How to Lace your Corset, Madam

I came across a lovely picture from the Spirella magazine of 1957, that attempts to demonstrate the ease of adjusting a back-lacing corset. I have never found it that easy ! The best solutions are to use the Camp method of lacing, to be in the fortunate position of having a maid to perform the task, or alternatively an agreeable husband. However, even your most ardent admirer will, I'm afraid, tire over time. The practical solution is the front-lacing corset, and it does have the advantage that the secrets of your figure are not revealed through the taut fabric of one's skirt when bending over (the visibility of underwear).

 

This lady appears to find no trouble with her back-lacing corset but the garment is too small and one never, ever laces from the bottom. It is just one of many mistakes described below.

Always a contortionist's trick, Spirella attempted to convince their clientele otherwise in 1957.

Even hooking up the front is not that easy if you have selected a foundation several sizes too small! Clare Davenport in "Carry on Emmanuelle" (1978).

 

Perhaps this page should have been entitled "How, not to lace your corsets" as the following examples clearly demonstrate!

 

                    

 

These pictures all have it wrong. Nobody was ever laced in this fashion, but the legend persists.

Most of the older pictures were made in stereo pairs, and come from the 'What the Butler saw' genre.

 

The long-lasting tradition of lacing one's corsets with a knee or a foot in the back is not to be recommended since so many corset wearers have bad backs. Even the "Carry On" films fall into this trap as a grunting Amelia Bayntun (1919 -1988) is laced into her corsets by Joan Sims playing the part of Esme Crowfoot 'Corsetiere' in 'Carry on Loving' (1970).

 

The sound track, "That's it (now) hold it" [phone rings] "Oh, excuse me one moment will you" is spoken by Miss Sims against the director's added sound-track of straining material, and poor Miss Bayntun's grunts! Listening quite carefully, no corset ever made the sounds that the filmed version produces. I assume some stagehand rubbing a balloon would produce the effect over over-tensioned material quite effectively.

The corset was, in fact, provided by Spirella, however, no Spirella corsetiere would have had the advertisement of a competitor, Berlei on the wall (right of mirror)!

 

The corset actually fits Miss Bayntun rather well and for a while I thought that, being 50 when the picture was made, perhaps it was one of her own corsets. This thought was laid to rest by the Spirella magazine who reported that Joan Sims has visited Letchworth to learn a thing or two about corsetry.

 

Other celebrities who used Spirella's products (and remember, they made swimwear and casual clothes) were Violet Carson (Ena Sharples in Coronation Street), Yootha Joyce and Ann Sydney (Miss World in 1964).

 

 

At least calling in a gentleman to assist results in quite admirable commitment. Look at those bulging muscles and the expressions of strain, yet the ladies appear quite unmoved by the experience.

 

   

   

At least the gentleman (above left) has had the courtesy to remove his shoe.

The uniformed gentleman on the right appears poker-faced. Discipline is a wonderful thing!

 

   

    

The two girls at the lower left, although in very posed photographs, illustrate a little slice of social history. The girl on the left looks streetwise, I hate to say it, but the street might even be her place of work. She knows how to lace up her corsets and probably is  highly skilled at removing them as well. The vacant lovely in the middle belongs to an entirely more genteel set. She holds her laces with a "where's my maid?" or "where's Mummy?" expression on her face for she has never had to dress herself before and does not intend to start knotting her own laces now! Note, however, one thing in common with both ladies, and a risk for all corset wearers and that is the prodigious length of lacing that must ultimately be concealed, least it trail behind one embarrassingly!

 

The girl on the right above is definitely not 'somebody to bring home to see mother!' The level concentration and the tongue reveal how difficult back-laced corsets can be although Spirella's matron at the top of the page would suggest otherwise.

As an interesting aside here, I remember a corsetiere who told me of a customer's corsets that had been returned for repair. Corsets are rather intimate and do get soiled and therefore must be laundered prior to return. Although this lady's corsets had been cleaned, there was permanent discoloration outside the corset on the back laces at the bottom. The cause for this stumped my friend until the old lady explained that those were the marks left by her husband's boot when he tightened the laces!!

Whilst on the subject of lacing up one's corsets, let us consider the reverse. In the days of the busk, how often would one recalcitrant hook refuse to unfasten leading to language and broken nails. On the right is a very rare cameo of an elderly lady removing her corset with ease and style.

 

Let us see if the film industry understands the basic principles.

On the right, and not for the first time, Gina Lollobrigida's dresser pulls the laces tight. The angle is poor, but the photograph was taken to show the lacing.

 

If you are an actress, all the grimaces in the world are fairly well waisted if the victim appears to be unaware of your efforts as the men found out above.

                

 

Is a maid, one's mother (immortalised in the excellent film 'Titanic') or, even better, an ardent swain, the answer to this problem. Only Rose's mother seems to understand the basic principles. James Cameron, the director, is awfully good at getting these details correct. (Interestingly, the scene was originally shot with Rose lacing her Mother, however, it was agreed that the mother lacing Rose was far more appropriate to the plot). More realistically, a long-suffering husband will be pressed into service.

Backstage, the madame has a better idea of just how a corset should be laced even if the subject appears to be praying that it won't be too tight.

  

Of course, W.C. Fields and Mae West were brought up in the corset era and Mae in particular was, and needed to be a regular corset wearer. Despite this, W.C. seems somewhat confused by Mae's laces.

