Ivy Leaf's Diary

2007

 

 

The best present we can receive at the beginning of any day is an email or, more rarely these days, a letter from a lady, a gentleman, even last year a teenager, with information about corsetry. My husband and I started this site five years ago to preserve memories of the Spirella corsetiere and her fellow, or rival corsetieres from other manufacturers before such knowledge died with their clientelle. We treasure these memories, and try to share them on the internet. The help of those that contribute has been invaluable.

 

Correspondence often begins "Dear Ivy". We like that very much, since it is our pseudonym that we use based on the Ivy Leaf emblem that Spirella used to award to its corsetieres for long-service. Who is Ivy Leaf? Ivy is two people, myself, who wears the corsets and supplies the female perspective, and my husband, who appreciates my figure, provides the male point-of-view, and handles the intricacies of the computer and the internet. I impose upon him badly at times. Sometimes we receive letters or documents that need to be edited, scanned and formatted into the world of the computer, and my husband works late into the night doing just this. We are simply an average, late middle-aged couple who desire to preserve the world of the corsetiere.

 

Never be shy to email us. Even the simplest recollection that one's granny wore a corset in 1958, provides an age, a garment and a date. In my husband's words, "It's just another point on a graph. Too many people would consider this valueless until you put it in context with hundreds of other points on the graph, and then you can re-construct history." Each point counts and is gratefully received.

 

 

Annual inventory of the Ivy Leaf Collection

Every year, many hundreds of corsets, girdles and brassieres are checked -

It's always an excursion down memory lane as my husband and I check the Ivy Leaf Collection. There's 50 years of Marks & Spencer from flimsy flower-power to rigid satin elastic. Camp panty-girdles of heroic strength and stomach flattening corsets in all materials from coutil to satin. Spirella and Spencer's finest since 1947, Charis corselettes of amazing complexity and some rubber girdles, 30 years old without a sign of wear or deterioration! Some are new, most have been worn. For some we know the history, and for others, only the creases, the suspenders' wear, and the knots in the lacing tell of their previous life. As far as we can, we try to share the history of these amazing garments with you.

 

 

February 2007:

My husband and I were at a function the other night. I know that dress code has a wide interpretation these days, but 'smart casual' is understood by most. Apparently not by an acquaintance, who must be in her early 40's. Low-cut jeans, a Denim jacket of a totally different hue and texture, and, horror of horrors, four inches of bare tummy between the jeans and her tank top. It wasn't even as though her tummy was attractive and flat! My husband got the full view of this lady's alarming abdomen as she approached us at one of the tables. "I tell you, that quivering mass of cellulite quite put me off my pudding!" For once my husband's eloquence was right on target.

 

One of the joys of our annual inventory (above) is finding articles or brochures that we had forgotten. "There's old Mrs. R's Spencer" I cried with delight as I found a study pink satin corset with all the signs of regular wear, but careful attention to repairs. Her daughter, who donated the garment, explained that it was her mother's favourite. She purchased it in the late 1960's and, despite wearing out a couple of plainer corsets each year, the satin one lasted until she passed away in 1994. The lady had worn corsets since her teens in the 1920's.

 

My husband unearthed a Barcley catalogue. This huge volume from 1925 has possibly the best quality photographs of real models wearing real corsets that we have ever seen. For decades, corsets were drawn onto the models, quite skillfully it is true, but these photographs are superb. It gave my husband the idea of making a calendar. He found that the dates for 1923 match those for 2007 and the results are shown below.

 

 

 

We've talked at length about how the stiff, elderly women was a product of her stiff, elderly foundations. A new 'recruit' to our local Old People's Home grew up near Renfrew in Scotland when her father was an nautical architect at the John Brown shipyards. She remembers accompanying her father to the launch of the Queen Mary and how she got a great view of the Queen herself as she launched the massive ship. Queen Mary had an excellent figure, but it was her immobility that fascinated our acquaintance. She reminded us that in those days, it was not just a heroically tight corset that limited one's movements, but all the petticoats, clothes and coats that went over the top. "It was cold in those days" she recounted. Cars were unheated and usually open and the Queen, like most woman of the era, was wrapped up from head to toe, and, frankly, capable of only limited movement. The stairs to the launching platform were cut with a very low step to allow the women present to raise one foot to the next level.

 

My husband tells the amusing anecdote when the Chairman of Cunard approached King George to ask permission to call the new ship 'Queen Victoria'. The Chairman rather eloquently asked the King if he might name the new ship after the greatest Queen of England and the monarch replied that Mary would be delighted! This charming tale is actually untrue. The 'Queen Mary' already existed and the owners had been approached by Cunard to re-name their ship 'Queen Mary II' in order to let the name 'Queen Mary' be used. The owners agreed provided that the name remained their property and that it was out on loan. To this day, the two ships, one anchored off Long Beach California, and the other by Waterloo Bridge in London, are both the 'Queen Mary'.

 

Queen Mary in the incredibly stiff and heavy clothes of the day. Her famous waist was maintained until her very late years.

