Ivy Leaf's Archives - 2004


The beginning of the year always feels anticlimactic after the hectic bustle of the festive period. I did, however,  bump into an old 'aunt' (a friend of my mother's) who was interested in our efforts to record the history of Spirella and Spencer. This lady, who is now into her 90's, was a teenager in the flapper era and never regularly wore the corsets that her mother imposed upon her. She wore a girdle until the early 1970's which was absolutely typical of her generation, and remembers precisely when she abandoned her girdle for a panty-girdle. Like so many changes in people's lives, they can be dated by association with songs of the period, or particular events. The lady in question had been to a wedding in London where she met some American acquaintances. The year was 1972. Recently widowed, she visited these friends in the summer and, as an inveterate shopper,  purchased a quantity of American panty-girdles of a style and quality that she couldn't find in Britain. Her girdles were replaced by panty-girdles in the autumn of 1972. I asked if she had tried Spirella's Coppelia brand, which were definitely well-made and very firm, however, she laughed and said that they would have cost about three times as much as her American girdles, and, like many ladies, felt reluctant to be visited by a corsetiere.

From a simple conversion with a charming, elderly lady, we understand the problem faced by the famous made-to-measure corsetry houses. Their products were expensive, and whilst their main product was the corset, the cost could be justified by the perfect fit and finished article. With a more elastic garment, fit is still vital, but persuading a potential customer becomes harder. Certainly, the girdles from Marks and Spencer were so well made and powerful (in those days), that the Spirella corsetiere needed a convincing sales technique. This lady had been a devotee of the Marks and Spencer girdle, however, her visit to America changed all that, and her move to the panty-girdle represents, in her case, the demise of the 'generic' corset. She did not remember the brand name, but regretted not buying more than she did the time.

Her reluctance to visit the corsetiere, to me, was strange, but I believe it's really a matter of upbringing. If your mother visited the local corsetiere, there's a good chance that you would be introduced as a teenager as well. "Oh, I never needed to visit one of those ladies" my 'aunt' replied when I probed a bit further into her reluctance. She would be drawn no further, but I suspect she felt that a visit to a corsetiere suggested some imperfection of the figure, which, of course, was not her problem at all!


February 2004: I received one of those lovely stories that are just so funny that they have to be true. The lady who recounted the tale was in her 70's and, as she admitted, somewhat thinner than she had been 12 years ago when the incident took place. It was the early 1990's, and her husband had just taken delivery of a large company car, A Rover Sterling. I'm sure my husband could tell you the number of cylinders and all that sort of thing, however, from a lady's perspective, it had gorgeous leather seats, and, a novelty at the time, electric seats with pre-set positions that could be selected by the press of a button. Her husband had explained all the functions of the car, and she got into the driver's seat and began to fiddle with the controls to get herself comfortable. She pressed one of the pre-set buttons and the seat slid far away from the wheel; no good at all. She pressed another and it slid forward, and forward, and forward trapping her against the wheel. In her panic she couldn't find the electric controls and it was several minutes before she could release herself. Apparently her bust was quite painfully compressed by the steering wheel, and to this day, she does not know whether her husband had adjusted the pre-set as a joke. (My husband adds that perhaps it was a 'booby-trap'; honestly!!). I have another tale about corsets and cars.


March 2004: We were delighted to receive permission from a Danish lady, Marianne, to publish her recollections. Marianne worked in her Aunt's corset shop and speaks frankly about her attitude towards foundation garments. There's no romancing these firm supports of a bygone era, that is a male pre-occupation. I argue with my husband on this one, but in reality I know of only a few women who have worn genuinely tight and constricting underwear into the latter decades of the 20th century. One was a friend of my Mother's who, being comfortably off, spent her money on dressing well (by the standards of her generation). She ignored her corsetiere's advice (for she was a Spirella client) and had her brassieres made with no elastic at all. Her corsets had the minimum of triangular elastic inserts commensurate with sitting and walking, but no more. She explained that her foundations gave her an absolutely unchanging figure on which her clothes hung at their best. It wasn't that she enjoyed wearing these firm foundations, but that she wore them to look good, which in turn made her feel good.

Of course, here comes the exception. I know of one lady in her early 50's who still wears a front and back-laced Spencer, (the old Spirella 325 model). She admits quite frankly that the tightness makes her "feel like a woman". 


