Ivy Leaf's Archives - 2003  

5th May 2003: Off we go from Holland to Britain by way of the Channel Tunnel. We have rented a microscopic Toyota that my husband assures me is well regarded in the motoring press. That’s all very well, however, from a mature women’s point-of-view, cylinders and alloy wheels are next to nothing compared to a comfortable seat that will either turn out to be a friend or a painful foe during the six-hour drive to Letchworth (north of London). The seats of the car turn out to be excellent, but why does a modern car have no central locking? All this reaching for door locks is a nuisance and despite my husband’s admiration of the fuel consumption computer, I’d rather have central locking.

My husband and I passed the long motorway hours discussing the evolution of the automobile in regard to the evolution of ladies’ underwear; not, I imagine a frequently discussed topic! That one affected the other is unlikely, however, they progressed in parallel, both responding to a changing culture. After all, the well corseted matron who could sit and drive comfortably in the upright seats of the old Rover 110 would be at a loss in the semi-horizontal position required in some of today’s vehicles. I remarked that if I ever got into a Lotus, I’d never be able to get out again. My husband responded that if I he ever saw me in the driver’s seat of a Lotus, he’d ask the Police to broadcast a warning and clear the streets !

We spent the night in the charming Swan Hotel at Bedford. My husband and I like to pick out the historical hotels that are totally distinct from the production-line modern edifices. This hotel, which dates back to the Middle Ages, sits right on the river, and provides a relaxing view of the bird life attracted to the waters. Sadly, the clientele of the hotel fail to match its faded elegance and seem to be mainly company employees on ‘management courses’ whatever they may be.

The old streets of Bedford told an all-too-familiar tale. Estate Agents, banks, and the big stores abound. The High Street could almost be anywhere else in Britain. The small corset shop has vanished forever, or has it ?


6th May 2003: We arrived at Letchworth, home of the Spirella Corset Company since 1910. There we met the curator of the Letchworth museum, who had expressed an interest in our web site, and very kindly allowed us to view some of the memorabilia of this famous company. Spirella, for many decades, was the focus of life in Letchworth. Several thousand employees worked at the huge and elegant factory that still stands in the City. Thousands of photographs document the social clubs, the cricket teams, the annual pantomime and the hundred and one little events that turn an amorphous workforce into a team. The town was quite stricken when the factory closed in the late 1980’s. Bought by their old rivals Spencer, the manufacturing moved to North Wales, and thus decades of experience was lost. Seven decades of history ended and so did a way of life.

The factory was visited regularly by Royalty, politicians, stars of TV and the screen, and by the occasional Olympic athlete. Fit or unfit, stout or slender, the woman of the 1960’s was undressed without her ‘foundations’.

The curator was extremely kind in giving up several hours of his time to show us around the museum and the archives. If you wish to know more about the history of Letchworth (and I should emphasise that the museum concentrates on the social history of Spirella rather than on the details of corsetry), the web site is to be found on:-


7th May 2003: A two hour drive took us to the south coast where we visited the charming Mrs. I, a Spirella corsetiere since the late 1950’s. She still services a clientele of some three dozen ladies and amazingly (but infrequently) still picks up new clients. Her enthusiasm and energy are an example to those several decades younger. We chatted about her times in West London, where famous personalities and politicians were numbered amongst her clientele. We ordered a Spencerette girdle, more for our collection rather than as an item for wearing. The price of these items, Mrs. I. explained, is quite off-putting to potential clients, although existing clients are used to the high cost. After all, if you want quality, you have to pay for it. Mind you GBP 160 (USD 240) for a girdle is a bit eye-watering.

We left the charming Mrs. I and drove along the south coast, back towards the Channel Tunnel. The marginally warmer climate in this area has attracted thousands of retirees over the years, resulting in a proliferation of corset shops, the majority of which no longer exists these days. The old Alstons shop in Bexhill has closed. This shop that was once part of the famous Alstons rubber corset company, never sold these corsets on the street but was the retail outlet for the more traditional corsetry offerings from Camp, Lady Grace, Excelsior and Namsie.

The old corset shop in St. Leonards is still alive and well, as is the similarly named small shop in Dymchurch. How long they will last is uncertain; that they remain trading is remarkable.


14th May 2003: We received a lovely surprise in the post: a complete set of Spencer corsetiere's measuring garments. These are quite different from the Spirella system and much rarer. Having spoken to corsetieres from both companies, it seems that the Spirella system was simpler, being a set of variously sized 'upper' and 'lower' foundations with multiple lacing and hook-and-eye adjustments. The fitter would select the size appropriate to the client; fit her in and then take the measurements. The Spencer garment is a 'one-size-fits-all' with complex straps and buckles to accommodate the huge potential for size differences. This large range of adjustments actually makes the garment quite difficult to fit, even before the measurements are taken. My husband is trying to fathom how the device works. Our friendly Spencer corsetiere was lost on the subject, admitting that most fitters, after the training course, abandoned the garment in favour of direct measuring over the client's own foundation garments. We'll persevere and try to show you examples of both (Spirella and Spencer) systems later on the web pages.