On the theme of ships, one of Spirella's more outlandish and true advertising stories was that of the lady who was pulled from the sea after jumping from the burning liner 'Morro Castle'. She praised Spirella's corsets since despite the traumatic event, they washed up a treat, didn't rust and lasted many more years (hopefully not with the same level of abuse.)

 

We actually visited the London 'Queen Mary' last November and my husband couldn't resist dragging me inside. A native Scot whose family comes from the Clyde, he loves ships and proceeded to tell me (again) the history of this famous vessel as he ordered a pint of bitter and half of cider for myself. After the lecture, he returned to a wistful trip down memory lane. "These ships used to ply the Clyde and the inner isles. Hundreds of passengers they'd carry." Then he lamented the end of the coastal cruiser, the state of the nation, the universe and particularly the lack of decent beer on offer. "Lager! That's all they sell these days." The lack of a decent pint on board saw us migrate to the "Coal Hole" on the Strand where a pint of Director's Bitter was on offer, and the opportunity for people watching made up for the lack of nautical architecture. It was 5.30 pm, and London was enjoying a drink before tackling the vagaries of British Rail for the journey to the suburbs. We listened to a young couple, barely in their 30's. He overweight (drinking Lager of course), and she quite pretty but for the mandatory roll of exposed abdomen. We listened in amazement as this quite unexceptional couple talked proudly of their first home, nothing special in the southern suburbs, that they had casually bought for half a million pounds (one million $US). This seemed to be quite normal. "The world's gone mad" fulminated my thrifty husband. "Yes Dear." "D'ye realise that England's afloat on a binge-spending, binge-drinking loan?" "Yes Dear." "They're printing money, it's just like the Weimar Republic in the 1930's. Mark you, we'll see double-digit inflation in England before the decade's out; mark my words." "Yes Dear." Really, he can be so much like Victor Meldrew it's uncanny; sadly, he's probably right. "Invest in corsets" he said, "They'll increase in value." He looked around to make sure that nobody had heard. He needn't have worried; instant gratification was on the menu tonight, not the subtleties of foundation-ware. At that moment, a rather smartly dressed city lady entered the bar and joined her peers in the far corner. At least chivalry was not quite dead and a man offered her a seat. She smiled, began to sit, looked uncomfortable and apparently decided to stand. During the brief manoeuvre however, we both noticed that rarity these days, suspender bumps distinctly outlined on her taut skirt. My husband relaxed enough to order another round of drinks and settled into a mellow contemplation. "You know, perhaps the world's not in such bad shape." Honestly, Men! One suspender bump and doom-and-gloom turns to pleasurable acceptance. I wonder how many major political decisions have hung on such trivia?

 

 

March 2007: By Appointment to Her majesty

 

I am talking, of course, about Rigby & Peller, corsetieres to her Majesty. I will say little of this famous firm on South Molton Street since they still ply their trade from those hallowed premises, however, my knowledge of them was scant. I've visited the establishment once only to haemorrhage money for a panty-girdle that STILL rode up my thighs (the bane of the heavier women). Mind you, this was not a R&P product but of the many lines that they import. I had never actually seen a genuine R&P article until this week, and I was rather impressed. A girdle / brassiere pair came from an old estate and I would guess that they date back to the 1970's. The girdle is half back-laced, a feature that I've never seen before. It has no entry other than unlacing and re-lacing, that always suggests a hint of vanity in the wearer. For sure, whoever was the proud owner of this set would cut a fine figure. The dating is based on the style, the suspenders, but most of all, that vague odour of years in a drawer, carefully protected from the moth, but latterly unused. It has been used, often I would say in its prime, but one can only guess that as the lady grew older, the invitations to the diplomatic balls faded away with her poor husband's demise. Pure conjecture on my part, but isn't it fun to imagine.

 

 

April 2007:  Students, Girdles and Corset Futures

 

We received a very impressive email from a student who financed her studies by selling second-hand girdles on Ebay. So fascinated was she by the prices for some of the more esoteric garments, that the thesis for her social studies is "The role of nostalgia on consumer behavior, with a particular focus on girdles." Indeed, some rare and beautiful girdles fetch very high prices. These are possibly good value since their like will never be seen again, however, latex girdles and corsets fetch astronomical prices. There is a collectors' premium here since genuine, undamaged Playtexes, Alstons, and My Ladys are rare, however, one cannot ignore a strong fetish interest that drives the majority of the price. These latex horrors, as a friend used to call them, are described in the Reducing Corsetry section. With the exception of the Playtex girdles that were widely endorsed by sportswomen and actresses (notably Jane Russell), I have come across few women who admitted to wearing the more robust rubber foundations. My Dutch aunt wore a rubber corset and suffered the sweatiness in summer and chill in winter of this abominable garment (my husband who normally types the text asked if I meant abdominal garment thinking I had made a mistake, but no; these garments were abominable!)

