Ivy Leaf's 

Corsetry Compendium

 

As readership of Ivy Leaf's web site has increased, so have the questions asked. In addition to these questions, I have corresponded with and visited several of the remaining corsetieres and their clients. All have been charming, helpful and providers of stories, anecdotes and reminiscences. Obviously, a corsetiere sees and hears intimacies that are revealed in confidence and kept that way by the professionalism of the trade. Nevertheless, there are many stories to tell that do not breach these confidences and others that with suitable anonymity protect the people involved.  

All personal questions are treated confidentially, however, if a question is relevant to a wider audience it will be rendered completely anonymous and included under the appropriate section. 

This page has slowly become the repository for all topics that fail to find a home in the more structured sections of the web site. Perhaps one day, this page will develop into some new chapters, meanwhile please browse through and enjoy the topics and experiences of others. 

 

The Difference between a Corset and a Girdle

At what Age did Girls start to wear Foundations ?

General Girdle Questions

Roll-ons, Step-ins and Belts

Vestigial Lacing

Girdle Hooks

Foundations (how many?)

Suspenders and Stockings

Unusual Boning

The Old Corset Shop

Knickers and Corsets

Reminiscences of Wearing Corsets   

How to Lace your Corset, Madam

The Trendelenburg Position

Sleeping in Corsets

The Visibility of Underwear

The Audibility of Underwear

The Feel of Corsetry

Under-belts

Questions to Alison - the Spencer corsetiere

Questions from Roger K - the volunteer editor

Trapped inside my pantie-girdle

 

 

The Difference between a Corset and a Girdle

This is a widely debated topic with probably no definitive answer, particularly nowadays when such garments are to most women simply a memory. However, my own definition is that a corset, in one dimension, does not stretch and a girdle does. Let me explain. A true corset at some point in its circumference will have no stretchable material. One could say that a corset can compress the wearer, but the wearer can expand the girdle.

 It may have elastic gores at the bottom to allow ease of movement but there will be two points on either side of the garment where no amount tension will cause the garment to expand. On the other hand, a girdle will expand. This is why there are 'laced girdles' and corsets without lacing. A good example of a laced girdle is the Dutch rubber corset where I have explained that the lacing has the strange effect of stretching the garment rather than compressing the wearer. 

I recently saw an example of a rather beautiful fan-laced corset (right). The makers only just avoided turning the garment into a rather ineffective laced girdle by adding a fabric band across the elastic sides. This allows the force of the lacing to compress the body. Otherwise, once again, the lacing would simply have expanded the corset.

 

On the left, is a Spirella Spirelette, model 216. It dates from 1954, before the term Spirelette was aimed at a younger clientele. Spirella quite explicitly referred to the garment as a 'laced girdle'.

Corset photo courtesy of Stichie

 

An example of how a girdle can be turned into a corset is shown on the right. An internal waist-band of an unstretchable material was often used in 'merry widows' and basques to ensure that, whatever degrees of freedom the garment allowed to the wearer, expansion of the waist wasn't one of them.

 

This is a German girdle, and I must admit, it's the first I have seen like that, however, it would certainly be effective.

 

 

At what Age did Girls start to wear Foundations ?

 

A frequently asked question is at what age did girls start wearing foundation garments. In the earlier part of the century, there are frequent examples of corsets for girls as young as six years old, however, the importance of protecting the growing body was recognised, and these garments were basically for warmth and that all important function, to hold up the stockings.

Between the wars, Spirella was advertising a laced corset for eight to 14 year-olds, and a girdle for the general teenager.

In the post-war era, early teens would seem to be the answer. In Herman Wouk's book 'Marjorie Morningstar' from the 1940's, the heroine is described as wearing such garments in her very early teens. The Spirella magazine has some interesting letters on the subject:-

July 1962: Corsetiere Mrs. H., of Shrewsbury, has recently had an order from a 16 1/2 -year-old girl. Nothing unusual about that, you might say. But there was something unusually special about this client, for she ordered foundations to the retail value of 65 pounds. The account was paid by cheque by the girl's mother. The girl, who had experienced trouble with shop garments, ordered three corselettes, three girdles and various bras. Mum was so happy with the result of the fittings that she too became Mrs. H's client. 

In today's money, this would be an outlay of close to a thousand US dollars !

September 1963: A happy and satisfied client of Spirella is 21-year old Miss S., daughter of Mrs. S., a successful corsetiere in Lincoln. Miss S. has worn Spirella since she was 13 and says she has always been most comfortable.

These letters from the Spirella magazine show that in the 1950's and 60's, young teenagers would wear a girdle. 

