Technical Aspects of Corsetry

 

 

Weight

 

Length

Bra sizes

 

Who wore what, when

 

 

Corset detective

 

US Girdle Sales 1960 - 1982

US Bra Sales 1960 - 1982

 

 

Corsets and Girdles:  A Lengthy Subject ...

 

 

This section might almost be called the rise and fall of tall corsetry. A century ago, as these photographs show, corsets could be very long indeed. Above the waist, one wonders if the wearer could even bend, and below the waist, some corset skirts were so extreme that sitting down was surely a major problem. This is strongly exaggerated in the French advertisement (far left).

 

Casual observers of these Edwardian corsets have commented, how on earth did women walk, sit or even attended to the calls of nature? Observe the corset closely. The corset was only tight at the waist. The bottom of the corset, still referred to today as the skirt, was in fact simply a looser extension of the corset that allowed the clothes to flow over the foundation without any lumps or bumps. The skirt didn't need to be tight since its other purpose was to provide attachment for the suspenders (garters). One of the primary functions of the corset or girdle has always been to hold up one's stockings. In Edwardian times, stockings barely came above the knees, however, as skirts became shorter, so the stockings became longer and the corset shorter.

 

A typical Gossard corset from 1920

 

Corsets in the earlier part of the 20th century were habitually longer than those of our mothers'. Regard the Gossard picture (left middle). The lady is tall, let us say (by the standards of those times) 5 foot 6 inches (1.68m). In that case those corsets are about 20" long.

 

Rose Dewitt Bukator (left) displays a typical Edwardian corset, although oddly with no suspenders. It is a very long garment, but the horizontal creases show where she has sat down. The busk length has to be carefully designed so as not to injure the wearer!

 

The lady above appears in two very long Edwardian corsets. Assuming her height is about 5 foot 4 inches (1.63 m), the corset on the left would be a full 22" long and the one on the right an amazing 24", but note that the extra length is in the skirt.

 

Corset length above the waist is simply a requirement if the wearer wishes to achieve a 'waisted' silhouette, and in post-war America, the girdle became the weapon of choice. Far from being the preserve of the Edwardian lady or the corseted elderly woman, length was a feature beautifully demonstrate by these American models below for Poirette and Smoothie. Some long-legged panty-girdles (the famous LLPG that never quite crossed the Atlantic in all its glory) could measure an alarming 22" (56 cm) in length.

 

 

In Scandinavia, the tall girdle was very much in demand in the 1950's and 60's. The high-waisted girdle was not without it problems, as illustrated in the famous 'Mrs. Merrick bought a derrick' cartoon.

 

This unbelievably corny advertisement for Talon Zippers illustrates a daily chore for millions of women in the 1950's and that was getting in and out of one's girdle. Mind you, once ensconced in your rib-high Promise Poirette, the resulting silhouette was undeniably attractive.

 

Long corsets are still with us. Two of the corsets described below in the 'weighty' section are 53 cm (21") long in the back. Spencer regularly advertised corsets of this length and still makes them today and, of course, being a bespoke house, a taller lady would have ordered proportionately longer corsets. I know of one very tall Danish lady whose corsets were an amazing 16" below the waist and 7 " above the waist at the back. That's 23 inches (58 cm) in total! We met this lady on a Nile cruise and, despite the searing temperatures outside, she rigorously maintained her heavy stays, for indeed, she needed them. An ailing back required all the support of the corset if she was to participate in the interesting excursions; which she enjoyed to the full. I mention this, since ultra-long corsets usually can be classed as surgical supports

 

We have added some notes on long corsets in the Corset Detective page. Of course, what constitutes a long corset depends on the relative height of the wearer. We met a bubbly barrel shaped woman many years ago. Barely 5 feet tall (1.5 metres) she had no waist at all to the extent that her corset required shoulder straps in case the strain of her stockings actually pulled her corset off! The Spirella corset that she wore was only 18" long, but it covered her from thighs to armpit. She certainly felt that she was wearing a long corset. Sadly, having invested quite some money in this foundation, the chafing of the shoulder straps against her bosom forced her to consign it to the back of her drawers where her children rescued it years later after she had passed away.

 

Our friend in these photographs wears one of the longest contemporary corsets in our experience. The lady who is 5' 10" tall wears a front- and back-laced Spencer posture corset purchased from Spencer of England in 2005 (the modern equivalent of the Spirella 325). The corset is 23½" long at the back! The satin back-laced brassiere (from Hunkemoller in Den Haag - 2000) contains any flesh that might escape over the top of the corset. When the front-lacing is considered as well, there is over 50 inches of lacing to adjust!