 

Another student, our Californian correspondent, Sarah, now studying to be a nurse, has discarded her corsets as impractical for the rigours of a hospital ward. I'm not surprised that she's moved to a girdle. She may find, as have generations of nurses and airline stewardesses, that active women who spend most of their days on their feet can go through stockings at an alarming rate. For that reason alone did such women persist in wearing stockings when their peers had migrated to tights. British Airways supplied their cabin crew with bulk packets of mild support stockings to counter the alarming attrition rate (of both stockings and veins) well into the 1980's.

 

Back to rubber corsetry, apart from my aunt, the only other women I heard of that wore such a garment was a student at St Hugh's College, Oxford. After three years of intense study and little exercise in her 'blue-stocking' lifestyle, she was convinced (by her mother) that such a garment would help her lose weight and she wore a custom-made Alstons for the entire summer! History does not relate whether this sacrifice was successful. So, do women still believe in the 'reducing' capacity of these garments? Certainly our Latin sisters must, since the bastion of latex corsetry has taken firm root in South America. I mentioned in December 2006, a relatively young Brazilian lady's vanishing tummy. I wonder if she was wearing latex? My husband, the thrifty Scot, wondered whether we should buy some of these corsets and store them as an investment. Corset futures perhaps?

 

Coincidences

 

 

Girdle 234                   Girdle ???

We've just received two Spirella girdles from an estate, and, I'm ashamed to admit, we couldn't identify the model number of one of them (right). I checked through old brochures to find it, but I can’t. I have several of this style and have seen photographs of them at auction, but never with a model number. It's very much a British Spirella 1960's girdle but it simply doesn't feature in my records. The other girdle from the same estate is clearly a 234 and both appear to be of the same age and condition. At first I thought that it might be an older style that was copied by Spirella at a customer’s request, however, with so many examples around I doubt it. It may be that the girdle is a derivative of the 206 where two elastic centrally placed gores was an option over the normal one piece (Spirella had many options). My brochures certainly cover the period of the girdle but it is not displayed. Amazingly, whilst I was searching for a reference, a reader sent me some pictures of a girdle she had recently acquired and, well I never, it was exactly the same mystery model. What an amazing coincidence! Can anybody help us here ?

 

Having mentioned earlier in the month Alstons rubber corsetry, we came across a rare Alstons in excellent condition. The garment had been worn frequently since the rubber has taken up the shape of the wearer, yet several of the very few perforations are incomplete with the little rubber circle still attached. Moreover, the garment is unlined, with cut rubber seams that would have been pressed into the skin. No protective barrier of knickers or slip here, for the power of these 'reducing garments' lay in the magic qualities of latex in direct contact with, and massaging away the excess flesh of the wearer. The girdle has the Alstons hallmark of a full-length zip, for there was no way to wriggle into such a clammy garment. It is quite a small size and my husband idly wondered if this was the very same torture device that the poor St. Hugh's student was encouraged to wear. Unlikely, coincidences, like girdles, can only be stretched so far!

 

 

 

 

May 2007:

 

After a very quiet spell we received a huge missive from Frangard. It will take my husband a little while to format and edit this contribution but it will be worth the wait. Otherwise, our contacts in various Old Peoples' Homes report no new clients that might provide information for us, and it has taken a whole month to find enough new additions to add to the site. There's information out there, but sadly it diminishes each year. Even our corsetiere friends are debating whether it's worth continuing in the trade. Hopefully summer, and a few trips around our favourite haunts in Holland, England and Scotland will produce some results.

 

After some weeks, my long-suffering husband has completed the formatting of Frangard’s amazing addition to his Odyssey. It is certainly a detailed account and adds valuable insights to the life and times of arch-corsetiere, Iris Norris. During the account, Frangard notes the problems associated with driving a car whilst tightly corseted. This is so reminiscent of one of our favourite accounts that appeared in a women’s magazine in the 1960’s. A Colonel Blimp type of character explained that no wonder women were poor drivers if they were as tightly corseted as his wife. Not surprisingly, a heated exchange ensued that was ended by one women who claimed that most men must be wearing their wife’s corsets if their average driving standards were anything to go by!

 

Such accounts hark back many decades at least particularly for a husband to know what sort of corsets his wife might wear. Some women are incredibly coy about dressing in front of their husbands and others are not. It’s a complex matter of vanity, upbringing and embarrassment. I can fully understand that as the years pass, one would prefer hubby to see the ‘finished product’ rather than a saggy cellulite potato. On the other hand, after a long marriage, there are few secrets left and none of us retains the body beautiful outside the rarified atmosphere of Hollywood.

 

Which brings us to my granny who lived in Utrecht. The two sides of our family were both well-off and quite classy. As a young girl I was fascinated when Mummy’s mother stayed since the door to her room was always open and she loved to have the children around her. This included during dressing and undressing and I remember vividly her perforated white rubber corsets. Whereas all her clothes related to ours generically, the corsets were something quite apart. I knew Mummy didn’t wear such things. On Daddy’s side, his mum was totally the opposite and her room was inviolate territory. I presumed she wore corsets; didn’t all grannies, but I never saw them. The 'rubber corset granny' as I called her (not to her face) suffered her corsets in stoical silence with the exception of one hot summer’s day in the Ardennes that is related elsewhere.

