Zippers and other Perils


The construction of this page was prompted by the many accounts we have received of stuck zippers, uncomfortable bones, in fact, the very perils of dressing in conventional corsetry. What bought the matter to a head was the visit of one of our nieces. In the fine weather we are having of late, I asked her at breakfast if she fancied a walk on the local moors. She agreed and went upstairs to change. To my amazement she returned within a few minutes in jeans (what else), a T-shirt (with no brassiere as far as I could see), socks and trainers. In total, she was wearing only seven items of clothing - or anything for that matter! I mentally counted the numbers of articles that my old Dutch auntie would wear, it hardly seemed to vary with the seasons. Including the layers of complex underwear, teeth, coats, hat, brolly, earrings and so forth, not only did it take her an hour to prepare, but she adorned her body with over 40 separate items!* Goodness knows what they weighed. Our niece, dispensing with what auntie would consider essential, dressed even more quickly than my husband. For my niece, and the rest of her generation, this page, in fact the whole web-site, is probably a complete mystery.


I know of several women wearing zippered girdles who have managed to jam the zip on the little satin tag attached thereto. Infinite patience is required to set oneself free, or an expensive mistake will occur.

I came across a rather severe Jenyns panty-girdle. Slightly yellowed with age (it would date from the late 1960's), the interesting point about this garment is the broken top of the zipper pull tag, where the original satin flash has broken off the end of the tag. This could have been a manufacturing defect. The old corsetiere in Upper Street, Croydon refused to sell any zippered foundation in the 1970's due to the unreliability of the zippers. There is however, other evidence in the distorted lower hooks and eyes that reside beneath the zip. Indeed, this garment was far too tight for its wearer. What is evident is that closing the hooks and eyes must have required heroic effort. Pulling the zipper taut against the elastic forces of the over-stretched garment must, at some point have overcome the zipper tag. Was the wretched women trapped in her underwear, the zipper at half-mast I wonder? Oh, the perils of vanity. A word of warning  to any lady that tries to wear too tight a lower garment. You may think it's tight when you don the article standing, but when you sit down, the nether regions will expand and place a huge force on any fastenings around the hip area. The forces involved can become intolerable to wearer and can, in short order, part the zipper and pull the hooks and eyes from their industrially anchored mounts. It is a miss-conception that tight lacing (or tight underwear) puts a strain on the waist. It may do, but the strain is constant. It is the strain over the hips that can increase dramatically as one attempts to sit.


On the same theme, I remember a lady recounting how, in exactly the manner described above, she pulled the end of the tag off her zipper. The zipper was finally hoisted by the use of a pair of pliers (not the first time these articles have been usefully employed in dressing or undressing).




A reader volunteered the following remarks in response to the above:-


I was reading your latest Diary entry about the perils of zips, especially on too-tight girdles, and about the effect on tightness of sitting down in a girdle.  My fiancée, later wife, never wore a zipped girdle: with a slim (under 24" waist) she had no need of a high-waisted girdle (the ones that most often came with a zip) and although she wore firm control open girdles to deal with what she regarded as a disproportionately large rear, none of those had a zip.  Because she bought the small size (23/24" waist) her girdles were quite tight as she pulled them up over her hips.  When I questioned whether perhaps her girdle was too tight and therefore uncomfortable, she said it needed to be tight to do its job and, in any case, she was quite used to it.  Then she added that it was even tighter when she sat down but it "stops my bottom from spreading out".   I can confirm that those M&S girdles with their downstretch back panels certainly did that!

Earlier, while I was still at school, I overheard a conversation in which the mother of a slightly plump girl about my own age (15 or 16) commented that her daughter had "spread out".  She put this down to sitting for long periods on hard, wooden school seats.  "She ought to have worn a girdle sooner", she said.

One of my sisters wore a firm girdle, with a zip, in her mid-teens.  When she sat down on a firm chair, the point where the bottom of her girdle ended was quite apparent because her thighs bulged out a little.  She had been recommended to wear a longer-skirted girdle to help deal with that problem and, when standing and walking, she had a very neat smooth line, even in her straight school skirts.  It was only sitting down when the thigh bulge reappeared and I suppose that too demonstrates the point you made about how much a girdle tightens around the hips when the wearer sits down.