From 1961 comes this letter to Spirella. Penny wears her 246 girdle high above the waist and says she just loves the feeling of support it gives her. Now she won't do without it. Many friends have remarked lately on her grace, poise and good carriage, and she knows that it's thanks to her Spirella made-to-measure girdle, which not only gives her support and comfort, but has given her confidence .. surely the most treasured accomplishment for a 16-year old girl learning to grow up.

Even in 1970, the young teenager was following (or being told to follow) her mother's example. August 1970: Spirella has so much to offer all age groups today, as I can bear witness with a client of 94 right down to a young girl of 14.

The youngest age that I have ever heard a girl being put into corsets (for fashionable intent) was nine and this was in the 1970's. The girl in question had an embarrassment of puppy fat and her Mother had her corsetted to attend a wedding as a bridesmaid. This news came from the letters of Woman's Weekly and the thrust of the comment was that it was a shame that a young girl should get into such a state that a corset was necessary for her to fit into her dress. The girl was inelegantly described by one observer as a "pink satin sausage"!

Even school trips in 1962 were not immune from visits to the Spirella factory. Here a teacher whose daughter is a Spirella corsetiere shows her early teenage pupils what they should be wearing, and I wonder just who the teacher might recommend!

The picture on the left from February 1962 shows the unabashed enthusiasm for Spirella corsetieres and their daughters to model their wares for the general public (and this was before the 'freedom' of the later 1960's). The daughters on the outside are obviously in their teens and although not wearing the full girdles of the period are sporting some charming deep suspender belts. The girl on the right (photograph) wears what was described by Spirella as a 'waist nipper'.

In a similar vein, a question about the underwear worn by James Bond’s women elicited a vigorous response, firstly from myself, but subsequently from the knowledgeable Isobel Black. The topic touches upon whether teenage girls wore the firm style of girdles that their mothers wore in the 1960's.

Miss Moneypenny’s screen debut was in the film of Dr. No in 1963. The part of M’s secretary was played superbly by Lois Maxwell. At that time in 1963, Lois was 36. A British woman in her position, and at any age over her late teens would not have been seen dead in public without wearing proper foundations. Whether she would have gone to the expense of a made to measure Spirella 234 is in doubt since a civil servant in the Ministry would not have earned very much in those days, even one as senior as Miss Moneypenny. However, I am sure that in the England of the early 1960’s she would have been wearing a girdle.

In reality, Lois was actually Canadian and therefore might have worn the pantie-girdle whose popularity across the Atlantic preceded the staid British by nearly a decade. Ivy.

Isobel’s comments bear out much of this feeling and again suggest that British women were far later in adopting the pantie-girdle:-

Having worked in a corset shop from 1955-64, it always seemed to me that it was not until the early 60's when I start to notice a real dichotomy in the style of foundation garment worn by those in their teens and twenties and older women. By older I really mean women in their 30's as many of our customers who were 40+ continued to wear the sort of semi rigid or rigid lace ups which they had either grown used to pre-war or felt they needed for support. Of course, even in the 50's, for our younger customers, especially those who had only just started wearing girdles, a light unstructured elastic garment was all they wanted or needed. However, it was by no means uncommon for a woman by the time she was in her early twenties or even her late teens, particularly if she was deemed to have a "problem figure", to request a firmer foundation for general wear, such as the one pictured in Ivy's letter. Also, even those with a good figure and accustomed to wearing an elastic roll-on on daily basis, would very often own something far firmer and more structured for special occasions or workplace situations.

There was another influencing factor. Back in the 50's young people and more especially girls, still tended to defer to the wishes of their parents and elders; and I commonly witnessed a foundation garment sold to a teenager on the basis of what her mother and the corsetiere thought "best".

Of course, all these observations might be, at least in part, as a result of our location, that being a very conservative part of the NE of England where people viewed anything different with the greatest mistrust. As a consequence, we found it extremely hard to sell any foundation garment, which was described as new or innovative. Indeed, right up to the time I left, so small was the demand for pantie-girdles that we only ever got them in on the basis of a specific customer order.

Isobel adds more to this topic from her experiences. I shouldn't think that, apart from a bra, any young girl wears a foundation garment these days. Even with my two daughters, who were teenagers in the 70's, I wouldn't have dreamt of suggesting they wore foundation garments, not that they would have even if I had.

For myself I was fitted for my first girdle at age 13, not that I needed one, but that was just what happened back then when girls reached that 'certain' age. I was told that corsets were a compulsory article of clothing at some schools right up to the late 1930's and maybe beyond, and corsetieres would often be asked to attend at a school for the purpose of measuring and fitting pupils. For myself I went to a girl's boarding school in Scotland in the 50's where girdles were obligatory for all pupils over the age of 13. I don't doubt that in previous times corsets would have been similarly mandated. Anyway, girdles with stockings were part of the senior school uniform, so even if you didn't want to wear one, not that I personally can recollect anyone who didn't, you had little choice in the matter.