  

According to my husband, it’s still a fine sight to see a lady embark into her stays, even the crossed-leg heave of donning a girdle and matching up the hooks-and-eyes is a laudable performance, but the pulling on of a modern shaper (that doesn’t even have the decency to be called what is – a panty-girdle); then he’d sooner go back to sleep.

 

Euphemisms

 

Like most people, particularly long-term couples, my husband and I have developed over the years a private language of sayings and nicknames. We are not alone in this eccentricity and I was reminded of this a few years ago in correspondence with a lady about M&S girdles. As a teenager, she occasionally wore one of M&S’s most powerful girdles and referred to it as “The Beast!” Another simply called her panty-girdle “The Zipper.” It was my reference (above) to the “Rubber Corset Granny” that prompted this train of thought and I wondered if others use such names. My husband volunteered that his uncle referred to one of his wife’s bridge partners as “Varicose Vera.” Betty MacDonald in ‘The Egg and I’ refers to the “Corset Lady” and eloquently goes on to describe this formidable, robustly corseted women.

 

Slightly different from pet names are the many euphemisms used by those that refuse to utter the word corset or girdle in polite conversation. The modern word shaper is a case in point. Belt and roll-on were often used for girdle, even by the manufacturers to the extent that roll-on became officially accepted into the English language. It's an apt expression as is step-in instead of panty-girdle. Stays strikes an old-fashioned slightly humorous note, that allows the speaker to invert the reference and refer to panty-girdles or girdles as corsets. Women with a bosom of any size will know just how painful driving a car on a bumpy road can be. A friend who regularly drove on farm tracks wore what she called her steel bra for such occasions. The phrase steel knickers has simply been used so often to describe every garment from a shaper to a surgical corset. Steel bras might stretch the imagination, but steel corsets come closer to the truth. Both the mother and the sister of the rude boy (see anecdotes) wore Camp back supports when horse-riding. These powerful garments with the side lacing adjustment were justifiably called, with quite some feeling, steel knickers! They were, however, very effective supports and worn by many whose activities put a strain on their backs from equestriennes to male helicopter pilots, who would refer to their camouflage canvas corsets (worn over the flight suit) as girdles! A few years ago I met a relatively young grandmother (in her early 50’s) who, on discovering our mutual 'bad back’ problem announced that she had to wear her armour on a daily basis. She was sitting stiffly in a deck chair in the garden with her legs encased in industrial strength support stockings as she called them. Her feet rested on a small stool and attaining the vertical was a struggle. I don’t think that armour was any exaggeration considering some of the devices that women use to support their backs. Her daughter-in-law predictably called her the Iron Maiden! The expressions used, particularly by the teenager, for their panty-girdles were legion and included finger nippers, passion-killers and chastity-belts. The theme here suggests that the foundations were chosen by mother rather than daughter. Passion killers is, however, more usually associated with the older woman's bloomers or directoire knickers that to some are anything but! More recently, courtesy of Bridget Jones and jumped on by the high street marketing departments come Magic Knickers!

 

In conclusion, I can’t abide women who coyly remark that they are wearing granny pants or "one of those panty-things." Perhaps it’s my Dutch upbringing but I call a corset a corset, and a girdle a girdle. If you have any doubt as to which is which, I have my own views on the topic!

 

 

June 2007:  The mystery girdle and the beautiful corset !

 

We've been searching our archives to identify the Spirella girdle that we mentioned in April and we simply can find no photographic reference, however, the 1961 Spirella brochure shows a drawing of women in various girdle styles and the mystery girdle is featured in a cartoon (right), but not in the following pages. How frustrating! Spirella often re-used its artists' work (to save money), so the girdle may be a late 1950's style. An American Spirella girdle of the 1950's from the same box had washing instructions attached referring to models 205, 206, 210, 215, 216 and 220, the latter four designations being unknown to us. American and British designations did differ latterly, so is the mystery girdle one of those four. To confuse matters further, we unearthed one of these girdles from our collection (we have two), and it has a nylon zip that Spirella introduced in May 1958 (and then only on corselettes).  Now for a real conundrum, we have a few girdles with the corsetiere's tags and date of manufacture and we found an immaculate 206 dated from 1977. The fabric, the elastic on both gussets and suspenders, the zip and the suspenders' metal-work are identical to our mystery garment. The mystery girdle looks like it was made in the 1970's! Spirella often did copy client's favourite garments, so is this girdle style a late 1950's model copied much later?

 

On the left, a 1977 vintage 206 girdle constructed from identical materials to the mystery garment on the right.

 

Addition September 2007: We found another example of the mystery corset, but this one is American, and is labelled Spirella by Spencer. It appears to date from the 1960's.