April 2004: The British Pub: How it has changed over the years. When I was a teenager, I would never have dreamt of entering such a place unless escorted by my parents. Nowadays, everybody visits the establishments and this has lead to all sorts of behaviour, however, one institution in which my husband and I regularly indulge, is the 'pub lunch'. 

We have our favourites and enjoy nothing more after a walk in the country, than a cheap simple meal washed down by a glass of wine and sometimes more than a pint of beer. We were indulging in the harmless past-time of 'people watching' recently over a rather excellent steak and kidney pie when a van pulled up (my husband explains that it's called a ‘people carrier’ but it looked like a van to me) and disgorged a family into the car park. They seemed to be a reasonably typical, lower-middle class group: Mum and Dad in their 30's, fraught and tired after the drive and controlling the children: Two children of indeterminate pre-teenage years, similarly fraught and tired: Grandparents, quite sprightly 60 year-olds, and lastly, from the seventh seat of the car, and not without difficulty, came the Great Grandmother. (I hasten to add that this is all supposition on our part, however, assigning roles makes people watching all the more interesting).

The contrast between the old lady and the remaining three generations of the family was quite startling. The children, the parents and the grandparents were uniformly clad in denim, of hues that failed completely to match. Any woman or girl below middle age revealed the mandatory bared midriff, and, I might add, the mother had quite a spare tyre on show. The old lady, on the other hand, might have come from another planet. Twin-set and blouse tightly covered her stout frame, a testimony to frugality and an unchanging fashion ideal refusing to give way to what must have been quite a weight increase to fill her clothes so fully. She collapsed, rather than sat down into a chair, her legs springing apart and her bosom rising up alarmingly. “Corsets ?’ whispered my husband. I nodded in understanding.

The whole scene was actually rather sad. Nobody seemed to be very happy, and the constant sniping and bickering between the first three generations grew tiresome. Certainly, the elderly matron had heard it all so many times before that she had quite switched off. Not that she was infirm or ill in any way, it was as if she had given up the battle in despair at the younger generation. Only when half a pint of Guinness was delivered to her side did her eyes light up briefly and she adjusted her barrel-like torso all the better to accommodate the Irish brew.

My husband and I discussed the scene on our return home, firstly agreeing that the bared midriff was one of the less desirable phenomena of this present beleaguered century. We talked about the old lady. Almost certainly, born about 1925 I would guess, she would have encountered her first corsets during the war, or if they were hard to come by then, just afterwards. I couldn’t imagine her unsympathetic offspring helping her with back-lacing, so that probably meant front-lacing. Her hands appeared strong and un-afflicted by arthritis, so lacing rather than buckles would seem plausible. I imagine her corsets were purchased some years ago, when she was slightly thinner and had more money to spare. They would be regularly washed and repaired. Probably the poor old dear was wondering where she would ever find a new pair that she could afford. It reminded me of a lady approaching her 100th birthday that my mother used to visit. My mother asked if she was looking forward to receiving her personal telegramme from the Queen (a quaint British tradition). She said “Oh yes. But what I’m really looking forward to are my new corsets”. She had persuaded her family that the one thing she really wanted was a new set of stays to see her into her second century!


May 2004:

We attended a huge ball in Singapore recently where I noticed my husband regarding the statuesque form of an acquaintance of ours. This tall, and normally elegant, lady had donned a peach-coloured Thai silk dress for the evening, and according to my husband, had violated most of his personal ideals about how a well-dressed lady should appear. (I should add that my husband's ideals are about three decades out-of-date, however, so are mine, so we tend to agree with Spencer's ideal 1960's woman on the right). Brassiere and knicker lines, with attendant bulges were apparent. The locally-made silk dress had no weight and therefore failed to drape correctly. It hung like a stiff curtain from her nethermost bulge. As the dancing progressed into the steamy tropical night, patches of perspiration appeared under her arms and progressed to link below her bust and across the back of her unlined dress. Oh dear!

Not that we were any cooler. My husband was attired in full highland rig with a winter-weight kilt, and as for myself, well, the heroine in the novel "African Queen" remarked early on in the story that corsets and the tropics don't mix. We laughed as my husband conjured up the image of the staid Katherine Hepburn fending off the seedy Humphrey Bogart with a crack of her rolled-up stays across his head; apparently an effective technique for dissuading ardent lovers in Victorian times.