Similarly, Margaret Dumont and Grouch Marx would understand corsets (Margaret was a regular wearer), but to use a sword? Of course this is a Marx Brothers film.

       

 

Hanging onto the four-poster bedpost features in the classic film "Gone with the wind" (where Hattie MacDaniels is encouraged to lace Vivien Leigh). Even Rose held onto something on the Titanic (above). Of course, there is no need to hang on if the laces are pulled properly, that is sideways. Perhaps it was the risk of fainting as one's internal organs are compressed into a space the size of a grapefruit that forced the maidens to hold on. Returning to the first example in this series where Joan Sims exhorts her client to "hold it, hold it;" was this a throw-back to the bed-post days?

 

 

Phyllis Kirk, Greer Garson and Yvonne de Carlo (above) all demonstrate a degree of equanimity whilst being laced, however, Jane Russell (below) is not impressed. This is surprising for Miss Russell was a advocate of proper underwear.

 

The girl on the right appears truly enchanted by her robust corsetry, it is the mother (who might be expected to be more familiar with such things) who looks apprehensive.

 

 

At last we start to get it right although the corset seems to be something of a mystery! The two Spirella maidens (1920 -  left) are certainly trying to do something to each others foundations, but neither the ladies, nor the photographer seem to know what! The lady below seems hardly better informed, but perhaps the saleslady gave her a clue. The girl immediately on the right really is getting nowhere. The corset may even be upside-down! The girls on the far right have it worked out. Do it yourself or get a maid to help.

 

  

 

 

     

The young lady (above) appears confused at first but once the technique is understood she successfully dons the corset. On the left, it appears that one woman is trying on corsets with advice from the other. The more mature lady (Spirella Magazine of May 1924-right) appears uncertain about what to do with the corset.

 

 

An Edwardian approach

 

 

   This sequence of pictures contains advice from 1940 on how to get into a Merry Widow corset.

 

   Presumably, the female world had been inspired just the year before by Vivien Leigh's waist in the epic film

   'Gone with the Wind' (1939). Note that fatal mistake, once again, of putting the knee in the back.

 

Putting on one's corset over the head is not as strange as one might imagine. It was standard practice recommended by Spencer when donning their made-to-measure belts (corset with straps rather than laces - 1945 above).

 

 

Even in the risqu world of cheesecake (left from the 1990's and 1950's),

they still get it wrong!

 

  

 

Whoever is the lacer, please observe a few basic rules:-

 

Don't place the knee in the victim's back, not unless you wish to exacerbate any back problem that the wearer might have, and set yourself up for similar problems.

 

Unlike most of the examples here, don't pull the laces away from the eyelets. The friction will overcome your attempts to tighten the laces. As S.H. Camp and the Jenyns family knew, from their excellent fan-lacing corsets, the tension should be applied along the laces.

 

The picture on the far left shows how this poor technique actually pulls the corset away from the body!

Sometimes it is the corset wearer that grimaces; at other times it the lacer.

You might even consider getting a couple of friends to help, but please instruct them first on how it should be done. Silly girdle wearers; what do they know about corsets!

Never an easy process, both the lacers and the lacee run through an entire gamut of expressions in this 1960s catwalk show of some vintage corsets. Being the 1960s, they are, of course, demonstrating the discomfort of the corset in comparison to the girdles on display at the show.

Lacing Machines

 

     

On the left, we see a cunning, oriental take on the problem. Two maids on each side of the lady pull ropes that work through a pulley system, not to tighten laces, but to force the edges of a waspie corset closer together so that a fifth maid can fasten them! The Chinese did wear corsets as May-may in James Clavell's novel 'Taipan' demonstrated to the fury of her husband. I wonder if Madame Chang Kai Shek, who wore bullet-proof corsets during the war resorted to such lengths? The we have the famous Playtex 18-hour girdle commercial that showed (briefly) some ardent swain turning the handle to lace in his beloved's corsets. You didn't need such devices with a 18-hour girdle, but in no way was it as effective. The most recent take is an exquisitely crafted machine scene from 'Mirror, Mirror' (2012). In 2016, Jean-Paul Gaultier has developed another pulley system in one of his excellent advertisements:

 

 

Even the Muppets get it wrong as Ms. Piggy's corset is nearly pulled off her back. An investment advert (right) shows the mother pulling the corset off her daughter with the traditional foot in the rump. Which all goes to show that investment bankers really are a load of muppets!

The theme of a lacer pulling a lacer pulling a corset (ad infinitum) is shown in cartoon (above) and in the German series 'Auslanders' (right)

 

One suspects that the lovely Jan Spangler (above) has already been laced up and she is simply wondering, as have many corsetted women, what to do with the spare laces. But whatever you do, please don't use your teeth.

Even small animals and cherubs are called into play, but, as always, they get it wrong too!

 

The last word about lacing one's corsets should perhaps come from Spirella who, in 1950 (right) said "Don't", but in 1960 (left - Spirella publicity in June 1960) had forgotten the basic principles and once again we see the knee in action.

            

Spirella reinacting a Victorian corset being laced by a 1960's girdle-clad colleague.  Don't and definitely don't!

 

The solution?

 The corsetieres that I know have almost exclusively sold front-laced corsets in the decades since the 1960's, so the answer is not to buy a back-laced one!