Rosalind's Recollections

 

I have been asked to write about my time working in the corsetry and ladies wear shop that you can see in the photograph. My name is Rosalind and I live near Manchester, although the shop you can see was on the Lancashire coast near Blackpool. I worked there from 1958 to 1966 as assistant to the owner. I was in my 20’s at the time so you will know that I’m now on the wrong side of 60!

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My memories of most of the shop and its customers are still very clear, so I hope readers will enjoy what I have to say, and I would be willing to answer any specific questions where I may not have mentioned something or other.

 

 

The Shop

 

The shop, as estate agents would say, was deceptively large, although narrow at the front. It went back quite a long way and also had a first floor section. Within the shop we had two counters, probably quite old, with glass fronts and drawers for displaying items. Then there were shelves for boxes and the odd display.

 

Behind the shop we had a very good display room with a number of mannequin figures all dressed in a variety of bras, girdles and corsetry, as well as catalogues for customers to look at what was available.

 

Upstairs we had a staff room and a fitting room with two cubicles divided by velvet curtains. At the back was a stock room.

 

The shop was owned by a lady called Rose, who was in her 50’s and quite elegantly dressed. She was a trained corsetiere. I had never worked in this type of shop before and was really just her assistant, although by the time I left I was very knowledgeable and went on to work at a larger ladies shop as a manageress.

 

 

The Customers

 

It’s fair to say that we had customers of all ages from 16 upwards. The type of garments purchased by the different age groups was quite well defined. Of course in those days all women wore stockings and some means of support, and apart from very slim women, it was usual to wear a girdle that might be a lightweight type, such as a 'roll-on', or something firmer and more supportive.

 

Although the more elderly customers were the ones usually buying corsetry, it was very usual to see a lady in her 30’s wearing quite a firm support and perhaps a long line bra, even if she was only moderately plump.

 

Because of our location there were many hoteliers, and some had plenty of money to spend. Some ladies would be in every week buying something, and particularly in the winter we were very busy. Rose would also visit them at their hotels if required.

 

The younger customers were often still at high school, probably sixth formers, and they usually went for suspender belts or lighter weight girdles. The first time, they usually came in with their mothers, but would then visit by themselves.

 

 

The Stock

 

As can be seen in the photograph, we sold a wide range of bras, girdles, corsellettes and corsetry, mainly from a variety of the well-known ‘off-the-shelf’ makes like Berlei, Kayser and Silhouette. In addition we had a very good selection of general underwear such as slips, knickers, vests, as well as a wide variety of stockings or ‘nylons’ as many women called them.

 

Invariably a customer would purchase more than one item during a visit, and sometimes she would end up buying a whole range of things, especially the well-heeled hoteliers, who might spend over Ł60 (a lot of money then!)

 

For ladies who wanted ‘proper’ corsetry, such as you can see on this site, Rose had contacts such as Madame Foners, in Liverpool and she would liaise with them if customers asked for special brands such as Camp. I don't think we ever sold the traditional back-lacing corsets. I certainly met several ladies who wore Spirella girdles, but I don't recall ever seeing a Spencer garment. We did have quite a bit of competition from general ladies wear shops, but I think we offered a more personal service and customers felt more comfortable there than in a large store. Being situated on the coast, there was quite an old population, so the majority of the customers tended to be about 40-70. It was that type of shop. (..and don't we miss it - Ivy)

 

In the stock room there were some quite old pre-war garments that would probably be worth a lot of money today, but sadly they are long gone.

 

In the shop counters we had slips, knickers and stockings laid out in the display drawers. Most of the girdles and lower foundations were kept in the stock room, and brought out when a customer had chosen one from the models on display.  

 

 

General Recollections

 

Like most things, we had very easy and very difficult customers! I think the vast majority of women just chose things that were ‘ok’ but we definitely had more discerning customers who wanted to look as elegant or ‘sexy’ as possible, although the latter word was never used!

 

Ladies would often come in after having bought a new evening gown or an outfit for a special occasion such as a wedding. They would bring it with them and then choose foundation garments to go with it. Most things were in white, but we did have a good selection in black if required. 