When I started selling foundations in the mid 50's little had changed and we usually fitted girls for their first girdle at 13 or 14 years. At that time though there were a variety of girdles designed with the teenage market in mind we found these really only grew in popularity in the 60's, when girls were given greater freedom to choose the way they wished to dress. Before then it was not unusual for us to be asked to fit a girl with the exact same style of girdle her mother wore, as it was commonly felt that younger girls chose on the basis of appearance rather than function. All mothers knew that the overriding factor in choosing a girdle was that it 'did the job' and they thought that if a particular girdle 'did the job' for them it would do it for their daughters as well.

The pages of the Spirella magazines are very ambivalent. Did the lasses below really need the support of their corsets. I think not. The girls on the left are barely out of their teens, and the women on the right in their 30's. These pictures were made in the late 1970's, and quite frankly, the number of women featured below who genuinely wore corsets, even rarely, would be virtually non-existent. It was simply that the marketing department of Spirella was desperate to sell their wares. If this meant attracting a younger clientele into the foundations of an older generation, or alternatively, persuading their mothers that they were not old fashioned in their choice of foundations, then so be it.

 

 

Girdles

The apparently straight forward questions below made me realise how complex a subject this is. I had to ask myself about some conventional truths, such as "is a girdle designed to slim the wearer, or to provide a fixture from which to suspend her stockings ?" "Is that why the open bottom girdle declined when tights became fashionable ?" So many questions were raised in my mind. Nevertheless, I attempted to answer as best as I was able:-

1) Were girdles regarded positively by most women or seen as something necessary but unwelcome?

The girdle, which became worn by younger women in the late 1920’s, really became popular in the post-War era as the development of reliable elastic materials, and latterly Lycra by DuPont, allowed for a supporting garment other than a corset. For the vast majority of women until the late 1960’s, there was no alternative to a foundation garment, which by then implied a girdle. Corset wearers were already a small percentage of this population.

The girdle was neither positively nor negatively regarded, it was just worn; it was a ’way of life’. Certainly, some women would rather have died than been seen un-girdled and whether the girdle was tight, effective, pretty or just plain badly fitting and uncomfortable; it would be worn, whatever. A woman will suffer agonies for her looks.

The typical point of view would be that the girdle was positively regarded because it enhanced (really or in the imagination) the wearer’s looks. After 18 hours (despite Playtex’s claims) most women would have regarded their foundations as both unnecessary and unwelcome.

In Herman Wouk’s ‘The Winds of War’, there’s an interesting comment as the hero ‘Pug Henry’ observes his wife dress for dinner. “..I'm bulging a foot. I look six months' pregnant and I’m wearing my tightest girdle. What shall I do?” cries his wife. Pug can see no difference from normal but wisely avoids interjecting. If a woman feels she is bulging, then in her mind she is. No lady in the 1940’s, when the novel was written, would have dined without a girdle.

2) Were girdles generally worn for the entire day or only for going out?

Girdles were worn all day, from getting dressed to go out, say to work or do the shopping, and they wouldn’t be removed until going to bed which might be 14 – 16 hours later. Special girdles, meaning more expensive and tighter (because of less frequent wearing) might be worn for a party, a special dinner or wedding. However, the regular girdle would normally be worn all the time. By the end of the 1960’s (in Britain), the girdle for the younger generation would indeed become an object worn only for something special.

3) Would girdles have been considered mandatory under pencil skirts of the early to mid 1960's?

Definitely! The pencil skirt, or any fitted garment looks far better when fitted over a foundation. Until the late 1960’s most well-dressed women understood that their bodies fluctuated in shape depending on many influences. Well-fitted clothes were fitted to the figure confined by its foundations which limited such fluctuations. The corset was, of course, the ultimate foundation, but clothes in general hung so much better on a figure correctly girdled. As Jane Russell (in her 60’s) breathed candidly to a reporter, the secret to maintaining her good figure was “underwear”.  

4)  What distinguished light/ medium/ firm control girdles and at what point/age did women generally move into firm control girdles?

The levels of control have decreased through the years. In the 1970’s, a woman born at the turn of the century would probably have retained her corsets or a firm control girdle, however, that girdle would be beyond anything marketed today. In the 1950’s, a firm control girdle would be similar to a corset without the lacing. One of the strongest girdles of the 1960’s, yet best designed, comfortable and remarkably glamorous in appearance was the Marks and Spencer all satin-elastic girdle. This girdle was a design based on the Dior girdle of the late1940’s and would have been described as medium/firm control at the time but by today’s standards such levels of firmness no longer exist outside the traditional corset.