In the early days of the metal zip fastener, there were some catastrophic zip failures on girdles, which is why, these days, all such zips are backed by hooks and eyes. Talking of which, yet another euphemism for girdle was ‘zipper’. It wasn’t so common but I’ve heard a mother ask her daughter “I hope you’ve got your zipper on today”. My husband speaks of a girl-friend who referred to her ‘waist nipper’ as a ‘zipper nipper’, although whether this referred to the garment’s zip fastener, or to the poor girl catching her flesh in the zipper was more than my husband dared to ask! This girl, who was somewhat overweight, later purchased a basque, however, the boning (see below) on the garment simply wasn’t up to the task, and every time she sat down, her tummy would force the front bones to fold back on themselves. 

Bones and Disembarkation

David Niven also recounts the episode of a large and heavily corseted actress who was dancing with her partner closely clasped to her bosom. At the end of the dance, the man didn't let go and she hissed "the dance is over". "I can't move" replied the man, "One of your stays is up my nose"!

The spiral-wound stay, although a great revolution for corsetry, did sometimes cause embarrassment when it broke loose from its casing. In the Spirella magazine of October 1959, a lady recounts walking home at night when she was terrified by something that tapped her on the back of her neck. She ran home only to find that the tapping was an errant stay from her corselette that had ridden up. 

Perhaps the troubles with bones might be known to our younger readers, not the extreme examples above, but the nuisance of under-wiring setting off security alarms at airports. A well placed bone is a support, literally, a stay, but an errant bone that has pierced its casing can become a painful enemy.

Disembarking from One's Girdle

The Sears girdle on the left illustrates a common feature of such garments where the girdle is removed by pulling it downwards and turning it inside out. The non-spiral waist bones (particularly on Berlei girdles) takes on a pronounced concavity due to the extreme bending. Sadly, this defect can render a girdle un-wearable and unbearable as the bends in the bones can become set and start to poke painfully into one's middle region. Many a girdle, as strong as the day it was manufactured, has been consigned to the bin due to the damage to the bones. There are two solutions to this problem: Remove the bone and insert a new one, or take off the girdle by inserting one's hands down the side of the girdle and moving it down over the hips without inverting it.

There are a number of ways to disembark from your girdle. The inversion technique (described above), the hands inside and wriggle down over the hips method (also described above) and grabbing the bottom of the girdle legs and yanking hard. The latter technique is doomed to failure: if you manage to preserve your nails, it is all too easy to rip the lacy leg bottoms that so many of these girdles possess.


Another aspect of corsetry that requires hiding is the length of lacing left over once the garment is tightened. These lengths of lacing can be a dreadful embarrassment, particularly if they come loose and trail !  This is truly a mortifying experience as my Aunt will testify. The traditional way of dealing with the lacing is to ensure that it is as short as possible whilst allowing the wearer to don the corset correctly. Corset laces come in standard lengths which are always too long; they have to be shortened. The remaining lacing that will appear after the corset is tightened and the laces tied, should be tucked under the edge of the corset where there is always a little space. They may even have to be tucked vertically down the edges, but it works and leaves no unsightly bulge, and Heaven forbid, you'll never betray your secret by trailing a couple of yards of lacing behind you !

My ancient auntie was visiting us for the afternoon. As we toured the garden looking at the flowers, I noticed our recently acquired kitten beginning its stalk and dash game. I looked around for the object of its attention and noticed that auntie’s corset laces were dangling down. Before I could intervene, the kitten pounced on the laces and swung there, its front claws firmly caught in the laces. Auntie and the kitten panicked as one. The kitten went mad, auntie screamed, tripped and fell. The kitten killed the laces, disentangled its claws and rushed off after the next victim. Mercifully auntie, although slightly the worse for wear, damaged only her pride.