But now it's time for our annual holiday as my husband's international travels cease for a period of four weeks. We have been away from our base for quite a while (which explains our lack of attention to the site), and my sister who checks the apartment and mail regularly was amazed by what she called a "cubic metre of corsets" awaiting our attention! We'll pay a visit to the archives of the Letchworth museum where the memorabilia from the Spirella corset company resides.


17th May 2004:

The cubic metre of corsets awaiting our attention exceeded our expectations. The amazing 1950's Marks and Spencer girdle is described elsewhere, however, it seems that at some point in the 1960's, a batch of pink corset grade satin made its way to the major manufacturers worldwide. From France to Charis, Spencer and Camp in America, come superbly finished foundations in this Rolls Royce of materials with, as far as I can judge, virtually no shade or weight differential.

Tomorrow, we leave Holland for England on the HSS (High Speed Super Ferry). We plan to visit the Letchworth Museum (see below). My husband gets quite excited about this trip and talks about gas turbines and an incredible 45 knot top speed. He mentions that this is faster than Gibbs amazing ship, the

'Blue Riband' holder, "United States" which crossed the Atlantic in the 1950's. No doubt the clientele were better dressed as well in those days since, for all its speed and convenience, the HSS is little more than a very fast, floating motorway cafe.


23rd May 2004:

It is always a pleasure to meet the friendly and helpful staff of the Letchworth Museum. Letchworth was the British centre of Spirella corsets for eight decades and generations of women grew up, married and introduced their daughters into this huge corsetry concern. Corsetieres were the 'field agents', however, back at HQ in Letchworth, a staff of thousands cut and sewed, managed the accounts and supplied corsets to support the Empire.

There is a huge social history attached to the interaction of Spirella and the people of Letchworth. Our interest, however, is focused on the corsetry and we were able to gather some fascinating information. Did you know that 30 million corsets were sold each year in Britain in 1916, or that Marilyn Monroe did NOT wear Spirella corsets in the film, "The Prince and the Showgirl"? In that film, however, Dame Sybil Thorndyke and most of the other actresses did! Spirella's corset collection was sent to America for her attention, however, she declined to wear one.

The lady on the left models a Spirella 305 in 1951. This style was the mainstay (pun intended) of Spirella's business. The 305 was the basic front-lacing corset that has it's roots as far back as 1916, however, the 300-series terminology (Spirella loved its numbering system) started in the late 1930's. It was made under the Spirella label until the late 1980's and still exists as the Spencer 'posture corset' today; five decades later!



2nd June 2004:

So our holidays back in our home countries of Holland and Scotland come to an end. We were blessed with amazingly fine weather, however, today the continuous downpour of the European Summer is upon us. It is surely time to pack our bags and return to the Asian tropics where we spend much of the year. My husband has CD's with 100's of new images scanned from the archives of Spirella and our own collection of manuals and magazines. The 'cubic metre' of corsets has been sorted and photographed. Over the next few months, we'll spend the long tropical evenings inserting more images and text into the web site, and hopefully show you more of the Amazing World of the Corsetiere.



July 2004:

Men! Sometimes I feel that if I was a steam engine, or a motor car, my husband would pay me more attention. I was feeling quite down for some odd reason the other day. I even felt rather frumpy as we prepared to attend dinner at a friend's house. Dragging my husband from his computer (to which he appears to be married), we drove the short distance to his boss's house. Why, oh why, did my husband buy a small sports car. Does he not realise that proper foundations on an older women and sports car are unhappy companions? Unusually, I didn't enjoy the evening and we left early. My husband commented on his boss's wife's appearance. "Do you think she was wearing her daughter's clothes? Everything was at least two sizes too small; you could virtually read the maker's label on her knickers" he commented artlessly. "It's better than being a fat blob" I answered to which he retorted "Women! You must be joking. You were the only women there with a shape."


What is it about us girls that even an offhand comment can transform our entire mood. Since it was early and my husband (to his regret) had stayed on soda water, we dropped the car roof and drove home the long way round and rather fast. My hair was in my teeth at the end of the drive. As my husband helped me from the semi-recumbent posture dictated by modern aerodynamics there was a loud creak. "Was that the car springs or your stays?" I laughed. Men!


The picture on the right from 1958 is a classic Spirella 'before and after' (click on the picture). 

My husband added "Nice Saab".

The recently recorded episode entered in Ivy Leaf's Diary from July 2004 has been relegated to Corsetiere's Anecdotes.


