The Corsetiere and her Trade

 

   

Corsetieres

 

"The Corset Lady had piercing black eyes and a large bust and stomach apparently encased in steel, for when I brushed against her it was like bumping into our oil drum. She was such a high pressure saleswoman that almost before she had turned off the ignition of her car I found myself in my bedroom in my 'naked strip' being forced into a foundation garment. ... My legs were so tightly squashed together I couldn't walk a step and I had to hold my chin up in the air for my bust was in the vicinity of my shoulders."

 

so quoted Betty MacDonald in 'The Egg and I' (1945).

 

 

Not all corsetieres were formidable and neither were their corsets. Certainly, the draconian characters of fiction existed and I'm sure many ladies were forced into unnecessarily expensive and complicated garments. However, having known and been fitted by several of the few remaining corsetieres, I can honestly say that these ladies are completely unselfish and loyal  to their clients. Compare the approaches that the various corsetieres from their respective companies employed to furnish their clients with the desired figure of the day.

 

One important talent of the corsetiere, was the skill that she showed with her hands. Just as a Doctor or dentist can make or break their reputation by their soft touch and 'bedside manner', so could the corsetiere. The marketers realised this and used it strongly in their advertising. In reality, a corsetiere with 'painful hands' (below left  - Spirella 1939), could so easily ruin, not just a sale, but a lady and her friends' entire perception of Spirella in particular, and corsetry in general.

 

These corsetieres worked for the major firms that supplied conventional foundation garments to the vast majority of women for many decades in the last century. More specific were a number of retailers catering to 'specialised' corsets for the small but dedicated clientele of 'tight lacers'. Pre-eminent amongst these was 

 

 Iris Norris

 

A Charis corsetiere from 1937 demonstrates the formidable lacing of these extraordinary garments (more of which later).

 

Corsetieres from the premier brands

 

Charis

Spirella

Spencer

Berlei

Camp

Playtex

 

We have been most fortunate to gain permission to recount some tales from corsetieres, who practiced in the past. Alison was a Spencer corsetiere from America, Isobel and Rosalind served in corset shops in Britain, and Marianne in Denmark.

 

 

Alison's Story

 

Isobel's Recollections

 

Marianne's Recollections

 

Rosalind Remembers

 

Charis and Spirella used entirely different exhortations here. Charis, directly advertises to its customers, whereas Spirella, cautions the corsetiere in the house magazine. After all, the bottom line was commission!

 

 

 

Would you buy a second-hand girdle from this lady (above right)? The American Lady corsetiere is a world away from her British counterpart immediately to the left. What a world of difference, and quite an accurate expression of how America had forged ahead down the bumpy road of progress since World War II. The American lady would be all 'hard-sell and pushy', features written all over her countenance, however, don't underestimate the little British mouse. In the austere post-war Britain, her livelihood depended on that Spirella commission.

 

Spirella, Warners and Gossard all put tremendous store by their fitters. All photographs feature the indispensable tape measure. In the case of Gossard, they have cut costs with using a real rose for the model and cunningly position her in front of rose patterned wall-paper!

 

 

Another charming sequence from the 1930's. The enthusiastic saleslady shows the client a lovely satin corselette. The garment is fitted in front of a mirror so that the fit, front and back can be checked. Flowers sit in a vase on the table; a very feminine touch, for this is a very feminine moment. Adjustments are made to the suspenders and voila, the finished product. We won't mention the wrinkles! In fact, the garment has made little difference to the client's figure, but consider the era. This was not an everyday garment. This would be for evening wear where the sliding of the expensive gown over the satin foundation would allow that graceful of the vamp to be achieved.

 

These photographs amuse me for various reasons. On the left, the customer seeks the advice of the fitter and a friend. The fitter carries an armful of garments, but not in the shade that the customer had tried on. Nobody seems satisfied (yet). Oh dear; one of those customers. Some days, the poor fitter really earns her meagre pay.

 

On the right, surely not a male fitter, although this was the norm in Victorian times. No; this is a corset manufacturer. The gentleman is probably the sales manager, the clothed ladies buyers for the department stores and the model, could be a professional, but equally (to save money) could be a staff member trying to squeeze a few more dollars into her pay packet as she squeezes her hips into the company's latest girdle. The gnome on the right stitches and modifies at the command of the gentleman. The Sales Manager seems to have an enviable job!

I like the German series of prints from a Playtex advert (below). It seems to typify the corsetiere's trade and the powerful advertising approach. For a start, both corsetiere and client are immaculately groomed, and by today's standards in no needs of foundations at all. The rubber Playtex girdle is demonstrated "An ideal material for a girdle". The girdle is fitted as only an expert corsetiere can do.

The result is an even thinner client, but more important is the last picture in this charming middle class fable. The wife, the husband and the daughter are all smiling. The wife bends from the hips showing the flexibility of the wonder-material, the husband puts away his wallet, happy with his wife's improved figure, happy that she's smiling, and happy that it wasn't too expensive. Even the little girl appreciates her mother's good humour and simply can't wait to wear a girdle herself one day. Domestic bliss. How could you not rush out and buy one?

So let us end with the German lady and her fitter below. The customer smiles. I have seen it so often. When a lady feels that her foundation is 'just right', the smile breaks out. She imagines her new figure, the well-fitting dress, the compliments from her friends, even her husband, before he sees the final bill!

 

Perhaps a little padding is required, Modom?