Berlei

 

 

I used to know little about Berlei other than their incredibly successful 'Gay Slant' range of girdles (below right) and pantie-girdles. As other manufacturers modernised their range, Berlei continued to provide traditional girdles in a good variety of fittings right up to the late 1980's. Berlei employed professional corsetieres to chose the correct combination of fittings from their range much the way that Camp did.

 

Berlei was initially Australian and the name derives from the original firm's accountant Fred Burley, who married the firm's manageress in 1907. The name was registered as Berlei some years later. Another famous brand, Sarongster, seems to have merged with Berlei, or was a part of Berlei as the advertisements below reveal. 

 

One of Berlei's claims to fame was its approach to sizing. Probably not as unique as they claimed, it did at least admit to the remarkable range, not just of sizes, but of shapes and forms that women possess. This was called the "Berlei System" and was in use, albeit attenuated, in the British High Street in the 1980's.

 

A history of Berlei can be found on the firm's archives:-

 

Collected Archives Administrative History

 

On 25 August 1910 Frederick Richard Burley (1885-1954), with financial support from his family, bought a controlling interest in E. Gover & Co, a small women's undergarment firm in Market Street, Sydney. During 1911 a decision was also made to enter into the wholesale trade. On 1 July 1912 Fred Burley's brother, Frank Arthur Burley (1881-1957), joined the firm and the wholesale section was formed into a separate company, Unique Corsets Ltd, which had a nominal capital of 10,000 pounds and paid up capital of 2,500 pounds. The first meeting of the company was held in October 1912.

 

Unique Corsets Ltd rented the top floor in a building in Wilmot Street and employed 12 people. In its first four months the company generated sales of 1,605 pounds and its output was only limited by the number of trained machinists it could employ. Total sales for the first 12 months were 10,500 pounds.

 

In 1913 Fred Burley made a study tour to Europe and the United States of America to view latest developments in the industry. In 1915 Mary Craven, formerly manageress of her father's undergarment factory, joined the company as Designer and soon afterwards was sent overseas on study tour. This was part of a considered strategy to bring senior management up-to-date with industry trends and advances.

 

The business continued to grow and another floor was rented in the Wilmot Street building. By 1917 staff numbers had grown to 60 and new premises were occupied in the Commerce Buildings, Liverpool Street, Sydney. In that year Fred and Arthur Burley jointly coined the trade mark name 'Berlei'. By 1918 200 staff worked for the company and capital was increased to 15,400 pounds.

 

On 9 October 1919 Unique Corsets Ltd formally changed its name to Berlei Ltd as the brand name was now well established in the public mind. Berlei Ltd was registered as a public company in October 1920. In 1920 the company also purchased W. Zander & Co, a corset manufacturer, which took total staff numbers to 280. The company was re-floated with authorised capital of 250,000 pounds. On 1 January 1922 Berlei House, a seven storey office and factory at 39-47 Regent Street, Sydney was opened. Daily output soon rose to 2,500 garments and staff numbered 500. Dr Grace Boelke was appointed Medical Superintendent to ensure that Berlei garments were 'anatomically correct' and to act as medical officer for the factory. The company was also known for its enlightened approach to industrial relations influenced by the Burley brother's commitment to community service.

 

During 1922 Fred Burley prepared a business policy and stated his ideals for the company: "To Design and Manufacture Corsets and Brassieres of such perfect Fit, Quality, and Workmanship, as will bring pleasure and profit to all concerned, while at the same time rendering such excellent service to our Clients and Consumers as will merit their permanent patronage." In 1923 Berlei took over one of its main competitors, Australian Corsets Ltd. On 27 November 1923 it also established Berlei New Zealand Ltd in Auckland. Equipment was shipped from Australia and senior staff members were sent to New Zealand to provide technical expertise in the establishment of the business. Berlei New Zealand Ltd remained a subsidiary of Berlei Ltd from its inception until 1929 when the holding company reduced its share-holding and the New Zealand company entered into an "association" with its Australian counterpart. While Auckland remained the headquarters for Berlei New Zealand Ltd, a number of smaller plants were also opened in other parts of the country. Branch offices were opened in Melbourne (1921), Brisbane (1923), Adelaide (1929) and Perth (1929), and a factory was opened in Melbourne in 1927. Training courses for retail corsetieres were begun by the company in 1923 and during 1924 and 1925 Berlei promoted its products through what it termed "artistic public demonstrations" in some of Australia's larger theatres and in department stores. The

company was listed on the Stock Exchange in 1926.