The mystery girdle

 

One last word on Spirella's obsession with its numerical naming system. We have a superb example of an American Spirella 202 dating from the late 1950's (left). This garment was also marketed by Spirella as the 'Verve Debonaire'!!

 

Moving from panty-girdles through girdles, we come to one of the most elegant corsets that I've seen in many years. We recently acquired a 'Fan Massagical' Corset (made in Stockport, England) and the quality of construction is outstanding, however, the curious name has prompted us to re-locate the write-up.

 

A plea from Frangard. Can any of our readers remember these corset shops as advertised in the British Yellow Pages. I know of 'Figure Foundations' of Banstead High Street. There was another one nearby called 'The Very Shop' ( I don't know why). They supplied foundations to the ladies of Banstead unless you went further a field to Shinners of Sutton, the local Camp agent Of course, in those days, the phone directory had dedicated full page adverts for Spirella and Spencer agents. Every one of these shops faced formidable competition from Marks & Spencer.

 

 

July 2007:  Girdle Injuries

 

A letter from one of those kind folk that write in to the web site mentioned how a lady hurt her back from wearing a girdle with a zip location on the left hip rather than offset front left. The twisting motion eventually caused serious back pain. Similar afflictions, both chronic and acute, have affected many women who in attempting to fasten their back suspender have strained their spines.

 

It is amazing that a garment such as corset or girdle, whose purpose is to support, control and preclude back injuries should be the source of the same. Such injuries are the tip of an unexpected iceberg:-

 

Spirella, in the early part of the 1900’s when their spiral stay was a novelty, advertised at length about the lethal perils of conventional stays. They regaled their readers with well-documented cases of women who would have had survivable accidents had it not been for being impaled on their broken stay bones. Iris Norris herself commented that she regularly broke her front busk-plates due to regular bending.

 

Broken nails from tugging on reluctant girdles and zips are too common to mention, however, in this case, traditionally it is the nails that do the damage, particularly to nylons.

 

I know of one women who sprained a finger (more painful than it sounds) attempting to get those little devils, the hooks-and-eyes closed on a girdle (that was presumably too tight – Ivy)

 

I have written elsewhere of lacing accidents where breaking laces have precipitated the wearer incontinently to the floor, fortunately without injury although this was lucky.

 

An unusual case was of a lady, converting from decades of girdles to the new-fangled panty-girdle. During manufacture, the six suspenders had been hooked on back to front by mistake with the ‘knobby’ bit facing inwards. The wearer suffered throughout the day as the elastic of the girdle pressed the knobs into her thighs and sitting was impossibly uncomfortable. The weals caused by this unfortunate escapade lasted for hours. It was on returning the garment to the shop that the mistake was identified.

 

Falling over with your girdle around your ankles is hilarious to the watcher but potentially serious for the older woman. This happened often enough for it to be classed as an occupational hazard for corsetry models during their quick changes. Corsets with full-length fastening do not suffer from this danger.

 

But I save the best for last. Being thwacked across the head by a pair of rolled-up corsets for laughing at your wife who has just fallen over is also painful – as it should be!

 

August 2007:

The correspondence that we receive, both by email and letters, can broadly be split into several types:-

Recollections, either from women that wore traditional foundations, or from women and men who remember what their mothers, aunties or grannies used to wear. More than once, we have heard described how the exposure of an impressionable youth to his granny’s mysterious underpinnings has produced a life-long fascination. (We have recently included one under Letters). These recollections can be detailed, general and sometimes, as recorded in Corsetiere’s Anecdotes, rather amusing. This brings us to the second category, which is predominantly from men who have been influenced as described above.

Thirdly, there are the one-offs, often from women whose standard comment is “I’m glad we don’t have to wear these torture devices any more!” To refer to a foundation as a torture device is to misunderstand the whole concept of corsetry. Often, these women are of an age (let us say 50-something) that would have made them teenagers in the early 1960’s. It was a time of immense change and not a few reluctant girls suffered with foundations that they did not want and were poorly fitted. The experience was often disagreeable.

Another example of poor foundation practice was the one-off wearing of a corset in an effort to fit into a smaller size of dress. Again, the experience will be uncomfortable and disagreeable. It was our reference a few months ago to reunions of the women’s armed forces that prompted several letters on this theme. Not many women retain the figures of their youth and uniforms are made strictly to measure; they are supposed to be smart after all. More than one woman resorted to borrowing her mother’s old corsets (the account refers to 1982) in an attempt to squeeze a 34” waist into a 30” skirt. The inevitable consequence of this ‘forcing a quart into a pint pot’ is to redistribute the flesh into unwanted rolls and bulges precariously confined beneath straining zips and buttons. I might add, that even the best corsetry will fail here. Elderly actresses who might appear to have retained their youthful shape, might indeed have resorted to corsets, but it is a highly skillful dressmaker that creates the illusion. Remember that the dress should fit the corset, the corset should never be used to fit the wearer to the dress.