August 2004:

Whatever happened to Strodex? This brand tried to rival Spirella and Spencer in Britain, but I had forgotten about it until recently. Their specialty was made-to-measure, and judging from the complex surgical corset, and the fashionable corselette in our collection, they covered the entire spectrum of corsetry, however, rarely do we encounter articles these days.

Another specialist corsetry firm that failed to 'make the grade', was Fan of Stockport, England. Their belts were unexceptional except for their terminology. 'Reducyr', Corporect, Fyshline, and 'Fan seCURES you' elicited a groan from my husband who thought he had heard it all! 

We were lucky to receive a large quantity of data from a researcher into corsetry. This work is meticulously detailed and it reveals how jealously even the basic principles of corsetry construction were guarded. Perhaps this explains the demise of Strodex and Fan, whereas Spirella and Spencer prospered. We intend to publish this data given the time. My husband added "Watch this server space", which is about as corny as the Fan advertising!


Later in August:

A mutual friend, somewhat under-endowed, told me that she was going to have her breasts enhanced surgically. "DON'T DO IT" we chorused. I come from the "what you're born with, you live with" school of thought, however, my friend had been persuaded otherwise, and was quite short with me. "It's OK for you". (I am rather well endowed). In a last ditch attempt to dissuade our friend, I said "You'll be crawling on your knees for bras!" The comment left her mystified. 

After a less than pleasant experience, our friend re-emerged from her ordeal, with, it has to be admitted, rather fine breasts, of which she was inordinately proud. She later admitted that she now understood my remark. In Britain, at least, the larger cup sizes are always at the bottom of the rack, hence "you'll be crawling on the floor". It's just one of those penalties that the big bosomed lady has to accept!


September 2004:

During our last holiday in Britain (May 2004), we visited an elderly family friend who had recently moved into a retirement home. As always, the nurses and staff are charming and friendly, and make a big effort to inject some sparkle into their charges’ remaining years, however, it’s a depressing reminder of what may become our own fate.

This visit, however, was enlightened by a lady, who had heard about our corsetry researches, and she started to regale us with some excellent stories that we have added to the site. Not a corsetiere, herself, she was fitted as a teenager in the pre-War years when she always wore a corset. She worked in the Land Army during the war, waiting for her boyfriend to return from the army in North Africa. During this period, she abandoned her corsets as being rather impractical when wearing the trousers demanded by her job. Married after the war, she reverted to a corset briefly and sporadically, favouring a conventional girdle which she obtained from Spencer for many years, until the price became to steep for the limited resources of a British pensioner.

The nurses told us “Don’t listen to old Mrs. H, she’s always bleathering. She just likes to talk to somebody”, but we didn’t agree. Her stories and memories were like gold dust, and are a rare glimpse of life in the past. She has written regularly to us in her somewhat spidery hand with further tales of her life. She has proudly adopted the position of researcher for our project and must have interviewed half the residents from the home. Surprisingly, some of the best recollections come from the old gentlemen. The elderly are not revered in our modern society the way they used to be. In many respects, that is a shame, for we have much to learn.


Corset Test Pilots?! 

Spirella was instrumental in designing the G-suit worn by jet pilots after the war. The complex lacing of this suit required specialised advice not available outside the corset industry. However, I digress, this is not what the thrust of my husband’s recent query was about. Did Spirella or any of the major corset houses have women who tried on and wore prototype garments? I have never heard of this, but it must have happened. Were there actually, corset test pilots?

Usually when we acquire a corset or girdle for our collection, either myself, or a good friend will try it on, if it’s anywhere near our sizes, just to see what it feels like, is it easy to adjust, do the seams chafe, are the suspenders well positioned and a hundred other small details that can turn a comfortable ally into a torture device. I’ve been caught out a few times in my role as ‘corset test pilot’ when my husband has been pleased with my appearance, and suggested that I give the new corset a good ‘field trial’ by going down to the local pub for lunch. A corset always requires ‘breaking in’ and the chances that an unworn, and un-fitted garment will be instantly easy to wear is very unlikely. Indeed, on one occasion, my husband was obviously quite amused at my attempts to wriggle into a position of even vague comfort. The Spen-all that I was wearing was just a shade too long. That’s not a problem in a flexible garment, but this wasn’t, and the front boning was digging into my thighs at one end, and, at the other end, had hoisted my bust to such an extent that I could barely see my meal. I suggested, quite loudly, that next time, he try on the new corsets!