 

Some customers were very careful to avoid any bulges in their figure, while others seemed not too bothered. The former would be the ones buying corsellettes or high-waisted girdles and long-line bras. Many of the bras used to have securing tabs to attach to the top of the girdle.

 

I recollect that panty-girdles started to become popular around 1965. We had some stock from an American maker, I forget which, but it included long-legged girdles with internal suspenders. These caught on quite well with some of the older customers. The mainstream items were regular bras and open style medium depth girdles. The severe decline in popularity of traditional girdles started around 1967 when these panty-girdles really started to take over. It was a period of transition. (I fully agree - Ivy). One supposed advantage of these girdles was that they did away with the gap of flesh between the stocking top and normal girdle which often bulges out over the stocking. They also removed the chance of accidentally showing ones stocking tops, which was becoming much more frequent as skirts became shorter in the early 60's, especially for women with short legs. The major disadvantages were that they were very hot to wear, especially in warmer weather, and it was very awkward going to the loo (tiolet) unless you had the type with an opening crotch. Otherwise it could involve major undressing! The opening crotches had hook and eye fasteners and these were very awkward and often very uncomfortable. All in all, not my favourite style, although they were soon replaced with tights and short panty-girdles. In theory they were good idea, but they look better in photos than they are to wear.

 

Most women wore slips, either full slips or waist slips. We had some that I would not describe as full slips but came down to about suspender height. I’m not sure what they would be called.

 

Long-line bras were quite popular in the late 1950's but I seem to recollect not a huge demand in the 1960's despite the more modern style lighter fabrics coming in. I don't think they had gone out of fashion for the women who need them, but the range was now much smaller. The main thing that customers would look for in bras, was firm support and comfort. Straps were nowhere near as comfortable then, generally being non-stretch, and fashion dictated a sharp outline to the bust. The larger-breasted lady had to find a bra that suited her and wasn’t digging in too much on the straps.

 

With girdles, the complaints were usually "it rides up too much" or "it’s too hard to bend in!" Suspender bulges under clothing were common, as is mentioned elsewhere on the site, and although some suspenders had ‘modesty shields’, the small satin tabs over them, they invariably went to one side and were ineffective.

 

You also got the ‘girdle line’ showing through skirts, but it was quite normal and most women had to accept it.

 

Having worked in the business for a number of years, I have seen all shapes and sizes, and seen fashions come and go. ‘Womens’ Lib’ had a lot to answer for as far as ‘glamour’ is concerned, and I was sad to see much of the traditional underwear die out, and the shops closed, to be replaced by faceless stores selling cheap and nasty imported ‘lingerie’.

 

What is nice is that there is still a steady if not huge demand for these things, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if girdles one day come back into fashion as women get fed up with tights! For myself I hate the things so you can guess what I prefer to wear!

 

I hope this has given a little insight into my time at this shop. I was fascinated to see this site. It was lovely to be able to look at some of the older things again, and I really think that modern women have lost the plot, so to speak.  

 

I fully agree Rosalind, and many, many thanks for your excellent contribution to our site. - Ivy

 

Rosalind's photograph of the actual shop front and the Hairdressers shop that it has become today.

 

 

Read more about the old corset shops and their sad demise.

 

 

Questions to Rosalind: (Questions in black; Rosalind's response in brown and Ivy's additions in green)  

I seem to remember that while generally in the UK girdles had four suspenders, some had six or even (I think) eight.  In my limited experience, it tended to be only the firmer garments that had more than four suspenders.  My girlfriend at the time (mid 1960s) decided not to buy a particular girdle not because it might be too firm but because she didn't like having extra suspenders.  Was there a practical reason why some girdles had more than four suspenders and was the number of suspenders sometimes a factor in the choice of girdle to buy?