This brings us to the item referred to as the ‘roll-on’. This un-boned girdle has its origins pre-War, however, it was a softer post-War variation of the standard boned girdles, so part of their Mothers’ life, that daughters adopted in the 1960’s. Tights had not yet caught on and a girdle, if nothing else, was required to hold ones stockings up. In Britain in the 1960’s, a light control girdle would have implied a roll-on (see next article). 

The invention of tights (UK), panty-hose (USA) probably have far more of an influence on the girdled woman than is commonly realised. At the turn of the last century, the corset was a shape-maker and incidentally, it provided a position from which to support the stockings by means of suspenders (UK), garters (USA). When the corset was replaced by the girdle, the function of the garment as the only support for the stockings was still highly important. With the invention of inexpensive tights (UK; late 1960’s, USA early 1960’s), suspenders became unnecessary and thus so did the conventional girdle. Panty-girdles afforded the support that would ultimately become nothing more than the elasticated underpants that girdles have become today. For more than a decade, panty-girdles carried suspenders (either internally within the long legs or externally if shorter legged) almost as a comfort to those woman who disliked tights, however, latterly it became a sort of throw-back to a dying era in the same way that the traditional bow of material in the standard brassiere represents the lacing of the corset.

So firm and light control definitions have varied through the decades as has the age when women might wear them. In the early 1960’s, a woman in her early 20’s would wear a medium control girdle as standard and firm control for special occasions.

5) "My girdle is killing me!" is the typical anti-girdle comment. In practice, how comfortable was a properly fitted girdle? Was the wearer always aware of wearing it, or did you just forget about about it during the day?

"My girdle is killing me!" was not so much of an anti-girdle comment. It was a very feminine expression handed down from mother to daughter at the end of a long day when the desire to look one’s best was being over-ridden by the constriction of the garment. This was not an everyday girdle; this would be the girdle for that ‘special occasion’, and because it was rarely worn, it would indeed be uncomfortable after a day’s wearing.

A properly fitted girdle is very comfortable, however, even the best will make their presence felt at the end of a long, hard day. It is very similar to a good pair of shoes.

An interesting letter appeared in the Spirella magazine of  August 1966. A client who visited me yesterday told me that she had attended a performance at the Wigmore Hall. A lady sitting next to her kept fidgeting and seemed uncomfortable, so she offered to change seats with her, thinking that perhaps she had the more comfortable chair. However, the lady declined the offer, saying that it was just that her foundation garments were killing her. After the meeting my client was told that her neighbour was Princess Marina. Even Royalty, it seems, can get poorly fitting girdles, or perhaps as is often the case, it was simply too tight !

I can empathise with this heart-felt comment from a reader. "I laughed when I read about the M&S firm control girdle. 
I had one for dances and best wear.  They did a wonderful job, but it was Heaven to take it off."

6) How important was boning by the 1960's or was it mainly used in earlier girdles of 40/50's?

Boning is vital to prevent the girdle's waist ‘rolling over’. It was extensively used in all serious girdles and can still be found in any of the so-called firm girdles of today. The Marks and Spencer satin elastic girdle to which I have referred had eight bones of about 8 – 10 inches each. Two at the back, one on each side and four at the front. This girdle and its derivatives was being sold in Britain until the late 1980’s.  

7) How does one don a girdle?

Look at the enclosed instructions from the Figurette company. Slightly complicated, but absolutely correct since it involves putting the garment on the body whilst reclined; in fact in the classic Trendelenburg Position.

Berlei (UK) gave this advice on how to put on one's roll-on:- “Here’s the Right Way to Pull on a Pull-on” 
1. Reverse the garment so that it is inside out and upside down.
2. Fold the bottom in, including the garters, creating a 4-inch cuff.
3. Standing with crossed legs, pull the [edge of the] garment up to the groin.
4. Grasp edge of garment which is just above knees and roll up.
5. Still holding edge, pull up until garment is adjusted in front.
6. Finally, pull garment down in back and align the garters properly.” 

It is critical not to lose one's balance during the third movement.

8) Do women ever sleep in their girdles?

Not on any regular or planned basis. However, a number of women sleep in their corsets, or have a special corset for wear when they retire to bed, usually for some good medical reason. There are many elderly women with 'bad backs' who wear their corsets during the night. I fondly remember an elderly women in her 70's who slept in her corsets every Friday, wore a fresh pair on Saturday and put the old ones in the wash on Monday. I asked her why every Friday? Apparently it was her husband's night out with his friends, and on returning home, he was apt to be unusually 'frisky' as she quaintly explained it. Apparently her unaided back simply wasn't up to the rigours of 'you know what'. Another example is quoted in 'the Other Side of Corsetry'.