Men and Corsets:

We always love to receive cartoons. There are many out there and we have a dozen or more located around our web pages. There is the schoolboy humour of the ‘seaside postcards’, where the cowering husband and the disproportionately large wife feature strongly, and corsetry is an obvious source of merriment for the cartoonist and his audience. Spirella’s house magazines contained many cartoons, which all tell their stories of the fashions and morality of those days.

We received an excellent cartoon from ‘GOOD HUMOUR’ magazine. The husband and wife are in their bedroom. The husband, obviously about to go on a military (or police) parade, is holding his wife’s corsets. She says “Parade or no parade, you can't have it!”


I love this cartoon because it has none of the covert smuttiness of the man wearing women’s underwear. It is genuine, straight-forward humour. Typically of many cartoonists, is the lack of knowledge of what a corset actually looks like. One can always tell if a cartoonist has seen a woman in her corsets or simply imagines what he thinks a corset looks like. In Jan Sanders' famous corset shop cartoon, the detail on the corsets is typically minute, the exaggeration of multiple lacings added simply to emphasise a point.


October 2004:

We have been very lucky recently to meet and correspond with some elderly ladies and gentlemen who have provided some charming stories of times gone by. Our interest, of course, is focused towards the corsetry of that period, but, in the way that the elderly do, they wander from the point. So interesting are their stories, however, that we just sit there and listen, and soon the afternoon has passed.

If you consider an average women in the days when corset-wearing was commonplace, you are dealing with a 20-year old in 1914, or a 50 year-old in 1945, and perhaps a 70year-old in 1960. Later than that, corset-wearing becomes very rare. Of course, certain women continued, as they do today, to wear corsets but they are so small as hardly to be called a sample. The ladies above are now all going to be well over 100 years old and so recollections will have to come from their children.

Even if we consider girdle-wearers, in Britain, most 40-60 year-old women consigned their girdles to the dustbin in 1970. The youngest survivor of this period is going to be well over 70. In fact, it is the latter group of the elderly that are providing us with information, partly about themselves, partly about their mothers and grandmothers. Often it is husbands reminiscing about their wives. Habits that might have been annoying on a day-to-day basis become, with the passage of time, and the dimming of memories, simply charming eccentricities.

From this dwindling supply of mental memorabilia come the tales of how to keep rubber corsets warm in winter, the uselessness of a Playtex girdle as an eraser, and cautionary tales about the dangers of tight-lacing. There are many more tales out there, and we are always grateful to receive them.

Obviously, we have to be discerning about which tales are real, which are imaginary or confused, and which are fantastical wish fulfilment. Typically, the elderly fail to remember actual episodes in their life, they remember a memory that changes, and often exaggerates, as times passes. However, with discrete questioning, and assessment of peripheral detail, (often the biggest give away for a false story) the true stories can be identified.  


further into October:

This tale might not initially appear associated with corsetry, but the outcome certainly is, and it happened just recently to myself.

I was working in our garden, cutting dead leaves off a bush, when I felt a sharp sting on my arm underneath my blouse. More stings rapidly followed, as I realised that I had dislodged a nest of red ants that were crawling all over me. I rushed, as fast as my frame and underpinnings allowed, into the house where I started to divest my blouse on the way to the bathroom. Perhaps I did shriek, certainly my husband was quick to appear with a flippant "second honeymoon my dear?". "Get those ants off me" I shouted, or words to that effect. I was panicking a bit I have to admit. Several dozen ants later, order was restored, and my husband was left to clear up the remains of the dead leaves with, I noticed maliciously, frequent slapping of his arms and legs. A few days later we were sitting on our patio when a sharp pain assailed my left breast. My husband leapt into action with a rolled-up newspaper, "I'll get them" he shouted. I had to explain that on this occasion, ants were not the culprit, simply the under-wiring of my bra, which had broken free from its socket and was poking sharply into my flesh. It reminded both of us of David Niven's account of the tightly corseted actress.