The perils of tight-lacing are legion, and not simply confined to the health of the wearer either. Here’s a well-known trick if you really want to tighten a corset (either front or back-laced). Take the two loops of the corset laces and put them over a smooth, but strongly anchored object and lean away from the object. You weight will automatically pull the laces tight. The dangers are, the laces snapping, or the loops coming off the anchorage, both of which can precipitate the wearer to the floor. Since the commonest strong-point is a door handle, make sure the door is secured shut. I know of one hotel guest who was proceeding to dinner, when she was startled by the explosive opening of the door she was passing. The sight of middle-aged woman crashing backwards to the carpet was even more alarming. It’s one of those situations that you can’t just ignore, the woman may have been injured. Fortunately, it was simply a case of injured pride.



Believe it or not, I have seen a surgical corset with no less than 17 buckles. By buckles I am referring to the metal tag that secures the webbing straps found on under-belts and that often secure the front of these corsets. They are easy to tighten but require an over-centre flick to release and that can pose a problem. An elderly and rather vain lady was being fitted with a new pair of corsets. The corsets in question were long and rigid in the back and fastened at the front by means of straps and buckles. She exhorted the fitter to fasten it as tightly as possible, against the fitter's advice, since new corsets do need to be 'broken in' for the first few days. The fitter left and agreed to pass by the following week. That evening whilst preparing for bed, the elderly lady realised that the strength in her hands was quite insufficient to budge the buckles against the over-centre action. It was several days (and nights) before the poor lady ate humble pie and phoned the corsetiere to free her from her corsets. The lady subsequently reverted to front-lacing corsets since, in extremis, one can always cut the laces.

Spirella was aware that many of their clients suffered from arthritis and substituted velcro fastenings for the lacing or buckles. This has become common on many modern surgical supports, however, the appalling ripping sound as one divests ones underwear before retiring is audible testimony to one's stays. My husband adds (in his typically male fashion) that it really is a bit of a 'turn-off' as well.

The other peril associated with buckles is the twisted webbing that jams the whole mechanism.


Suspenders (Garters  U.S.)

The forces on the suspender can be huge. I've mentioned elsewhere that for decades one of the primary functions of the corset was to support the stockings. In the days of far heavier yarns and elastics, required to support those 'aching legs', the act of sitting down could literally tear the rear suspender from its mounting. 

The embarrassment of having one’s stocking detach from the suspender was always a risk whilst women wore stockings. Not that the detachment was particularly audible, or even noticeable, since the stocking would usually have one of two other suspenders to retain it. It was more the idea that, something untoward had occurred to one’s underwear. My husband remembers well that the only outward sign of his (very prim and proper) mother’s rear suspender coming drift was a muttered “Oh, Blast” (very strong language for such a lady).  She would then depart to rectify the situation.

A stocking properly attached to the suspender will not come adrift, so why did this happen so frequently? I believe it was very much a problem of the 1960’s rather than any other period. One must consider the fashion of the times. Stockings were worn by all women throughout the year, however, as skirts became shorter, so the stockings became longer. Attaching one’s back suspenders became harder and harder (a long rear suspender is far easier to attach that a small tab right up by one’s derriere). Some brands of girdle were even manufactured without rear suspenders. At this time, the suspender design was becoming more stream-lined. Cars started having heaters, central heating in the house was becoming common, and basically, a warmer population demanded sheerer fabrics. The suspender was designed to minimise its profile. The old button-centred suspender was replaced by the classic ‘so-lo’ suspender as adopted by Marks and Spencer. These suspenders, especially the invisible rear ones, were all too easy to cross-thread. The tension of the stocking would allow for temporary security until the wearer sat down and stood up again. Then ‘ping’; detachment and embarrassment.


*How many items did an old lady wear?


Regarding my aunt Helga:-




Jewellery Underwear Outerwear
Above the neck Wig (hairpiece) and kirby grips (6)







Earrings (2)   Hat &  pins (2)
The neck  



Necklaces (2)   Scarf
Neck to Waist     Brassiere







Arms and Hands  



Bracelets (3)

Rings (5)

Waist     Corset






Waist to Ankles     Surgical Stockings



Ankles and Feet       Boots


There are 21 articles of clothing, basic artifices and underwear, plus another 20 pins and items of jewellery.