 

Tummy Trouble

 

There are many things that are the bane of a woman’s life (and not necessarily their husbands I add as a response to him looking over my shoulder), but high on the list comes one’s tummy. We’ve expressed our dislike of the current fad for women to expose their midriff, independent of age or build. Just the other day I saw my husband observing a female jogger. She was rather pretty and shapely but for the gap between her designer top and her lycra bottom where her tummy bulged and quivered as she ran. Was this semi-pregnant spectacle what she really hoped to achieve, I think not. It is a sad fact that one’s tummy never lies as flat as one would want. This is so eloquently expressed in Herman Wouk’s book ‘Winds of War’. “Hook me up. Look how my stomach is bulging," and then, "I'm bulging a FOOT. I look six months' pregnant. I'm horrible. And I'm wearing my tightest girdle. Oh, what'll I do?" cries the wife of Pug Henry. Her husband sees no difference from normal but wisely declines to comment. For women of my age, we’re quite resigned to the fact that one’s underwear will at least attempt to put back the sagging abdomen somewhere near where it should be; but flat, never.

 

An acquaintance recounts the story of a girl who lived in Utrecht in the 1960’s. She was a classic Dutch beauty; tall, shapely, elegant and with a charming manner to match. She missed perfection, however, by an irreducible wad of fat that lay over her stomach. She became obsessed by this perceived deformity and nothing that her mother or friends could say would convince her otherwise. The suggestion that she wear a girdle was the only time that the girl’s equable nature deserted her and entreaties that all women carried fat were dismissed. She never appeared at the swimming pool and wore dresses that flounced below the waist to disguise her tummy (fortunately this was fashionable at the time). Between school and university, her parents sent her to live with a family in America to improve her English and I didn’t see her for half a year. On return, she was the same elegant creature as ever but her tummy had gone and, moreover, she dressed to demonstrate this. Her mother was amazed to find that her daughter had bought a wardrobe of panty-girdles that were popular in America at the time, and not just flimsy elastic step-ins, but firm zippered confections. With the contrariness of youth her daughter explained “All American girls wear these; I didn’t want to feel out of it!” Both peer pressure and girdle pressure can be extremely effective forces.

 

Women's Corsetry:  1860 - 1898

It's one thing to assemble random recollections and memories onto a web site, and quite another to write under the beady eye of a bachelor degree examiner:-

Congratulations to Rachel Head for her excellent work:-

http://www.leeds.ac.uk/history/studentlife/e-journal/Head_Rachael.pdf

September 2007: More tummies !

Only a week ago, we encountered that hideous apparition, the unconfined tummy, exposed and quivering, for this was no young girl but a woman, mature in all ways, bar dress sense. The odd thing was that her low-cut jeans were so tight that they exacerbated the roll of tummy fat, dimpled redly by the welt of her belt buckle. It reminded me of a quote from a girl who grew to adulthood in the 1960's:- "In the 1960's, firm control garments were still thought essential for best wear. I have been really uncomfortable in boned girdle, boned long line bra as a teenager; and they could be hot too. At that time you were not expected to look relaxed in best wear. Mind you, they were not more uncomfortable or restricting than tight Levis today." How sad. If the lady in question had worn a girdle and smart slacks, how elegant she could have appeared. With her skin-tight jeans, even walking must have been uncomfortable, but perhaps I'm just old fashioned. My husband added that there's no perhaps about it. We're old-fashioned - and proud of it!

Recently my niece was commenting about two older ladies that share an apartment in Amsterdam where she's a student. Elderly women often used to live together and I must point out straight away that in the vast majority of cases, the relationship was purely platonic. Several of my mother-in-law’s bridge friends fell into this category. Usually the loneliness of widowhood, the occupancy of too large or an unaffordable family home prompted two old friends to share the costs and enjoy some companionship in their fading years. Again, it was not unusual for elderly women to advertise for companions. An older respondent would of course make for easier company, but sometimes a younger, semi-nurse style character would move in and ‘adopt’ the older women. We’ve mentioned companionship and finances but there was another critical element. Remember the old women’s lament on the death of her husband “Now I’ve got nobody to do up my back suspenders any more!” Indeed, some of my mother-in-law’s friends were just too stiff to tighten their own corsets effectively, but they could quite easily pull the laces (particularly on a back-laced corset) for their friend.

At the beginning of Corsetiere's Tales, we have gathered together an index of all the stories and letters that we have received under one banner.

Back onto the subject of tummies, I happened to come across an article in that font of all wisdom and knowledge 'Good Housekeeping'. The lady mentioned above would do well to read it! It's nice to know that there are more proper foundations coming back onto the market. Some women need to be made aware them. No doubt the initial reactions will be "My mother used to wear those!". So what; your mother probably looked pretty good because of it. George uncovered a cartoon on this theme.