9) Anecdotally, would a woman, particularly in the post war era, choose to be firmly corsetted during long beauty salon visits or would this have been a time for casual wear?

This would depend entirely on the woman. Some women were habitually tightly (some might say over-tightly) corsetted, and a trip to the beauty parlour would be no exception. Such woman wanted to look at their best all the time, and that included emerging from the salon; I mean who knows who you might meet on the street? Others, perhaps getting ready for an evening function, would go to the salon in jeans an an old jumper and only don the tight foundations at the last minute. A Dutch friend of my mother's was, at all times, immaculately dressed and wore the most expensive foundations. Her corsetiere admonished her for wearing everything far too tightly (she would tear the brassiere hooks from the eyes regularly) but she was adamant. Outside the privacy of her bedroom, she was immaculate and would spend hours in the beauty salon to stay that way!

 

Roll-ons, Step-ins and Belts

I am always grateful for constructive criticism for otherwise how would we learn and improve ? The erudite Bunyip Bluegum corrected me on my misconceptions regarding the famous 'roll-on'. I had written "This brings us to the item referred to as the 'roll-on'. This un-boned girdle has its origins pre-War, however, it was a softer post-War variation of the standard boned girdles, so part of their Mothers' life, that daughters adopted in the 1960's. Tights had not yet caught on and a girdle, if nothing else, was required to hold ones stockings up. In Britain in the 1960's, a light control girdle would have implied a roll-on."

BB corrected me as follows:- I think you are about 30 years behind the times here.  Roll-ons certainly remained popular in England in the Sixties, but the word swept the English-speaking world in the Thirties, and, although the Sixties roll-on was lighter and better lasting than its 30's predecessor as a result of the introduction of lycra and nylon, it was essentially the same garment, and probably gave a similar degree of control.

According to Elizabeth Ewing (Dress and Undress), BT Batsford Ltd, London 1978: "The most notable immediate result of the process of extruding rubber elastic was the introduction of the 'roll-on', the most famous corset of its time, with the additional distinction of having added a word to the English language, as well as a new item to the history of underwear.  The first roll-on dates from 1932 in Britain and probably a year earlier in the USA.  It replaced the hook-side or busk-fastening corset for the younger and lighter figures, and for many more too, so great was its comfort.  It dominated the 'light control' market for many years.  If you belonged to that market you didn't talk of a corset anymore; you said a 'roll-on' and got rid of what was already an unpopular word."

The panty-girdle was introduced in 1934, and was very popular in 1935. My reading suggests by the mid-50s it had largely displaced the roll-on in the USA, though I gather it never achieved the same popularity in the UK.  I think that by then all the prewar roll-on wearers would have graduated to something heavier in the USA, while the new generation went straight into panty-girdles.

In the Fifties I don't think girdle wearing was as universal in Australia (and even in England) as it was in the States, and I think Australian girls were somewhat slower to switch to panty-girdles than American girls.

The term 'Roll-on' also served a euphemistic purpose as a letter from Dene suggests:-

At a time when any mention of ladies underwear in mixed company, was very questionable, this term could provide an allowable and slightly light-hearted solution. I heard an older lady saying “At my age I need something more than a roll-on.”  Again on expressing my amazement at the change in appearance of a lady acquaintance, I was told “Yes, but that time she was wearing her roll-on”. Finally, there was the amazement of a boy friend to be told “Sorry, but I can’t hurry as I have a new roll-on“, to be followed remarkably soon afterwards by “I have to go shopping on Saturday, I need a new roll-on.”

Whether the euphemism was used through coyness or guile, the woman wishing to understate the power of the foundation that she actually wore, I do not know.

'Step-in' seems to be an expression like 'roll-on' which never achieved the same popularity. It referred to the standard girdle or pantie-girdle that could be donned without lacing, zips or hooks. It is mentioned in Tom Sharpe's humorously anarchic book 'Indecent Exposure'. The girdle in question, however, has been borrowed by a man from his wife, which moves us towards the topic of 'the Other Side of Corsetry' . In Mr. Sharpe's book, the Major's wife's step-ins are also referred to as corsets and as a girdle in successive paragraphs. 

As for 'belts', this seems to be another euphemism, that developed in the 1940's and 1950's, to divert the client's attention from the fact that they might be buying or even needed to wear, a girdle.

By 1965, Twilfit had dropped the 'girdle' word entirely from their catalogue unless the construction of zips, bones and hooks demands that one 'bites the bullet' and admits that, indeed, this is a girdle and nothing you can call it will persuade one otherwise. The Twilfit catalogue only mentions the 'girdle' word when it becomes a hook-side model. At the end of the catalogue, Twilfit's usual selection of corsets are called corsets. After all, it was the younger clients that needed convincing, not the older ladies that had been wearing corsets for many decades.The term 'belt', even as early as 1965 in the halcyon days of girdle sales, reveals that the marketing department had a feeling that sales of foundation garments to the younger generation needed a new image, and the girdle was not part of that image.