We have seen and even possess some seriously long corsets in our collection, however, they pass beyond the world of the conventional or even surgical and enter a realm of fantasy.

 

 

 

 

 ... and a Weighty one too!

 

How much did corsets weigh? We put it to the test using three fairly substantial Spirella 325's from both sides of the Atlantic and dating between 1960 to 2000.

The modern Spencer (ex-Spirella) corset from Britain a few years ago weighs 500 gr (just over a pound - below right). The corset on the right which came from the USA in the late 1960's weighs in at 660 gr (1lb 7oz); below left, the Canadian corset from1970 weighs an X-ray challenging 800 gm (nearly two pounds.)

In fairness, the Canadian garment carries four substantial back support 'steels' (made of Aluminium).

It was perfectly possible in the late 1960's to have ordered a back-support corset with underbelt, in a strong, yet fashionable material. Such a garment would have weighed well over one kilogramme (two pounds).

 

One of our new Spencer corsets ordered for a friend in 2005, by virtue of its length (23") weighs in at 880 gr (just under two pounds), and that is without spinal steels. Had such a corset been made 20 years ago from heavy corset brocade, one feels that the three pound barrier might well have been threatened!

 

For comparison, a M&S satin elastic girdle weighs in at 350 gr (12 oz)

 

Such weighty foundations have all but disappeared, indeed, from the 1960's onwards, the thrust was towards lightness and comfort. I have no objection to comfort at all, however, a foundation is a foundation and should do its job. Did the Playtex girdle at 98 grams (right) really have any effect at all? Certainly not on the slim model in the advertisement! The 2½ oz (73 gr) full girdle by Warners is even lighter, including four suspenders. I have come across such light girdles, Miss Mary of Sweden's are surprisingly light, but there is no substitute for weight.

 

      

'Au contraire' Madam, you are actually right!

 

 

Who wore what, when ?

The facts and figures of corsetry might be obvious to myself and my female peers, but my husband has a typically male approach to such problems and resorts to mathematics and some basic assumptions to determine what is fact, and what is fiction. As he often says "In these days of unsolicited and gratuitous misinformation, it pains me, as a scientist, to see so much conjecture and political expedience rendered under the banner of factual data. I would hate to be so cynical as my old tutor at college who, quite candidly expostulated that "Most of what you will learn is fiction. Use your brains; THINK. A minute's thought is worth a day of effort"". Amazingly, my husband's agonising over the PC and the following chart actually do explain rather a lot!

In this analysis, there are many sweeping assumptions and generalisations, however, the end results explain much of what is observed.

The graph says it all. It was constructed from basic assumptions. Over 100 years old, the database is statistically non-existent. Below 14, we're looking at relics from Victoriana (almost). I simply considered when a woman was born, what was the chance of her wearing an appropriate foundation for each particular year, and then relied upon the deluge of opinions that Ivy and Bunts could reproduce! Let me help you by taking a few examples:-

1) A lady born in 1900 (vertical axis - on the left), living in 1920 (horizontal axis). The colour is pale purple, close to dark purple. This young lady would be likely to wear a corset if upper class, and less likely if lower class. Her older contemporaries would almost certainly wear a corset.

2) A lady born in 1920 living in 1960 (my mother and her friends). Definitely into girdles, but note the rapid decline after the 'Beatles era', and the rapid uptake of the panty-girdle. Oddly, there is a dip in the popularity of the panty-girdle that has only resurfaced in the last decade.

3) A lady born in 1950 living in 2004. The graph predicts a reasonable chance that she wears a panty-girdle, but the chance the she wears a corset is extremely small. Nevertheless, extremely small multiplied by the potential 25 million eligible women in Britain is still a finite number. Ivy is one of that finite number!

4) The corset appears to make a comeback at the end of the 1930's. This is simply the corset-wearing generation discarding such garments, but soon reverting as older age took the upper hand. 

5) Ivy's 'Lost Generation', is represented by the horizontal yellow band, i.e. those women who are currently aged 65 to 85 years old. Certainly, they were regular girdle-wearers, however, you have to go back another 20 years to catch the corset-wearing Edwardians. That's why genuine recollections are usually the preserve of the very elderly.