The news these days is unremittingly awful, and perhaps any attempt to lighten, or make fun of war is wrong. However, 'humour in the trenches', and the bands of performers, such as Bob Hope and many others who have visited troops in action, have played an important part in morale boosting. Indeed, Spirella and their corsetieres contributed to the British war effort, not least by contributing husbands and sons, but also by by sewing parachutes, contributing corset and girdle bones for the steel collection effort, and reducing the rubber content of their underwear. We recently purchased an early 1950's example of an Ambrose Wilson catalogue. This firm persisted in its traditional corsetry pages well into the 1980's, and sold 'Miss Mary of Sweden' garments until recently. One of the pictures from this catalogue prompted my husband to quote from a 1960's science fiction film of which he is (regrettably) familiar, 'Quatermass and the Pit'. "The Germans had more secret weapons than we ever discovered". Indeed, the V1 and V2 rockets were terrible enough, the V3 disturbing, and as for the formidableV4 (right), well ...!!


Even further in October

In my regular contacts with the elderly, I have noticed how badly out of shape so many old women have become. Typically, they are hunched, their (remaining) bosom hidden in the stooped concavity of their chests, with their stomachs protruding like footballs.

What happened to the ram-rod straight harridan of yesterday? Was she simply a figment of our imagination ? I asked a friend who knows our interests as well as being imbued with considerable common sense. She thought about my comments and replied “You’re looking at a generation that were not used to corsets; they were born too late, but they never benefited from the ‘fitness craze’ of the last three decades”. They are ‘in betweens’. We decided to call these shapeless women the 'lost generation' or 'human question marks' on account of their posture. Far from forcing their daughters into uncompromising foundation garments, the opposite was true. Born between about 1920 and 1940, the daughters persuaded their Mothers to ‘burn their bras’ without offering an acceptable alternative. The results of this postural disaster crowd the Old Peoples’ Homes of today. Our Grandmothers knew the benefits of a corset, our daughters appreciate the benefits of exercise, but a woman cannot retain her shape without either.

My husband (as always) was fascinated by this discourse, and vanished to the computer in the study, from whence he emerged, hours later, looking bleary-eyed but triumphant. “You really are right. Look at this spreadsheet” he crowed, waving several pieces of paper under her nose. “Of course I’m right, you silly man, and I don’t need a computer to prove it”.

Oddly, enough, as in so many of our researches, unexpected results and conclusions come from the simplest challenges of accepted fact. As I stated above, perhaps it wasn’t the Mothers that forced daughters into old-fashioned underwear after all, the facts point to exactly the opposite, certainly since the last war. My husband wasn’t going to relinquish his spreadsheet quite so easily, and produced a graph. I immediately scoffed at this typically male creation, however, once explained to us, we realised its potential to provide tantalizing glimpses into the sociological history of corsetry through the decades, a subject on which a library could be written.

Since we are expanding our site to cover George’s ‘Technical Corsetry’ researches, we have added my husband’s explanation of his graph under this section. It clearly shows hat the ram-rod straight harridan existed, however, she's not been around for a long time and, as usual, our memories are telescoping the passage of time.


November 2004: Tight Corsets

What is it about the term ‘tight corsets’? In Herman Wouk’s book ‘Marjorie Morningstar’, the heroine is cautioned about “those divorcees in their tight corsets”. In another book, the main character falls into a loveless marriage “..mistaking her tight corsets for voluptuous promise”. My aunt was fond of saying “you need tight corsets to catch your man, and tight corsets to hold onto your figure”! In contrast, my Mother, in an uncharacteristically catty moment, referred to an acquaintance, who I thought was rather glamorous, as “Hah! But she wears tight corsets,” as though it were some underhand deception. She regaled me with warnings that ‘tight corsets’ would give the wearer varicose veins and liver disease. I suspected that the latter was not a direct consequence of the corset, but rather of the social habits that such a wearer would adopt!

But today, women that wear corsets, let alone tight ones, are as rare as hens' teeth. Therefore, it was with some delight that I was introduced to a friend’s grandmother the other day. In contrast to the ‘forgotten generation’ of human question marks (last month), this lady was erect and well-dressed with a stomach as flat as a board, and no wonder, I later realised as she bent over to sit down, the tell-tale ridge of a back-support showed only too clearly through her blouse before she straightened back up again. I spoke to the elderly woman, and getting around to the subject of poorly backs (from which I also suffer), she freely admitted to wearing a corset, and furthermore had done so since she was a teenager! More than a decade ago she had purchased a dozen Spencers intending that they would ‘see her out’, however, her constitution had kept her going well beyond the time that Spencers were easily available, or even affordable. I mentioned that medical insurance would meet the costs, however, in the obstinate way of the elderly she said “I refuse to be buckled into some National Health, velcro’d abomination! No. I’ll die in my Spencers!” 