 

For many years Fred Burley had been concerned that women's underwear should be designed to fit the shape of the female body rather than to match clothing conventions of the time. In 1926 in collaboration with physiologists in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Sydney led by Professor Henry Chapman and Dr S A Smith Berlei undertook an anthropometric study of 6,000 Australian women. It was termed the National Census of Women's Measurements and cost 10,000 pounds. Twenty three different measurements were taken from each woman, tabulated and the results analysed. This led to the development of the Berlei five figure type classification scheme - Sway Back, Hip, Average, Abdomen, and Short Below Waist - and the "figure type indicator". This indicator device was sent out to retailers who would take the customer's exact measurements and then use them to classify the woman's figure for product selection.

 

On 5 January 1930 Berlei UK Ltd was founded as a subsidiary of Berlei Ltd and registered as a public company on 10 February 1930. Its head office was in Regent St, London, and it rented a factory near Slough. Fred Burley as a director of the company from its inception, moving to England with his family in 1932 and becoming Governing Director of the Berlei group. Arthur Burley was made Managing Director of Berlei Ltd in Australia. Mary Craven, who had been the company's Head Designer, was transferred to England where she served as Managing Director until 1935. In that year Berlei UK Ltd became the European agents for Berlei Ltd Australia and Berlei New Zealand Ltd, providing it with an additional source of revenue. However it took ten years from the time of its establishment before Berlei UK Ltd made a profit and Fred Burley was ultimately to remain in England for 15 years. In 1936 Berlei UK Ltd commissioned the architect Sir John Brown to design and build a factory and new head office just outside Slough. Designed in the International Modern style, the building was considered to be one of the finest buildings of its time.

 

During the 1930s Berlei developed its export market. Apart from exporting to the United Kingdom and Europe, it also sold its products in South Africa, the Middle East, the East Indies and South America. It also entered into agreements to manufacture and sell leading overseas brands in Australia. One of these agreements concerned Warner Brothers's "Le Gant" foundations. In association with Hedley Jarrett, who had obtained the rights for Warner Brother's products in Australia, Berlei formed Warner's "Le Gant" Pty Ltd. Subsequently Jarrett was killed during World War II while on active service with the Royal Australian Air Force and Berlei bought the balance of the shares from his estate. Throughout World War II Berlei continued manufacturing its most popular lines as well as a range of functional undergarments for members of the armed forces. It also manufactured other items including khaki shorts.

 

Fred Burley returned to Australia in 1947 and from then on both brothers gradually withdrew from active day-to-day management of the company. In 1948 Arthur Burley resigned as Managing Director and in January 1949 Fred Burley also announced his retirement. John G Hurley and Harry W Arthy became joint managing directors of the company. Fred and Arthur Burley both maintained positions on the Board of Directors with Fred being made Chairman in July 1950 and Arthur Vice-Chairman. Fred Burley died in 1954. Arthur Burley who succeeded his brother as Chairman of Directors, died in 1957.

 

On 19 December 1951 shares in Berlei New Zealand Ltd were transferred to a holding company, Berlei Industries Ltd. In 1957 Berlei Ltd was restructured with the establishment of a holding company, Berlei United Ltd (Australia), which was separated from the company's manufacturing and trading operations. This enabled the directors to concentrate on expanding the company internationally. Berlei

Ltd carried on as the main Australian subsidiary.

 

In mid 1966 tragedy struck when Keith Burley, Joint Manager Director of Berlei (UK) Ltd, and Rex Moore, Managing Director of Berlei New Zealand, were killed in a car crash in England. The loss of these two senior executives had a significant impact on the operations of the group. In 1969 Dunlop Olympic Limited acquired all the issued capital of Berlei. The Australian and New Zealand assets of Berlei were sold to the Hestia Company Ltd and the name of the company was changed to Berlei Hestia Limited. In 1986 Dunlop Olympic Limited became Pacific Dunlop Ltd and

established a division known as Pacific Brands. In the same year Berlei was incorporated within Pacific Brands. In 1985 Berlei UK Ltd went into receivership and was purchased by Gossard Ltd, part of Courtaulds Textiles.

 

 

In the 1930's, Berlei introduced the concept of different figure shapes

 

 

Even their advertisements shown at the movies involved the 'type indicator'. This was a Berlei feature that persisted for over six decades. Long after other brands has abandoned all but waist sizing (except for the bespoke houses like Spirella), Berlei offered different lengths and hip-springs. Look at the sheer number of boxes carried by the saleslady in this 1930 reel.

 

and made an advertisement in 1930 about fitting a rather lovely satin corselette on such a slight woman that it was probably the last thing she actually needed.

 

 

All models were scrutinised by fashion experts and, in 1940 during the war, the materials had to be robust yet not to detract from essential war supplies (above).

 

 

Berlei, like many firms in the pre-war period, was not immune to exaggerated 'before-and-after' advertisements. Similarly, the fad at the time for 'patent' miracle devices, was not lost on the corsetry trade; it probably never has been! Berlei never resorted to latex corsets, but they did try cluster-lacing with their "amazing Controlacing Berleis."

