Dating Foundation Garments

 

What a subject this is; and how many times have we been asked to date a corset or a girdle. One day, this page will comprise our knowledge about the subject, but for the time being, let us start with the easiest of all; labels that can be dated. For the information below, we are most grateful for the historical researchers at Marks and Spencer. Since we have a large collection of M&S girdles, we are also in a position to show how materials, suspenders and zip fasteners changed over the years. This can then be used as a yard-stick by which to judge others.

 

 

Labelling:

 

All companies change their logos from time to time and this can be of great help to historical researchers. Marks and Spencer are one such company and we have placed the labels in chronological order.

 

 

Pink label: This label is on a very old-fashioned girdle. Since the label refers to 'St. Michael REGD' it must pre-date 1961 when the title 'REGD' was changed to 'R'. This particular label probably comes from the early 1950's.

Detail of the girdle shows the metal-centred suspenders knobs (a 1950's give-away) and the coarse rubber-based elastic.

 

Red label: As above, however, the girdle to which it is attached would suggest a garment from the late 1950's. All the elastic panels are made of satin elastic so there is no evidence of either lycra or rubber-based materials. The suspenders are the classic 'So-lo' design that became prevalent from the 1960's onwards.

The girdle has a metal zipper. These zippers were always backed up by hooks-and-eyes since, in the 1960's and 70's, cheaper zips were prone to catastrophic failure. In reality, the zipper provided a smooth line over the hooks-and-eyes that took the majority of the forces involved. The girdle has satin lining on the internal bone panels.

 

 

Black label: Post-1961 but pre-1968 when the first two washing symbols were introduced.

Again, this girdle is constructed from satin elastic and has a similar design to the red label (above). One sad detail is that the satin bone casings have been replaced by cotton.

Blue label:  This post-dates the black label but still pre-dates the 1968 introduction of washing symbols. If two washing symbols had been present on a blue label, then the garment would have dated from 1968 - 1974.

 

It would appear that the satin elastic girdles did not make it into the 1970's, where the new model of nylon and lycra-based elastic first appears. This is still a heavy girdle, but probably cheaper to manufacture since there was a huge movement into the panty-girdle at this time.

 

The blue label containing both French and English defines it as post-1974, the year before Marks and Spencer moved into France.

 

This is the same 911B/1909 girdle of the late 1960's, but there are detail differences for the connoisseur to notice. On the left, there is cross-sticking on the central front seam, whereas on the later girdle (right), the stitching is plain.

 

 

As mentioned elsewhere, cross-stitching is not just decorative, but a throw-back to the lacing of the traditional corset.

Black-red label:  This is early 1980's and was the last era in which Marks and Spencer made the traditional heavy-weight zippered girdle.

Gone are the pretty materials, the lace trimming and the satin panels to be replaced by nylon and lycra, and pretty dull nylon at that! The zipper is plastic and that gives a good clue to provenance in the late 1970's.

 

A neat trick to date 1970's garments, kindly provided to us by an ex-Marks and Spencer employee, is that the month and year appear on the labels. For example, the thinner blue label from 1968 - 1974, post-1970 has an identifier, in this case '3.3'. That means that the girdle was manufactured in March 1973. Undated labels of the same size are pre-1970 and this seems to be the last date that the satin-elastic girdles were manufactured. The larger blue labels are from 1974 until the start of the 1980's and are also dated the same way. '12/7' means December 1977. The girdles in our collection, and some are now over 50 years old, are still wearable!!

 

Zippers

 

The zipper is far older than people imagine and the first working version was patented in 1851 by Elias Howe, however, the first modern metal zipper, was designed by Gideon Sundbńck in 1913. The zipper only became used in clothes in the early 1930's. The metal zipper started to be replaced by nylon or plastic in the late 1970's.

 

 

Suspenders (style and length)

 

The suspenders with the metal pin in the centre of the knob went out in the late 1950's, however, bulk orders by some manufacturers lead to garments being made with these suspenders well into the 1960's. Certainly they were less prone to cross-threading with the inevitable 'snap' as the stocking parted company with its anchorage. Our magnificent Jenyns satin corset has metal-centred suspenders at the front and more modern ones at the back. This is not a modification, it was the way it was made, which is odd since the rear suspenders take far more strain than the front ones.

 

 

Elastic and Fabrics

 

A great clue to the 1950's / 1960's watershed is the change from rubber-based elastic to lycra-based elastic. The latter is far finer and much harder wearing. Anything rubber-based is notoriously prone to rot in ultra-violet light or in contact with hydrocarbons. It was not just modesty that prevented granny from hanging her girdles on the washing line, it was to keep them out of the harmful rays of the sun. These heavy girdles dried very well around the hot water pipes in the kitchen. My husband remembers well his landlady's girdles adding extra insulation to the pipes every Monday! The 'pink label' M&S girdle above used rubber-based elastic as you can see from the coarser weave. (The official name for the rubber based elastic - elastic thread covered in cotton - was Lastex and it was invented in 1931.)

 

Fabrics have never improved in appearance, only in robustness since the 1950's and so the more bland the material, the later the garment and the M&S girdles above demonstrate this so well.

 

 

Patterns, Sizes and Catalogues

 

Patterns changed over the years. Pre-war, the change was less rapid than post-war when increasing affluence in the 1960's lead to bigger women with a more pronounced hip spring. Spirella developed a completely new line of girdles in 1961 to cope with the larger, modern woman.

 

 

Towards the end of the 'extra firm' M&S girdle's life, they tried to sell it in France.

We came across some pictures from a trade journal of 1968 showing the retirement of Marks & Spencer's chief corsetry selector. These ladies would have known all about these garments and in 1968, it is a fair chance that they would be wearing Markie's satin elastic best.