 

By today's standards, this Twilfit girdle would hardly be described as a light garment worthy of the 'belt' appellation.

Spencer was far more specific. Their 'belt' was a six buckle corset designed to return the post-natal abdomen to its former proportions.

One interesting consequence of the 'roll-on' was due to its mode of removal. Let me explain. The classic zippered girdle often had an un-zippered equivalent, very flexibly boned at the back and sides (left M&S - 1979). The only effective way to remove this garment without stretching the elastic was to roll the top down against the tendency of the bones to remain straight. As the bones folded over, the top of the garment would invert, and then be quite easy to pull down. Like all M&S garments, these girdles would last for years, and turn up like new with regularly washing (that’s why so many appear in the auctions today). The only give-away sign of this regular inverted removal would be a tendency of the bones to become concave with the girdle in repose. This is clearly evident on the girdle shown. The Berlei Gay Slant was notorious for this, however, it did not diminish the power of these classic foundation garments. Even zippered garments, if rolled-off, would display this permanent set of the waist bones (right - USA 1972).

It's worth noting, that the M&S girdle, which was well used when we acquired it in the early 1980's, is as strong as it was back then. It could almost pass for new except for the give-away concavity of the bones.

 

Vestigial Lacing

 

It is apparent that many brassieres have a token bow placed in the cleavage at the join of the cups. This is simply the token reference to the full lacing of the traditional corset. 

This classic Dior girdle from the 1950's (left) and the German suspender belt from the same period are simply blatant in their use of vestigial lacing!

 

Even the most prosaic girdle (TP -  left below) makes reference to its ancestry. Cross-stitching is well known for its strength, however, the gratuitous use of the stitching down the centre front of so many girdles is simply a throw-back to the times of the laced corset. The bow at the top, once again represents the knot of the lacing.

This is the detail from the Marks and Spencer girdle shown in the last section. The detailing is exquisite, and the bow is a dainty blue colour on an otherwise white foundation. This was a very nice touch for a bride (who would not uncommonly have worn such a garment at her wedding) to carry 'something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue' according to tradition. If the girdle was borrowed from an elder sister, for example, three out of the four conditions would have achieved in one garment!

Girdle Hooks

How often have we observed on the auction sites, a picture of a brassiere with one or more hooks dangling from the bottom edge. Often they are referred to as suspenders (?). They are, in fact, hooks that would latch onto corresponding eyes sown strategically into the wearer's lower foundation to secure the brassiere. There is nothing more embarrassing than bending over and having your brassiere ride up beyond the top rim of one's corset. On retaining the vertical, the brassiere can catch on the rim and leave the wearer either bent, acutely uncomfortable or with a completely distorted brassiere. The hooks are shown on the photographs below taken from a Spirella magazine of 1958.

For followers of Spirella lore, the corset in the middle is referred to in the brochures as a 'laced girdle', model 216. On the right, we have the traditional 305 corset. Bra hooks, and their recipient eyes, were often put on by the factory, however, an obliging corsetiere or the client herself would often add these appendages.

 

 

Knickers and Corsets

Whether to wear ones knickers over or under a foundation garment has been discussed several times on the Internet forums and is one of the more widely debated questions. The main reason for the debate is that in an age where the foundation and the knickers have become the same article, the question doesn’t arise.  

Nevertheless, it has become apparent from the forum discussions that the views expressed here are very British and on the other side of the Atlantic different customs were adopted. It's still a very personal question, however, I think perhaps we can say that

Knickers are worn over corsets and girdles (necessary), and panties are worn under panty-girdles (optional).

That is to imply from the correspondence on the subject, that the majority of the British remember their Mothers or Grandmothers with their knickers (a very British expression) over their corsets and in America, where the pantie-girdle was always far more popular in the 1960's and 1970's the reverse held true. Any number of exceptions exist, I simply believe that this comment represents the statistical evidence. The views below are those of an English woman and I simply do not have any American contacts who could advise me on what happened on the other side of the Atlantic.

Traditionally, the knickers are worn over the corset. The corset should be of such a construction that there is nothing in the interior to chafe the skin. To this end, flaps cover the laces, satin or plush linings cover the bones or stays and the lacing avoids knots on the internal sections. The most obvious advantage of wearing the knickers over the garment is the ease of toileting (as my corsetiere quaintly refers to it). In the 1930’s some corsets were even made with a short length of back lacing which could be untied allowing the skirt of the garment to be folded up. This was when corsets were worn far longer than was the post-war custom.

