PULLING MYSELF TOGETHER!
I was a single boy, born in 1942 into a west Manchester household, as often then, an extended family under one roof. Relatives living nearby included numerous aunts, which led to a female dominated domestic life. From conversations overheard it was obvious that women of whatever age wore corsets as a matter of course. Outfitters had displays of them, and as a child I accompanied mother buying hers. Full pages advertised garments of increasing severity, one I remember had the slogan: – “From teen-age to serene-age.” Corsets were a normal part of life as then lived.
Within my second year of secondary education I developed prominent amounts of puppy fat. Even though a tall, active boy my stomach and midriff ballooned very noticeably because the rest of me was hardly affected. Grandma commented “that if I were a girl I would be put in stays to hold that lot in.” As the situation worsened mother’s regular threat of a corset sounded more ominous, even father suggested a waistcoat to “hold in your Corporation” Events after that school year climaxed when mother’s friend, the local corsetiere for Spencer, a supplier of bespoke garments, with the females in our family clients, made a call. This must have been pre-arranged, for with no obvious preliminaries I was mortified to find myself being measured whilst they discussed styles. I was too big for the boy’s corsets they did so she advised a lacing girdle from the ladies range rather than a substantial mans corset. We called on her weeks later for fitting with my first foundation as a belated thirteenth birthday present.
It was a white material I thought was nylon, but Ivy says not, high waisted, hook-side and front-laced. I was shown how to do the hooks and eyes up and to adjust the lacing and told to keep it on to walk home in to get the feel of it. After this trial mother deemed it satisfactory so there followed the first of such ceremonies, cutting off the suspenders surplus to requirements as I was not to have stockings imposed as well. With the lacing slightly open as shown, it still felt tight, and certainly held me in. Lightly constructed and boned it was at first irksome but not too uncomfortable. Wearing it away from school, some evenings, at weekends and throughout holidays, familiarity soon meant that generally I was unaware of its presence. I soon realised lacings could be adjusted to my advantage when not in my best clothes. There was no draconian coercion to wear the girdle, rather encouraging reminders to do so, I accepted the early inconvenience and the novel situation because it had been explained as being to my benefit, and this was the age when one did exactly as told. Clearly my girdle did not cure the problem but even when fully tightened, simply helped hide it. This was emphasised on the receipt of my school report at the end of the third year when the gym teacher noted “His weight and shape prevent him participating.”
Urgent action had mother insisting that “He needs a pair of proper corsets!” Discussion with her friend on what I was to have sounded serious, arrival of my new corsets proved it was. Thicker white material, but now steel busk-fronted and laced. I was shown how to fasten the busk and the hooks and eyes below it, then she attended to lacing me into the longer, very stiff corsets. They held me from midriff to the pit of my stomach. I now had the long summer holiday to persevere in getting used to them, suffering fair discomfort until the newness wore off and adapting to the rigidity. “That is how you get used to new corsets.” I was tartly informed by mother and grandmother. I eventually settled into the restraint as they had now become my normal out of school underclothing. The steel busk and well boned front did control the bulge, improving my appearance, posture and cut the overeating probably causing the problem. Now, on returning from school I was expected to be in my corsets but allowed the girdle when a lighter restraint suited more energetic boyish pursuits. Within the school year of wearing my firm corsets, puppy fat was rapidly being lost. Even close laced both girdle and corsets become loose and because they were not anchored at the bottom they rode up uncomfortably. Finally both became ridiculously slack and measurement by mother showed thirty inches was appropriate for my new busk front corsets, now the only style bought for me. I realise now that she had bypassed her friend to get them, she had not measured me or been there to fit them, they were probably Twilfit. Bright pink, actually tea rose with the four inches above the waist elasticated between the multiple stay bones of each side. They were much stiffer than the Spencer model and having fastened the busk mother turned me round to tighten the back laces, something I quickly learned to do for myself. On leaving school for college I wore these corsets all-day, every-day as a normal practice, as female contemporaries did their, probably much lighter, underpinnings.
Further weight loss brought another new pair size twenty-eight inches. It was worn out of habit rather than need for serious control, and particularly so before finishing college when again I found it quite loose. The Spencer agent recognising me still being in corsets picked up on my comment that after several years daily wear I felt not properly dressed and uncomfortable without them. She made us aware that once conditioned to them it is difficult to suddenly go without. Therefore my options were: continue as before, revert to a light front-laced style, or wear a soft girdle until I felt able to go unsupported. My wishes prevailed. Another of the same was bought, size twenty-six inch waist which I soon wore almost close laced. Whilst cheaper than the bespoke Spencer, the Twillfit were still relatively expensive so how the purchase of so many pairs of corsets in a short time impinged on the household budget I have no idea. The outlay and perseverance must have been thought worth it to get rid of or hide my bulge in the only way mother knew. On starting work indulgence finished, I now had to buy my own clothes and reverted to Spencer corsets until our agent retired.