21st May 2003: The Spencer girdle that we ordered from Mrs. I arrived in the post. With her influence, the order took about seven days to turn around. The girdle is excellent and quite unlike anything that could be purchased from a store today, however, I have to compare it to the Spirellas and Spencers that I have known right from the 1960's. Besides them, it fares less well. The satin panels are, in fact, a cotton/rayon blend. The suspenders, instead of being metal, are plastic; the elastic, although very strong, is lighter than its predecessors, and the zip, of course, is nylon. Nevertheless, it is a proper girdle, the modern materials will probably outlast those of the 1960's, and it is still heavy, strong and powerful enough to shape that protuberant abdomen. Even the cost, a horrifying 160 pounds sterling, is little more than in proportion to several decades ago. Mind you, a firm panty-girdle costs from 10 pounds to 60 pounds, and the Spencer of 2003 is bullet-proof compared to these feeble offerings. My husband felt the weight of the 2003 Spencer compared to a regular Marks and Spencer OBG from the 1960's and reckoned that the Spencer was slightly heavier. The marked difference was the cut, particularly over the rear, where no down-stretch satin elastic appears on the Spencer; only well cut satin panels.

A Spencerette girdle from 2003 (if you can afford it).

31st May 2003:  So our holiday is over and we have returned to the PC where we can start to assimilate some of our new data into the web pages. This will involve a huge amount of scanning and editing of digital photographs. I will have to climb in and out of a number of measuring garments to show how these items were used. My husband already has come up with a thought provoking comment whilst photographing some of our new acquisitions. Having put a Spen-all onto our dummy and having fastened no less than 33 (!) hooks and eyes, he said in exasperation "Why on earth did the simple busk fastening go out of fashion?" Such questions need to be answered. Please be patient, this may take a little while.


September 2003:  At last we have taken the time to put our collection of Spirella pins together. This collection began years ago and has grown together with our collection of corsetry memorabilia. Spirella (and probably most of the famous corset houses) issued pins to celebrate the long-term anniversaries of service and, particularly in the USA, dollar profit achieved. The pins date back to the 1920's and turn up on Ebay quite regularly. I was given a Spirella pin by a corsetiere who still works for Spencer. It is one of my favourites and features in the Spirella corsetiere's page.

October 2003:  We were updating some of the pictures that appear on our web pages (we really much procure a proper corset stand to display our collection), when I came across a couple of Canadian Spirella corsets from the 1970's. I remember receiving the package from a Canadian lady containing these corsets that had belonged to her Mother-in-law. Usually, and sadly, such garments are consigned to the dustbin, the younger generation having no appreciation of their history, but in this case, the lady had kept them. She had no real explanation for this fortunate decision. She knew how much the corsets had cost and was simply reluctant to throw money away. It was her browsing of the internet that ultimately brought the corsets into our collection.

A lady's corsets say much about the wearer. The lady in question passed away in the late 1980's and had obviously suffered from a 'bad back' for some years. The second corset (unlike the one in the photographs) shows all the signs of regular use, yet it has been well looked after. Small repairs, inevitable in a well-worn corset, are present but expertly executed. These were strong, unyielding garments, which only a regular corset wearer could stand. The slight hip-spring of the corset suggests quite an elderly lady in whom the weight loss of age has reduced the differential between waist and hip. One can guess that the lady was probably born at around the turn of the last century, and would probably have experienced her first corsets as a teen-ager. If she had worn corsets all her life, and many women of that generation did, she would be quite unable to live without them in old age. It may be that she returned to corsets in later life as her back began to weaken. In either case, wearing a corset would be familiar to her, perhaps even a way of life. 

The corsets are made of exquisite materials which would not have been the cheapest in the brochure. I suspect that the lady took pride in her appearance. She may well have been comfortably off; the repairs simply suggesting the older generation's natural tendency to mend, rather than replace. Certainly, corsets are like shoes, if you have a comfortable pair that you can wear all day, you will look after them. The removal of the exterior belt is interesting. The lady would have had excellent posture (there was little choice in such a garment), and I imagine this elderly lady, well-dressed and quite fussy about her appearance, would have been mortified if her corsets had announced their presence either aurally or visually. I suspect she removed the exterior strap since she would be concerned that it might show through her skirt. In such a strong corset, the strap is largely redundant. Perhaps the corsetiere added the strap as one of the 'optional extras' to increase her commission. The corsetiere, however, missed out on selling the third pair of suspenders, since the corset has but four, front and side-mounted. Again, this is typical of an elderly widow, for whom the task of attaching rear suspenders once the corset is donned, is virtually impossible. I know; I've tried it, and along with several of my elderly friends we can agree: That's what husbands are for!


Late November 2003: A chance to travel in the Far East is always a pleasure, particularly as the mercury dips below 40o F and the days become progressively short and bitter in Europe. I'll not dwell upon the effects of corset bones and under-wiring on airport security devices, but, as my husband remarked with a sly smile, if I pass through the security gate and the alarm sounds, he feels confident that the machine is in good working order.