But the subject isn’t that simple. Many advertising photographs, particularly pre-war, show models wearing their corsets over the knickers purely for reasons of propriety. Their stockings even rise above the knickers causing bunching of the material which is obviously going to be uncomfortable. Many advertisements of the period show the model wearing a petticoat underneath their corset . Did we do that in those days? In some respects it actually make sense. There is no trouble toileting and the garment is protected from perspiration, however, the foundation garment simply could not be as well anchored as one worn against the skin and would surely move during prolonged wearing.

Despite the comments above, women did wear long-legged knickers, marketed as 'split-crotch' under their foundations. Such garments are quite convenient however you wear them, but the main object was to allow women to toilet with ease and many of these ladies wore their knickers well and truly trapped underneath their corsets. It also has the benefit of protecting the corset from natural perspiration. It’s far easier to wash and dry your knickers than a heavy pair of corsets.  

Rather than rely on historical memories, we asked a friend to don a Hunkemoller  back-laced satin brassiere from Holland (1980's), and an American Spirella corset (side-laced) from the 1950's. On the right, she wears her knickers under the combination, and on the left, the knickers are worn over.

Several interesting point emerge. 1) The back-lacing of the brassiere and the twin side-lacings of the corset, not to mention six suspenders, are quite a challenge to the inexperienced in the 21st century! 2) With the corset firmly fastened and laced over the knickers, there is no easy, or indeed, practical way to 'toilet'. Such an arrangement was purely for modesty in proprietary advertisements. 3) The fact that the knickers are made of satin is the biggest clue. Satin (or materials that slide easily) are always worn over foundations. 

The shiny fabrics allow the clothes to move easily over the corseted body. That is the reason for the petticoat and the knickers being worn outside the foundations. In this case, the use of satin for the brassiere as well ensures that her clothes will slide easily over her under-pinnings.

Perhaps the last word from the British side of the Atlantic should come from those purveyors of corsetry to the masses, Marks & Spencer. On the packets that contained their girdles, was a warning on the back (right). The implication is that women would NOT normally wear anything under their girdles, however, for obvious reasons, when trying on a garment in a shop, briefs or knickers would avoid accidental soiling.

 

 

Reminiscences of Wearing Corsets   

The notes below come from clients of various corsetieres

My normal corset is a front-lacer with boning that is laid in pairs, particularly around the back. It is indeed very supportive and helps with a long-term back problem that I suffer from. I tried a corset with the heavy back boning (twin aluminum strips) about ten years ago, however, when I bent over, the top of the corset separated from my back and was quite obvious to anybody looking ! I prefer my foundations to mould my figure without calling attention to their presence. 

I habitually wore a Spirella 246 girdle until my 30's when I reverted to the 305 corset (still their best selling garment) which I've worn to the present day. Occasionally I've worn a 325 (front and back-laced) which was supposed to help with back problems, but to be honest it was too complicated.

In the late 50's in Britain, the pantie-girdle was still a novelty. My mother insisted on Spirella since she felt that the made-to-measure element was essential, however, the choice of girdle or corset was up to me. I usually wore a girdle, however, for special occasions, even in my late teens, I wore the 305. It produced a far better figure than any girdle could, and of course I was trying to look my best. However, since the 1960's, I've never again worn a corset, and my girdles were consigned to the dustbin a decade later. 

The latex Playtex did exist for a while in England. Several colleagues from university complained that the latex became freezing in the un-heated college rooms during a winter's night and was almost unbearable to put on in the morning.

My Mother introduced me to my first girdle in 1952 . She had regular appointments with the local Spirella corsetiere, normally twice a year when another two corsets and half a dozen brassieres would be ordered. About two months before my 16th birthday the corsetiere was called in and I was measured for a 206 girdle. Mother insisted that I needed three in white and six short brassieres to match. I was very keen to have a black lace girdle over the pink satin that I'd seen in the Spirella brochure but my Mother would have none of that ! (I did eventually buy one with some of the first money I saved when I started working). Far from being teased at school, most of the girls in the small private school that I attended wore girdles from the age of 15. Remember this was the early 1950's in Britain.

It’s the combination I still wear today (305 corset and long-line brassiere) although I must admit, I stopped ordering brassieres from Spirella in the 1990’s since the quality had gone out of the material, and quite frankly, the Triumph Doreen range was cheaper and better made. The corsetiere that I attend today lives on the south coast of England and services the entire south-east of the country. This remarkable women is in her late 70’s and visits a clientele of nearly 30 ladies of which I am one of the younger members.   