When aged over twenty, and swayed by the advertising and displays then still universal, promising the same control as rigid types but with more freedom of movement, I experimented with contemporary styles. Yes, there was relief from busk and bones but unfortunately even the firmer models of high line elastic girdles would not remain in place without anchoring to stockings so I gave wearing these a fair trial. Extra care was needed when pulling on nylons, and the suspenders, of which there were usually six with the rear ones directly under the buttocks, dug in uncomfortably when seated. After some months suspender sitting I can sympathise with ladies abandoning suspenders in favour of tights. I thought suspenders were too visible and nylons proved hot to wear so I secretly thanked mother for not putting me in stockings with my first corsetry. Another downside was that elastic or the later Lycra girdles because they are designed to always compress, are far more constricting than rigid garments with their set size, they do not give the same support so rigid boning felt preferable to suspenders.
Seeking the advice of the Manchester Lewis’s corset department staff they recommended the Symington Liberty Nu-Back Nu-Ease, a slightly lighter garment than I was used to. This was a non-laced, very high waisted, almost under-bust hook-side corset, firmly boned with about a dozen stays so as to enable it to remain in place. It took its name from the deep floating and boned back panel covering the above the waist section permitting great flexibility of movement. I wore this style throughout most of my twenties, first in a size twenty six inch waist, and as then, corsets were made in one inch increments, later having to go up to twenty seven inch and finally twenty eight inch for comfort. Lewis`s ceased stocking Nu-Back so another product had to be found
Rigid corsetry in high waisted styles were no longer common so I had to adopt cuff waist models. Busk-front, front-laced styles like my Spencer, then readily available now proved unsatisfactory. Although the lacing was easier to adjust and sales ladies claim they were warmer without the gap of the back lacing was correct, the offset busk, directly under the right rib impeded movement severely and was far more restrictive and uncomfortable than the centre busk models I had once worn. Busk-front, back-laced corsets in tea rose by Twilfit again became my choice, giving control, support, warmth and comfort. I have preferred lacing garments rather than the fixed wrap round styles because they allow a degree of adjustment to compensate for body size fluctuations by using the lacing to adjust and control by either - Pulling Myself Together, or, often as important, Letting Myself Go, even though I had to wear my corsets quite firmly laced to avoid excessive ride up. Busks also have advantages, they clip up in seconds, dozens of fiddly hooks take ages and hooks can dig into the hip bone. Whilst my hips may have been above normal for a male, in my teens and twenties having a 26 inch waist and 38 inch hips, matching standard sizes, my waist having spread a little over the years the traditional busk front corsets were designed with a small hip spring so, buying by waist size I fitted inside standard corsets that sometimes needed a little take in dart to give a snug fit over the hips.
By my late thirties I was very reliant on the support of my corsets having right from leaving school daily put them on when first rising and over the years removing them later and later before relaxing of an evening. Days that corsets were precluded left me taking paracetamol to relieve the backache and the feeling that my stomach was going to fall out which was experienced after a short time unsupported. Another attempt was made wearing lightweight styles on these occasions, high waisted panty girdles were tried and they gave moderate support, permitted easy and flexible movement and were virtually undetectable and did not need stockings. They served the purpose but I still found them far more constricting than my normal corsets.
Over the years I progressed to needing larger sizes and firmer support and with the onset of middle aged spread, the process culminated when aged forty-eight in obtaining my first under-belted corsets, The only Twilfit model size thirty two inch waist in stock at the time was a busk-front, back-laced corset in tea rose, heavily boned and with a boned hook-and-eye fastening under-belt. Despite appearing a very severe restraint they were the most comfortable corsets I have ever worn. Realising they were being discontinued I stockpiled another. How reliance had become dependence on the support of my rigid corsets can be shown when, aged fifty-three, I had a work induced heart attack. The rehabilitation programme at the hospital had groups of victims completing gym sessions that included gentle sit ups. Unaware that my abdomen and back had to have support to function, they assumed my inability to do them was cardiac related. I could do the exercise quite well at home when properly corseted.
Once these under-belted corsets were life expired, towards the Millennium, rigid corsetry was virtually unobtainable at any store I could find. The world went full circle when all I could get, at a clearance sale, was a hook-side front-lacing model, size thirty four inch waist, a size and style last worn as a schoolboy aged thirteen. Quite by chance I came across a specialist shop in Manchester that supplied replica Victorian stays. Trying a pair on I was too smitten not to treat myself to corsets that were busked, rigidly boned, supporting and figure forming. After years of reading about it I could at last try moderate tight lacing and found the sensation of spinal and upper figure support satisfying and because the amount of waist compression catered for was achieved gradually and thus fairly comfortably, lacing was not the torture often described.