December 2004:

My husband and I spend so much time in the company of older folk, that it's refreshing to entertain younger guests, particularly as the festive season approaches. Cocooned, a it were, in the time capsule of our research, we sometimes forget that life goes on and the, sometimes inexplicable changes in fashion and the world around us, are dictated by a generation younger than ourselves, and two generations younger than many of our acquaintances. It was a friend's misfortune to have badly twisted her knee, that allowed us to spend half a day with two of her nieces who drove their aunt over to visit us. "Tell the girls about your project" our friend said at length, "M---'s studying art at the Courtauld Institute". To my embarrassment, I discovered that I was known to her nieces as the 'corset lady', and perhaps far more embarrassingly, my husband as the 'corset man'. 

The girls were indeed most interested and absolutely amazed at the sight and size of our collection. I persuaded the older girl (20 I would imagine) to try on the corset that graced our site recently. The younger girl would have nothing to do with it, although she was keen to help. I stood back and let the girls work it out for themselves. I might add that my husband was banished from the scene and, at the request of M--- no photographs would be taken. The results were predictably hysterical, since the concept of the under-belt was completely alien to them, and we had to intervene before it became strapped in as a back support! "Now" I said, "Put these on" and I handed her a pair of vintage Elbeo support stockings. "But, it's impossible" she laughed. "You're learning. The stockings are attached before the garment is laced tight." She cast off the corset far quicker than she had donned it and tried on the Marks and Spencer 'roll-on'. Getting the girdle on over her young hips was easy, and this time she possessed enough flexibility (and care) to wriggle the powerful stockings up her legs. Attaching the suspenders, however, turned into another farce, and the girls were reduced to helpless giggling whilst I did up the back and side suspenders for her. "How does it feel. Walk around a bit." M--- paraded around the room and struck a few poses at her sister. "The stockings are pulling the girdle down" she said as she yanked the girdle back into place. I laughed. "So now you know. If you had to wear those stockings, you'd need a far better anchorage. You see, one of the primary functions of the corset or girdle is to anchor the stockings." The girls were amazed at a world they had heard about but never experienced. They were most grateful that they didn't need to wear such garments these days, but the artistic one commented on the superb construction and attention to fine detail.


Thoughts at the end of the Year

Our thoughts on tight-lacing have elicited quite a response from our readers. The majority of the comments focus on the waists of Ethel Grainger and Cathie Jung, however, these record-breaking women occupy the extreme end of the tight-lacing spectrum. Our interest lies in conventional tight-lacing, that is to say, the use of the corset or girdle to define the waist slightly more than comfort would dictate. Rarely would women tolerate the tightness for more than a few hours, the desire being to look good for a wedding, or some similar occasion. One of the reasons that some excellent examples of corsets survive today, is that their use was rare. Garments worn daily and washed regularly do not stand the test of time, although Marks and Spencer’s girdles are exceptionally tough. Perhaps even in the latter case, a tighter girdle was kept for special events, the more comfortable sizes wearing out on a regular basis. I know of many women who, in all honesty had a waist of 32”, buying garments sized for 28”. Were they trying to fool themselves, the shop assistant or their friends? It is quite possible, for I have seen it done, to get a 34” waist into a 26” panty-girdle, however, the resultant spare-tyre is quite unacceptable.


One of the Spencer corsetieres, with whom we regularly correspond, rarely encountered anything that could be described as tight-lacing. She did, however, mention that she had a few clients in the 1960’s who wore foundations that she considered far too tight. One lady in particular had her corsets and brassieres far tighter than our friend considered desirable. There was no elastic in the brassiere at all, and only two pieces at the base of the corset to allow ease of movement and sitting. The client would not be persuaded otherwise. The consequence was that brassiere in particular was forever being returned to have the hooks and eyes repaired. The client never blamed the corsetiere. She wanted her foundations tight and her clothes tight, and she was prepared to pay the cost.


Our friend agreed that a new corset is certainly stiffer and more unyielding than its long-term design intends. Corsets are like shoes, they need to be broken in, after which they form a most comfortable ally. Which brings us onto our own definition of tight-lacing. A well-fitted corset is a support that can be worn without its presence bringing attention, either to the wearer, or the casual observer. A tight corset will be observed and felt by both parties, which, of course, may well be the intention.


Peace and Goodwill to all

Merry Christmas