Six suspenders gave better support for stockings and prevented them from twisting. As you say it was generally the firmer girdles or corselettes that had six suspenders. (It’s not well appreciated these days, that one of the functions of the corset or girdle was to hold up the stockings. The stockings of the older women, who would need firmer support, were often highly elastic and would need six suspenders simply to counter the tensions involved - Ivy)

 

Faced with so many types and styles of girdle in the 1950s and 60s, what features did a purchaser typically consider when deciding which to buy? Obviously factors such as length and strength were important but there were so many others - type of fabric, panels, boning, type of fastening, etc. etc. Did satin panels play any part in the choice of garment? What kind of discussion took place between the woman buying the girdle and the sales assistant?

There was a very wide choice of style and finish and one of the main factors was price. Customers varied widely in their fussiness and some would simply come in and buy a garment without even trying it on whilst others could spend over an hour trying on the different styles and makes. Some ladies were very keen on satin panels as they gave a smoother line and felt nicer to wear. Customers would often ask what we thought and had we tried them. In actual fact we did try on quite a few items to get some idea what they were like. Long-term comfort was a major factor as exploited by Playtex!

You have said that girls of high school age usually bought suspender belts or light girdles.

(a)  My sisters and girlfriends seemed to prefer the deeper-style suspender belts which had only side panels of elastic and seemed quite firm.  Was that the type your customers of that age generally bought? Were such belts more comfortable or more functional than the shorter ones?

(b)  Were there reasons for preferring a belt to a girdle or vice-versa?

(c)  Girls I knew in the mid 50s to mid 60s did indeed wear suspender belts or light girdles.  However, two of them definitely did not - and I had the impression that quite a few girls (of 5th and 6th form age) wore more substantial foundations.  The younger of my sisters (who was a little "plump") wore what seemed to be quite a firm girdle with a zip. It had a wide, non-stretch front with two little elastic triangles between the suspenders, and the whole of the back was double elsatic.  A girl (friend of my then girlfriend) I often met at our youth club and who was rather more heavily built than my sister, wore a boned girdle and, I think, long-line bra. I could feel the rigid material and the bones as I danced with her.  This was in the south of England and I wonder whether things were different further north or whether some girls there also had to wear heavier foundations.

High school girls didn't only wear suspender belts, but that was very common. The bigger girls definitely did wear girdles and these ranged from lighter stretch type to firm control girdles. A lesser number wore long-line bras but I recall at least one that did. She was very voluptuous and also wore girdles. The deep style suspender belts were a halfway house and provided some degree of control. (Rosalind doesn't mention the north-south divide. I well remember in the late 1960's, a newspaper comment that pretty underwear wasn't available in t' north! This elicited a fusillade of replies from northern women, who accused the writer of assuming that they still wore frumpy corsets.)

 

When panty-girdles and tights became popular in the late 60s, my wife complained that panty-girdles described (by M&S) as firm control were nothing like as firm as their open girdles had been.  Was there a tendency for manufacturers to downgrade their definitions of firmness to match the greater freedom that women seemed to enjoy from about that time. Perhaps was my wife simply wrong in her belief.

You are quite right about 'downgrading' the definitions! Simple panty-girdles by their very design couldn't give the same degree of firmness as girdles, although some of the long-leg types definitely did. (The Spirellette 105 is definitely a case in point – Ivy.)

 

Did women buy special garments for weddings?

Women definitely did buy new bras and girdles for weddings. In the 1960's brides would be wearing whatever suited their body, so there is no definitive answer. There was little in the way of glamorous stuff like today's basques. For formal dressing, foundation garments were almost always worn, even if the lady was slim. She would still feel the need to be wearing a girdle and a supportive bra. (The picture on the right from Spirella - April 1959 shows that even the thin and angular lady deserved the correct support. Sadly she seems less than happy with the experience - Ivy)

 

How long would a standard corset last ?

Corsets would last for several years and customers would generally have two or three or more. I'm not sure how long they would be kept but certainly longer than the lighter weight girdles and roll-ons that were more popular. Those tended to lose their elasticity and would be replaced. (A corsetiere I used to visit in Croydon, South London, could expound at length about frequency of washing, acidity of perspiration and many other factors that would extend or reduce the longevity of the corset - Ivy)

 

And the old favourite:- Did women wear their knickers over or under their corsets?

Knickers were always worn over corsets and girdles. (So now you've heard it from an expert - Ivy)