The Lady's Shop in Newcastle
The shop in which I worked from 1963 until 1972 was situated on a street corner in Newcastle-under-Lyme and served all classes of women, from the miners’ and potters’ wives of the five towns to the up-market west side of Newcastle. Usually the miners’ wives would be contented with the wares from Tunstall, but sometimes, if they needed something a bit special or made-to-measure, they would take the bus and visit us. I know the Spirella ladies did a good trade - there were a dozen in the area - but we didn’t mix much since we were basically competing for the same clientele.
I enjoyed the job. I’ve always liked fashions, and worked in the trade as my mother did, and my nine-year foray into foundation garment retail was most enjoyable. The ladies I served were a really diverse slice of provincial Midlands womanhood. As far as I could tell, class bore no relation to prudishness, it just seemed to be a feature of the woman’s character. Some women would retire to the changing cubicles as various wares were passed discreetly through the curtains, whilst others would brandish our latest corsets in front of other customers. These women would often grab the two ends of the unfastened busk and tug the corset width-ways, resulting in a satisfying snapping sound. “Seems strong enough!” they would say. “It might need to be” I often thought, but never said so. In those days such rudeness would merit instant dismissal, and I genuinely enjoyed serving most of the customers. The exceptions were the haughty or arrogant, and again this was not necessarily confined to class.
Being typical Midlanders, many women were direct and wanted a good bargain, but I respected them for that and always showed the foundations that I thought they wanted; plus of course, a few others that might tempt them to a higher price range. It was here that a surprising class difference was apparent, or it might simply have been cost, but the middle-class women could usually be persuaded into a broche or satin material, whereas the thrifty upper and lower classes would stick with plain, cheap, and hard-wearing coutil.
Many of the regular customers became, if not friends, solid acquaintances. I seemed to fulfil a dual role as an ‘agony aunt,’ but I refused to share confidences and practiced the motto of my mother, neither to offer nor to receive gossip. Mind you, I did learn some fascinating facts about the local women and their husbands.
The shop owner was a massively built Russian lady who had fled to Britain in the early 1920’s. She lost everything except her accent and a deftness with needle and thread that she used to start a new life in her adopted country. Her own foundation was a laced corselette of a size big enough to house a small family. She imported these from Germany and claimed that no other country understood large women like the Germans. These monstrous foundations were finished in a bright pink patterned satin, quite unlike the subtle tea-rose of British corsetry. Her size and almost unintelligible accent frightened some women, especially the younger ones, and so she kept herself to the backroom and the running of the business. On her rare forays into the sales area, her arrival was announced by a wheezing and creaking, both from her stays and the floor-boards. “Yam pleeced vit profyit” would rumble up from the depths of her prodigious bosom as she surveyed the weekly accounts through an old-fashioned prinz nez.
Our mainstay was traditional corsetry with conventional girdles for the younger women, and mothers and daughters often shopped together, despite their requiring markedly different garments. We were slow to bring in panty-girdles, the owner feeling that they had no place in a serious corset shop like hers. This reluctance to change would ultimately doom the shop; however, like so many others, it was simply a matter of time.