The 14 hour Amsterdam to Singapore flight was remarkably pleasant. Unaccountably we got upgraded, and we spent the flight (on a totally packed 747) enjoying excellent cuisine and wines to match. The charming Singaporean hostesses (of which more later) seemed all to eager to ensure that we should consume our way into a 10 hour torpor. This I achieved whilst my husband, so he related, spent four hours grappling with some of the in-flight games. All men are boys at heart!

The whole point of this entry to the diary was what started as a desultory perusal of the stores along Orchard Road, the main shopping thoroughfare of Singapore. Having observed the minute frames of the average Asian woman, 99% of who appeared to be under 21, we considered that any foray into the lingerie sections of the major department stores would be a disappointment; as, quite frankly, it is in most cities these days. To our amazement, each store had a reasonable range of panty-girdles. In addition, they would have a few examples of a long-leg panty-girdle, with an attached waist cincher (similar to some USA Flexees products of the 1990's). Waist cinchers themselves were quite common, but we were quite mystified by a well-boned bustier device, the function of which my husband and I completely failed to understand. The helpful salesgirl (Asia is full them, and they are all young enough to be our grand-children) was most helpful and explained (and these were the words she used), all about the functions of the girdles and corsets in the department. I was dumbfounded; this-slip-of-a-girl was using terminology that I thought had died a decade ago!

The girdle (right), is quite beautifully constructed and reasonably heavy too. There is a cunning seam at the front and rear that generates an artificial 'panty-line'. Presumably the wearer does not want the world to share the knowledge of her formidable underpinnings!

On the way back to the hotel, somehow inevitably, my husband's mind began to wander along those channels denied to the female imagination. The lore surrounding the airline stewardess and the girdle has been discussed for about seven decades. My husband, inevitably started surmising that perhaps what lay underneath the sleek form of the 'Singapore Girl', the immaculate airline stewardess, was not as simple as we imagined. I rapidly brought him back to earth. Decades ago, we all wore girdles. Today, we don't; and particularly Singapore Girl! I suspect my voice rose as I said this. But I do wonder who would buy these garments. Whoever does, and goes for the full upper and lower garment, will be confronted by no less than 12 bones and 24 hooks and eyes, and, I must add, no easy way to heed the calls of nature. There are, of course, any number of tubby Singaporeans (as there are anywhere), but are they trying to compete with their sylph-like sisters? Or are they designed for the 'billy-boys', that used to haunt Bugis Street before Singapore became squeaky clean? Who knows? I would love to have tried on the girdle, but my Anglo-Saxon frame is too large to accommodate oriental sizes. The salesgirl giggled in that polite covered mouth way, typical of Asia. Had she gone "tee hee", I would have burst out laughing as well. She suggested that I try America and, of course, she's probably right. 

We bought a few items as representative of what was on offer. After all, the collection must keep up with the times.

Whilst on the subjects of corsets and hot climates (a cool day in Singapore still gets to 88oF), I was reminded of my Dutch Auntie in the Ardennes. My husband related the passage from the book of the "African Queen", where the sister of the missionary (played in the film by Katherine Hepburn), declined to remove her corsets even in the steamy heat of the African jungle. Personally, I didn't have a problem. Air-conditioning is everywhere these days, except apparently in Europe where we had the hottest summer in years!

As a footnote, it is certainly worth recording that the amazing foundations of Singapore were made by several manufacturers, but the most prominent was Triumph. This remarkable company that has prospered for decades and that was selling back-laced corsets in Germany in the 1990's, is still producing proper foundation garments in the latest millennium. Well done Triumph!

 So, in one unlikely corner of the world, a vestige of the corset and girdle lives on.


Late December 2003:  The build up to Christmas has brought its usual crop of letters from friends and acquaintances. The octogenarian corsetiere from Liverpool (she joined Spencer in 1956 and has been with them ever since) wrote us a lovely letter in her strong clear hand. It was filled with those items that concern the elderly; her health, meeting her son and daughter and the loss of her 'foundation' in the post. Corsetieres who work from home are totally reliant on the postal service to send orders to head office and to receive the finished article some weeks later. We felt sorry for our friend. If you've worn 'proper underwear' all your life, the arrival of a new (and expensive) girdle or corset is both an occasion and a necessity since it may be replacing a garment that is past its prime. I hope the postal service recovers her missing girdle.

At a Christmas carol service, a well-dressed lady in her 50's dropped her carol sheet in front of my husband. After three attempts to bend down to pick it up, my husband did the gentlemanly thing, and retrieved the sheet for her. "Skirt's too tight" she explained laughingly. "Do you think .." started my husband; "No. She doesn't" I told him, although glimpsing the roll of flesh above her waist-line (which to me anyway spoiled her very elegant outfit) I added "but perhaps she should".

So far this Christmas, we've sung carols with a group from my husband's office. There were over 20 nationalities represented from countries as diverse as Nigeria and Venezuela. We've enjoyed a pre-Christmas dinner with a group of Norwegians and Malaysians. On Christmas day we'll brunch with Canadians and British. Later in the day for Christmas dinner, we'll join New Zealanders and some Dutch friends. Quite a cosmopolitan Christmas, and, of course, that's how it should be.

Peace and Goodwill to all

Merry Christmas