6) Note the rapid rise and fall of the girdle. The corset (as we currently know it) has been around for half a millennium, and the Spirella 305 (still marketed today albeit by Spencer) for eight decades. The panty-girdle, invented well before WWII, came to prominence in the late 1940's and is still effectively the only lower foundation on offer today although it nearly passed away in the 1980's to 90's. It's future looks secure even if women use the euphamism 'shaper'. That will be at least six decades. The girdle came and went in three magnificent decades of style and control. The corset it supplanted eventually would out-sell it. The panty-girdle, took America by storm and then invaded Europe. The girdle, like the Apollo missions, had been years incubating, still lingers on in reduced form, but was at its zenith for a remarkably short period. We forget how long ago that was. The Beatles, the culture of whom changed the world, and incidentally terminated the girdle, are now eligible for pension. How did it all pass so quickly?

 

These notes would have been impossible to compile without the memories of my husband and myself, but especially recollections and anecdotes from readers. Regard the observation below and one can see the time lines of fashion change describe in apparently trivial memories.

 

I used to visit my aunt several times each year in the late 1960’s. She must have been about 65 then. She always kept her cupboards open, and lying there were her M&S girdles. These garments were replaced by pantie-girdles in 1969. I remember the year since I went off to university then, and she gave me five pounds”.

 

"I started wearing a girdle when I was 15. Why not? My mum did and girls in those days dressed the same way. Just before I went to training college (1971), she took me into Guildford and bought me some panty-girdles that, hitherto, she had pooh-poohed. I never wore my girdles again. Tights came almost immediately afterwards and the daily chore of doing one's suspenders became history. When I say chore, I didn't realise it was a chore until I stopped wearing stockings."

 

 

The History of Foundations from the Sears Catalogue

 

We have a number of Sears catalogues dating from 1918 to 1972. A quick walk through their pages is to take a trip down memory lane, however, my husband decided to test the veracity of our article above. In short order, a number of expected conclusions appeared and a few unexpected ones. Of course, the Sears catalogue does not reveal what women wore, simply what Sears expected them to buy; the relative sales figures are unknown to us. Nevertheless, here are some observations:-

 

Corsets are present in all the catalogues, however, from the late-1930, back-lacing steadily gives way either to front-lacing or cluster-lacing. Basically, donning one's corset became a task for oneself, not one's maid. From the late 1950's the number of pages devoted to corsets decreases drastically, and the models for sale are more 'surgical corsets' or supports rather than fashion garments. Corselettes stand the test of time as well evolving from complex under-belted creations to the ultimate entrapment device, the long-leg panty-corselette. The garment was extremely popular prior to the WWII mainly because independent brassieres were not available. The corselette pre-WWII was really a corset extended to hold the bosom. The word brassiere appears after WWI but their appearance in any number does not happen until after WWII. Long-line brassieres never occupy much space in the catalogue and steadily the conventional bra would dominate the pages, and subsequently the floor space in the department stores.

 

Girdles arise and fall over a three decade period, the shortest of any serious foundation garment. What might have been a longer success was squashed in short order by the panty-girdle. This garment first appears pre-WWII but dramatically dominates the catalogues as the 1950's come to an end having evolved into the long-leg panty-girdle. For two decades, American women wore a bra and panty-girdle; it might as well have been a uniform (right). Incidentally, Sears never used the term panty-girdle, simply panty or girdle.

 

Waspies and basques enjoy a few pages during this period, oddly a decade after Dior's new look that required such garments. Rubber is a mainline material for 10% of garments pre-WWII, but the material requirements of this conflict precluded rubber for corsetry for the best part of a decade. It returns during the 1950's and 1960's, latterly under the championship of Playtex, only to die out in favour of what a friend incorrectly called more natural fabrics (what is more natural than rubber?). Oddly, we see a renaissance today of rubber corsetry in Latin America.

 

That was the American experience. Typically, before the internet generation, modes and customs from America would cross the Atlantic about five to ten years later and, indeed, a British history follows the same course, albeit delayed; the move into the panty-girdle occurring at the end of the 1960's. One major difference however, was that Europeans never embraced the long-leg panty-girdle with the fervour of their American sisters, and whilst Americans wore some really elegant, sleek foundations, the British were reduced to little more than elasticated underpants. Amazingly, spear-headed by the fashion-conscious Asian market, the panty-girdle (although not called as such) once again fills the shelves of the stores.