Despite liking the stays they had a drawback, not being very deep below the waist they left most of my stomach unsupported causing an uncomfortable bulge of displaced flesh beneath them. Further heart scares after which, the cardiologist on discovering I laced, strongly advised against anything tight on the chest. With reluctance I took the medical advice to relinquish wearing stays and corsets. Some time was spent wearing either of my corsets unlaced simply for the sensation of support; another attempt was made at wearing light girdles. About two years of effort in rehabilitating muscles long out of use still left me with serious negative effects. Removing nearly fifty years of abdominal support did more harm than had I continued to wear a firm hip fitting foundation and just abandoned stays. Being unsupported left me with frequent backache which at its worst in cold weather, painkillers hardly alleviated. It also caused bladder malfunction or incontinence treated by medication and using sanitary towels.
Caused, I suspect from the years of wearing high waisted and Victorian style corsets, each of which forced flesh into the breast area these had eventually became such a size they registered on a cardiac scan. With ever more obtrusive, C cup sized and sometimes painful breasts, Gynaecomastasia was diagnosed and a mammogram done. Fortunately this proved negative but the breast care clinic recommended wearing a firm support bra, doing so has relieved their weight and unwanted movement. Without corsets monitoring figure size, posture or appetite, figure spread worse than puppy fat arrived. Relief only came by resuming corsets, settling on wearing ribbon corsets whose light busk and back lacing tick all the boxes for effective support and comfortable to wear 20/7.
Was it right to put me in corsets as a boy? I think so and have not regretted being so treated. Declining to stop wearing them in my mid teens was entirely my decision and has not prevented an active and fulfilling life. For most of it I have worn daily as a hidden part of my male clothing, normal ladies corsets of a fairly contemporary and commercially available style. The ethos behind me being put into and continuing to wear them was just the same as most girls of my age and ladies of the previous generation perceived their corsetry, worn first for figure control and later to provide the support, warmth and comfort that comes with dependency. Yes, corsets can hurt especially when new and they make their presence felt whenever they are worn but once accustomed to them it is a small price to pay for their benefits and discomfort from corsets or laced stays is nothing like the aches and pains when deprived of them. Apart from the physical dependence a stage is reached where an emotional dependence best described as a need for their “comforting embrace” has to be satisfied, one becomes addicted.
By the nineteen-fifties and sixties young men and especially schoolboys in stiff, laced corsets must have been unusual but my experience show it was practiced enough to be fully accepted. In the 1950s Spencer still made children’s corsets, for both sexes, euphemistically called “Junior Supports”. Boys corsets came in sizes up to 24 inch waist and by today’s standards were serious corsetry, they also did a range of men’s “Belts”, really corsets with the same agent fitting them. From the first all my corsets were ladies styles, possibly as a concession to my needing an adult size, the girdle was the lightest they made. The Spencer agent was completely unfazed by mother having me fitted; although she disapproved of the severity of my second pair. Why laced corsets and not the buckled men’s belt? I suspect because it was deeper. She still supplied them and never challenged me being corseted even as an adult. Youth must not have been an issue either as then, girls also aged thirteen, wore corsetry to hold up their stockings as much as for figure control. Girl-friends told me in later years that schools in the fifties insisted their corsetry should be rigid or hook-side, not roll-on. Like me many were Spencer or Spirella clients via their mothers.
The same unperturbed manner served my later dealings in the corsetry departments of major Manchester or Bolton stores. Service and advice was given impartially by the lady staff with no embarrassment, and in an obviously practiced routine one usually accompanied me to the gentlemen’s fitting room on another floor to try on my intended purchases. One senior sales lady said she advised all her gentlemen clients to wear their corsets high up, so as to hold in the midriff and reduce the effective depth over the hips, a hint I indeed found useful. Even purchasing in the last years of the 1990s it was evident from the lack of raised eyebrows that such transactions were not unusual, an assistant being helpful enough to lace me into the stays I tried and bought.
Right from schooldays I was aware that I was, as far as I knew, the only corseted male of my age in my circle of relations, friends and colleagues. Quite honestly it was never mentioned by any of them, whether they ever knew or were too polite or embarrassed to make remarks I just do not know. By the time of starting work dependence replaced discomfort and the practicalities had become second nature, lacing myself, what meals and drinks to have, how to move and bend with rather than against the corsets and anticipate the few occasions it was necessary to do without. There was also the dilemma of when to reveal the matter to, shall we say, more intimate lady friends, including the one who has been my wife for over thirty-five years. She has not shared my addiction, just stoically tolerated it, neither have our children been involved. Modern security measures has brought the problem of metal detectors in public buildings and having to explain to an unbelieving guard about the steels and busk in my corsets, then argue no, they can’t be removed, neither are they a dangerous weapon.