        

 

These pictures from the Berlei archives (1930's) are most interesting. The patented Berlei 'Controlacing' arrangement looks very much like Samuel Higby Camp's invention. Amazingly, the picture second from the right is identical to that from the American Camp brochure of 1941, page 39 of Dorsolumbar supports! This presumably was one of the agreements whereby Berlei could sell international marks under licence. Further evidence of this can be found in the following Berlei advertisement:

 

"Camco" is just a bit similar to Camp and the 341 is even a Camp model designation.

 

In the post-war period, we see a departure from the larger woman, desperately in need of Australian engineering know-how to pull her into shape, and the more motherly, realistic women makes an appearance. The Berlei Australian Fitter's magazine of 1958 shows these two vignettes. They almost give the appearance that the photographer walked in off the street and just took a few snaps. Perhaps that was the case!

 

Even in the 1960's, the various figure types and styles of garment were key to Berlei's success.

 

   

These shop scenes range from what appears to be a provincial retailer to a city department store. The right hand scene was taken from a TV commercial that depicted the pretty young sales assistant carrying a girdle display to put in the wndow. As she skips through the shop, she straddles the banister of the stairs and slides gracefully towards the display. In these day of HSE, such conduct would merit instant dismissal!

Note the use of the term 'step-ins' rather than girdle and also that in the name 'gay Slant', the 'g' in 'gay' is in lower case.

 

   

 

Note that on the right hand picture, the Berlei type indicator is clearly in evidence.

 

 

I have included more pictures from this magazine (below) because I think they illustrate so clearly the interaction between the corsetiere and the client. The approach is subtly different from Spencer. Here the client has no defects or bulges; she simply looks good in her girdle.  On the right, Berlei reveals the secret of its success. Not made-to-measure like Spirella and Spencer, but a good range of fittings in the popular corselette, girdle and pantie-girdle. The message reached every corner of the market.

 

       

The relationship of the corsetiere and the client. All the photographs above and below come from the Berlei Australian fitters' magazine of 1958.

 

      

Latterly, all the models were young women, as the company desperately sought to replenish its market. The daughters of the 'realistic mothers' (above) failed to buy girdles and corsets. A diet of outdoor sport, the post-war hardships forgotten and varicose veins easily treatable, meant that the new generation didn't require a strong foundation. The Australian climate in summer didn't help either. Names like 'Youthline' and 'gay Slant' failed to attract the numbers required. Despite that, some of the advertisements were classics. I love the poor Australian lady, Mary Powers.

 

Regard the advertisement on the left. Stylish and elegant certainly, but note the artist's exaggeration of the satin sheen of the panels. It might seem simply a highlight of the picture (which it is), but Berlei knew the power of satin as a male attractant and used any advantage to sell its wares.

 

The gay Slant Girdle

 

Berlei's last great success was the 'gay Slant' girdle and below and middle we see the quintessential Berlei girl who certainly did not need a girdle.

 

 

                   

 

The classic 'gay-Slant' still sold today, but rarely.

It would seem that the model is daring you to buy one!

 

In their day, they were quite popular. Cheaper than the made-to-measure girdles from Spirella, they could be ordered in a whole variety of sizes, lengths and hip-springs to fit all figures. This made them a touch more expensive than the offerings from Marks & Spencer but some women liked the variations available from Berlei.

 

 

A Strange Berlei Advertisement

 

I do not know why the lady stands on her head.

 

"You are old Mrs. Williams", the corsetiere said "and your hair has become very white

and yet you incessantly stand on your head; do you think at your age this is right?"

"In my youth", Mrs Williams replied to Berlei, "I feared it might injure the brain

but now I am perfectly sure I have none; why - I do it again and again!"

 

with sincere apologies to the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson

 

I can only guess that the inverted position of the poor lady is meant to represent the spinning of the Berlei measuring wheel or 'type indicator' as they liked to call it (see above). Mind you, it did not matter much where the arrow pointed since you had either big hips, a big abdomen, sway back or were short below the waist. There is no such thing as a woman who could not benefit from the ministrations of a good Berlei girdle.

 

We painstakingly returned the poor women to an upright position and I don't think the advert loses out at all, however, it ceases to be eye-catching and I suppose that was the whole point.

 

To be honest, for a mass-marketed product, Berlei did offer a good range of fittings at the high street stores well into the 1980's.

 

 

I recently came across a beautiful example of an early Berlei corset (courtesy of Sewing Machine Girl).

An extremely well made example of a mainstream front-lacing corset in elegant, yet hard-wearing, corset quality satin brocade. Note the internal panel that would protect the wear's abdomen from the laces, and how it stops short at the lower loop so that the wearer could sit in comfort.

 

Another lovely example of a satin girdle.

 

 

The rubber-based elastic dates this piece to the late 1950's.