Good_housekeeping_0407.jpg (65024 bytes)

 

 

Stewardesses again

 

That hoary old topic about airline stewardesses and girdles came up again recently. I still maintain that no airline ever implemented a mandatory policy of what underwear a stewardess should wear, however, guidelines were, and still are, an important part of a stewardess’s life. I’m sure the requirements were that the uniform was worn smartly with no unseemly lumps or bulges. If we consider the late 1950’s - early 1960’s, tights were not common and any women needed suspenders (garters US) to support her stockings. This could either be by a girdle, panty-girdle or suspender belt. The panty-girdle is probably the least likely to show through a fitted skirt and so the stewardess did exactly what her peers would do, and that is to wear some form of girdle. No mandatory rule was necessary.

 

For sure, some correspondents have mistaken this normal mode of dress, appropriate to the era, for a requirement, and even one fashion guru was heard to say that stewardesses needed to wear girdles to prevent their stomachs from swelling as the pressure dropped. Good gracious, the seating on most airlines is terrible at best, the mind boggles at the thought of hundreds of swollen un-corseted torsos trapped in their seats; mind you, the last time I suffered the indignity of traveling by air, the term bloated un-corseted torsos was perhaps not inappropriate to many of my traveling companions, but pressure had nothing to do with it.

 

It’s common for airline passengers to kick off their shoes at the start of the flight only to find that their feet have swollen by the end and the shoes don’t fit. This is simply fluid migration and nothing to do with pressure, however, it is recounted that the fear of pressure caused one old biddy, unused to flying, enquiring of her travel agency whether the pressurisation would cause her arms and head to swell up after take-off since the rest of her body was confined by surgical stockings, corset and long-line bra!

 

Our stewardess friend came up with an interesting episode that she heard about on a flight to Vienna in the early 1980’s. Apparently one of the cabin crew noticed that an elderly woman seemed to be rather uncomfortable and was wriggling around in her seat. Offers to help seemed only to generate confusion. At last it seemed that the lady had settled down to some agitated activity under her rug. Discretely observing the lady in case a doctor needed to be summoned, the stewardess realised that she had undone the bottom buttons on her blouse and was trying to unlace her corsets! This Houdini-like activity persisted for five minutes after which the old lady relaxed with some degree of contentment. Before landing the stewardess asked the lady if she was feeling better. “Oh Yes” she was assured “I’m afraid I suffer from wind and I had to loosen off a bit!”

 

Our Dutch stewardess friend, who has been in the business for 30 years now has never worn a girdle, nor does she need to, having an enviable figure for a woman in her late-50’s. She added an interesting point last time we discussed this matter, and remarked that more stewardesses probably wear a shaper (girdle) today than at any time in the last two decades! (This comment is echoed below by an British ex-stewardess.)

 

 

October 2007:  An Interesting Rumour

 

As regular readers of this column will know, my husband and I are great fans of the 'Traditional British Pub'. We like lunches there, and occasionally the early evening, although we avoid the more fashionable later evening crowd of yuppies. In one of our favourite haunts there is a charming barmaid who is buxom to the point of distracting hubby from his ale. A devotee of the Triumph Doreen (as I am) she cuts quite a figure when standing behind the bar. A bit like a newsreader on TV, one never knows what they look like beneath the desk behind which they sit. In case of the barmaid, her occasional forays into the clientele reveal a sadly unfettered behind; she looks far better behind the bar. However, she told us of a female TV celebrity (whose name I can't possibly mention) who occasionally joins in the evening crowd. This stunning lady apparently doesn't just wear the 'shapers' that many of her peers do these days, but before each TV appearance squeezes her torso into a liposuction girdle. I don't know if you've seen these devices that are hugely compressive to aid liposuction patients' recovery, but I wonder how many other stars resort to this technique?

 

Apparently, Marlene Dietrich resorted to a somewhat similar deception. I have copied some text from the 'Older Women' web page:-

 

"...and wearing a tight, all-over girdle under her elaborate costumes and gowns. The ironclad garment restricted her movement..."

On a similar vein (pun intended) the sister of one of our neighbours, who used to fly for a British airline, commented that during the dull hours of the long-haul flights to the Far East she got so cold that she would wear two pairs of support tights. This kept her legs warm and, she hoped, would stave off the hereditary varicose veins of her mother (they failed on that score I’m afraid – Ivy). She felt the doubled material also helped her shape although the baggy uniform of the time hardly warranted the effort. She lamented that the modern ‘shapers’ available today were not around then (What I call the shapeless period between 1985 – 2005). “I mean those shapers are simply – hydraulically powerful” she enthused. “Who’d have thought we’d all go back to such things, but if I was in the airline now with the fitted skirts of the new uniform, I’d be into one like a shot.” “Not two?” I asked. “Why not” she replied, “although going to the loo might be a problem!”

