discontinuance of Harmony Point) stockings but not got an answer yet."  3 Sept 1993

 

"I got eleven pairs of stockings size 5 slate grey if you want them. That was the last of the size 5. They are not making any more. I had letter to say so from Aristoc." 13th Oct 1993

 

"(A customer) had found a chap with some Aristoc stockings to sell, everything by six. This is his name and phone number."  July 30, 1994

 

 

5.6  ON TRAINING THE FIGURE

 

It is tempting to compare Iris’s attitude to corseting with other corset wearers. Ivy Leaf’s web site offers the testimony in their own words of two such individuals, Isobel and Alison. Alison, one would estimate to be half a generation younger than Iris. Alison’s feared manager was probably a whole generation older, a little younger than A’s mother and probably both began corseting in Edwardian times.

 

Alison is honest about her mother's acceptance of strict corset control and it is most likely that her manager, from the same generation, and if the sentiments Iris quotes are reflective of her attitude, she would also have been as strictly corseted, and probably out of choice. It is thus reasonable to say that she, A’s mother and Iris would have know no other adulthood than one lived strictly corseted. It is this absolute acceptance of the advantages and disadvantages of always being corseted that Iris brought to her work as a corsetičre. Whether the weather was cold, or oppressively hot one remained corseted till retiring for the night. That said initially, Alison was a reluctant corset wearer at first as her words attest:

 

"I was too concerned by the completely new and alien feeling of being encased from shoulders to thighs in unyielding black satin...."

 

"........She required all her corsetičres to wear corselets, or 'all-in-ones' as they are often called now. She thought they gave a much smoother figure (which I must admit they did) and, as they were the firmest type of garments Spencer made, they gave a good example to our customers. After all, she explained, if we didn’t wear one, how could we recommend they wear one? I still remember that corselet; it was called the Spen-All...."

 

"....... I found the Spen-All very restrictive, especially when I had to bend down to measure a customer or adjust her stockings or garters, but in time I got used to it."

 

But what Alison’s manager and Iris knew was that, given a chance to be regularly corseted, even the reluctant wearer comes to prefer to live like that, rather than to remain uncorseted. Alison in writing to Ivy Leaf attests to this when she says:-

 

“Then, strangely enough, after a few months, I began to need it. In fact I felt lost without it. I am not saying I particularly liked it, but after the first few months I started to look forward to the feel of its firm support, and I put it on as soon as I got up in the morning”.

 

As Iris once said:-

   

"No I don't think its bad to pull in as long as you know how much you can take. Some people just overdo it"  Jan 8 1985

 
 
Continued ...