 

Although these pictures are relatively recent, they illustrate the American dream era of the early 1960's where mother and daughter could be wearing exactly the same foundation garments, albeit in slightly different sizes!

 

 

 

An article by Susan G. Sawyer from the Pittsburg Gazette of 1982 provides some interesting statistics:-

For American women, girdles are gradually going the way of all flesh. For centuries, women accepted the stiff whalebone corset —and later the girdle — as a fact of life. Although these garments sometimes made it difficult to breathe, they helped trim one's figure and uphold a woman's honor.

Today, however, surveys suggest that the traditional girdle has out­stayed its welcome as a part of the American woman's wardrobe. For example, only about 15 percent of the trendy New York women who shop in Bloomingdale's buy heavyweight girdles, according to a store spokesman, and last year the store changed the name of its department from "Girdles" to "Shapewear."

"The old days of the heavy-duty girdle are over," confirms Jill Gerson, editor of Body Fashions/Inti­mate Apparel, a national monthly trade publication. A recent survey conducted by International Playtex, Inc., shows that over the past 10 years, girdle ownership among U.S. women has declined from 89 percent in 1970 to 50 percent to in 1980.

The U.S. Department of Commerce agrees that it wasn't a very good decade for girdle sales. In 1970, U.S. girdle shipments totaled $254 6 million. By 1979 they had dwindled to $188.8 million. By 1980, they had risen slightly, to $194.6 million, as manufacturers began to address women's changing needs in what the industry calls "control bottoms."

Some say the physical fitness movement has contributed to the slow demise of the heavy-duty, hard-to-wriggle-into, hold-your­ breath girdles. Others cite the feminist movement, which has encouraged women to throw off confinements of various sorts. Still others blame pantyhose for inching the girdle closer and closer to the crinoline petticoat in the annals of fashion history.

A Playtex spokesman admits the control-top pantyhose set the girdle business back somewhat, but a further look at the company's nation­wide survey shows that the girdle has yet to breathe its last gasp. Most women over 50 still wear girdles, Playtex notes.

(Sue Collier, foundations buyer for Garfinckel's in Washington, D.C., has noted that women over 55 still prefer four-way stretch styles to the newer, lighter fabrics.)

The typical girdle owner is a woman age 50 or over, in a low-income bracket and unemployed, who lives in the Northeast. Midwest or South, the survey shows. The older the woman is, the more likely she is to own a girdle.

According to Playtex, only 24 percent of women between ages 15 and 24 own girdles. Ownership increases to 33 percent for women ages 25 to 34; to 49 percent for ages35 to 49; and to 72 percent for women of 50 and older. The trend is unmistakable: Young women aren't buying girdles. Are women simply getting skinnier, or is there something else happening?

"Today's woman doesn't want to be confined, never had to be confined and won't be confined," says Jill Gerson. "The customer for the girdle of old with stays and bones is dying. A girdle is not something women are wearing under jeans."

Compressibility

We have mentioned elsewhere that the human body is virtually all fluid. Fluids are incompressible, therefore a corset, cannot reduce the figure. Wearing a corset does not cause instant weight loss so where does the body mass go. It cannot go inwards; it cannot be compressed; it must go somewhere. What a corset does is to refine one's shape or to change it. In the simplest case, a loose corset will enlarge the figure due to the thickness of the corset. We discovered this simple fact when dressing one of the models for the 2012 calendar. The model was unable to don a size 14 dress whilst corsetted, but without the corset we could, with some effort, force the zipper of the dress to close. I'm sure that had the corset been made-to-measure for the model, this problem would not have occurred.

Regard the model on the right. In the left hand pose, she wears a Miss Mary of Sweden girdle. These girdles are beautiful but not very powerful and it fails completely to control her figure. On the right, she wears a Canadian Spirella 325 corset. It can be seen that there is no reduction in her waist size or indeed volume, however, her shape and posture is so much better. Any dress that she now wears (and it will be the same size as before) will hang so much better. She will look better and feel better in herself. Isn't that what corsetry is all about.

 

 

 

Football Tummy

WRONG:

The lack of a proper foundation garment, and far too tight a belt results in severe straining of both the skirt and the blouse. "Football Tummy' is the result.

RIGHT:

It might look a little more matronly, but there is no strain on the clothes. The clothes will fit perfectly every time, any body fluctuations being controlled by the corset.

 

Corset Detective  (this page has been moved)