November 2007: Doubling up

It never rains but it pours. Just after I wrote the last paragraph, our erudite contributor, Roger K, sent us an article from the Independent about Gwyneth Paltrow 'doubling up' on her 'magic knickers' (panty-girdles) . This was not an infrequent practice in the past. I have related where women wore two pairs of stockings; some brands of support stocking even advertised that they could be worn under a more fashionable pair. In our discourse on the elderly woman, I've mentioned a lady that wore a corselette over her corset, partly to support this second pair of stockings but also to disguise the engineering of her surgical support (It didn't). There was the American servicewoman who was found to be wearing no less than four panty-girdles after passing out on parade. Doubling up is nothing new.

 

Strange Uses for your Corset!

 

A lady's husband rushed in from work. "Get your corsets off" he shouted and raced upstairs. The lady followed, somewhat surprised by her husband's sudden ardour, to find him getting into his football gear. "I need the corset laces for my football boots; they broke in last game!" (from Corsetieres' Anecdotes.)

 

I have recounted some years ago how my mechanically minded husband repaired the broken exhaust of our car using stays from a corset. Since then we have noted some other unusual uses to which our foundations can be put. Perhaps some of you will remember a comedy film called "Petticoat Navy" where women take over a submarine. The male engineer is amazed when a girdle is used to substitute for a spring on a recalcitrant piece of machinery! The elasticity of girdles certainly lend itself to alternative uses. Suspenders used as catapults by naughty boys have even made it to the cartoons, Tom (of Tom and Jerry) uses the mistress's corsets as a pair of wings to glide down onto Jerry, and Freddie Frinton used Thora Hird's latex girdle to rub out a cross-word error (with predictably disastrous results)! Corsets are often cannibalised by their owners to provide at least one working pair when all other sources have failed. The stays have found uses as diverse as plant sticks and kebab holders. My husband even used rubber strips from a old Alstons (well beyond repair) to protect a sensitive bolt from the teeth of his pliers. It is perhaps as a weapon where corsets can be remarkably effective. More than one romantic authoress has cooled the amorous advances of some love-lorn swain by a crack over the head with a pair of rolled-up corsets. I can speak from experience that it's an effective deterrent!

 

 

Sears Advertising

 

My husband came across a classic piece of corsetry advertising the other day. He puffed his way up from our basement brandishing a 1930 edition of the Sears catalogue. "Why be stout?" he cried. I decided not to take immediate offense, sometimes his train of thought is tortuous at best, however, he detected the thunder clouds gathering over my head and went on to explain. "Y.B. Stout; it's a play on words by Sears to introduce their 1930's corsets to the larger woman." He showed me the pages and, amazingly, this was Sears sensitive approach to the fuller figured woman! We've placed the pictures in the Stout Woman page as well the area on oddly named brands. "I.M. Stout" I said sadly. "U.R. Stout" my husband agreed, "But you've got a splendid figure because you wear proper foundations." Sometimes my husband can be quite appealing.

 

 

December 2007:

 

A dear old lady of our acquaintance passed away last month. She was 99 years old and fiercely independent until a brief final illness. Her niece, who stayed with her during her last failing weeks, simply noted that she needed help with her elastic stockings. She managed her own corsets to the end.

 

We received an amazing addition (chapters 3 and 4) to the life and times of Frangard. This account has simply been edited for spelling and occasional style. Everything else is the work of this gentleman who knew the legendary corsetière, Iris Norris as a friend.

 

Spanx and Spencer

In a strange way, it is truly heartening to see a modern foundation manufacturer, Spanx, resorting to the old 'before and after' images so loved by Spirella, Spencer and many other makes. The image on the right is pure throwback to Spirella advertisements of the 1950's - 60's where compression of the waist is marginal at best, but the elevation of the bosom is nothing short of anti-gravitational (my husband's choice of words). Good work Spanx! You just need something to flatten that spare tyre and then I'll believe that foundations really have made a comeback.

 

 

The mystery girdle returned again (Apr 2007 and June 2007) and is clearly labelled Spirella by Spencer and is American from New Haven. I wonder if Spirella in Britain simply used this style as well. No models numbers could be detected on the well-used garment. How frustrating!

 

Still on the subject of Spencer, we were sent these pictures of a truly high-waisted Spencer girdle. These gorgeous confections from the 1960's were very powerful, very elegant and very expensive.

I have one in my collection where lace overlaid nylon forms the front panel. Constructed from a similar material, on our Spencer page, is an example of a buckled corset. In all aspects a surgical corset, the garment has all the elegance and style of a Dior gown. Modern orthopaedic supports, as they are called, have more in common with a mail bag!

 

And so the year draws to a close. For my husband and I it has been a year of big decisions and big changes including those most disruptive of events, a change of job and a house move. We apologise if our updates have been less than frequent recently but our lives have been turned upside-down and we are waiting for the dust to settle (literally)! We look forward to the New Year and wonder where the resurgence in controlling underwear will take us. Theses have been written on the relationship of political climate to female fashions that we have never fully understood, and I forget if tight foundations presage boom or bust; perhaps 2008 will supply the answer.

 

Predictions aside, we spent a very Merry Christmas with old friends and look forward to making new friends in 2008.

 

Peace and Goodwill to you all

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year