 

Getting Dressed

The weight and length of these uncompromising garments is almost totally alien to several generations of women these days, but what about the time taken to put them on. Certainly, women are acutely aware (as are their long-suffering husbands), that proper preparation to get ready for a ‘do’ or a party, takes time. However, these days, nobody is really aware of the daily chore represented by the donning and fastening of the ‘classic’ foundations of years ago.

An elderly gentleman summed it up. “It was quite a performance to behold. Stockings, brassiere, corset, knickers, slip. The chance of laddering the stockings seemed to be awfully high. I once laughed when she miss-aligned the hooks and eyes on her corset. She had to undo the lot and start again, but not before she had rolled the garment up and whacked me with it. I laughed as well, but it hurt. Those things are fairly solid!” If all went well, the whole assemblage of underwear could be donned in less than five minutes; rather longer if the added complication of an under-belt was required. Definite aids to speed were the busk fastening. Why did this ever get replaced by hooks-and-eyes? The Camp method of adjustment was also so easy, quick and remarkably effective too.

 

The Audibility of Underwear

Although the visibility of underwear has been discussed at length in many forum, the audibility of underwear is less commonly understood. The susurration of satin and taffeta is well-known and a source of stimulation to adolescent males, however, the sheer noise of corsetry has all but been forgotten.

Gerald Durrell in one of his charming books which I believe was entitled 'Rosie is my Relative', recalls his huge landlady, a Mrs. Dredge, who "ascending like a leviathan from the depths" visited his attic room. (I have to remember the following since I've lost the original book), "Mrs. Dredge's voluptuous avoirdupois was encased in construction of steel and rubber which groaned alarmingly at every move".

The truth is that tight corsetry can draw attention to itself. Ideally, the corset bones lie in casings that allow silent movement as the wearer goes about he life, however, if the corset is too tight, and the bone cannot move freely, it will creak as it slides and sticks. "Madam, your stays are creaking", a comment attributed to Sir Winston Churchill whilst seated beside his arch-enemy, Bessie Braddock, was a gross insult to a woman since it implies, usually correctly, that she is over-tightly corseted to compensate for an excess of 'avoirdupois'. I have heard that this comment has been attributed to others, and Tennyson appears to have been the originator, however, Sir Winston was well read, and had a notoriously caustic tongue, so I'll quite happily believe that he borrowed the comment.

Isobel adds, "Having sold many, many corsets in my time, creaking of stays was often an issue of concern to certain clients. According to my boss, a very experienced corsetiere, creaking was a function of poorly made or designed bones and/or stay pockets. Having said that, a well-boned and tightly laced corset made of a rigid material was rarely soundless when the wearer put it under additional strain".

What Isobel says is absolutely true, however, I was amazed when our Dutch corsetiere friend told us that some of CAMP's panty-girdles could be heard under strain. CAMP's panty-girdles were some of the strongest ever made, and were often well boned with multiple fabric layers. Apparently, more than one customer had mentioned to her that their panty-girdles had creaked distinctly when they sat down. She knew that the women concerned had bought far tighter girdles than was comfortable or even recommended, and that under normal conditions, these garments were quite silent!

The oddest noise was related by an acquaintance from Utrecht. An elderly lady had moved into the area and attended the same church as my friend. Every time the lady sat on the hard Calvinistic pews after hymns, there came a muffled, but distinctly audible 'thunk'. It was only when the lady bent forward to replace her hymn book that the stiff bones of her surgical corset were evident through her jacket. The bones were just long enough to reach the pew when the old lady sat down. Deaf as a post, she was quite unaware of the noise.

Another bane of the elderly, and a modern invention at that, is the horrible ripping sound of Velcro fastenings. Many modern corsets have substituted Velcro for buckles and laces but the ripping sound as one disembarks from one's underwear can be heard across the street!

The remarkable German example on the right has no less than half a dozen Velcro connections to rip asunder!

 

Number of Foundations

How many foundations a women would like and how many she really needs are completely different subjects. Matters as diverse as finance and vanity must be considered along with the more prosaic weight fluctuations, climate (and therefore perspiration), frequency of washing and strength of garment.

My cousins, on the death of their Grandmother (my aunt), were amazed to find a drawer full of corsets. She had over 20 identically sized, identically coloured, white Spencer corsets. This is quite an investment representing about US$ 4,000 at today’s values. The only differences were in the weight of the material. There were some in a very lightweight ‘aertex’ style, some in the good old Orchid material (artificial and washable satin) and a few in a heavy brocade.

The lady was wealthy and travelled extensively. I can only presume that she took along a collection of corsets (they are not the easiest garments to wash and dry on holiday) appropriate to the climate of her destination, hence the large collection.

Take a typical middle class lady in the 1960’s aged let us say about 55. She might still wear corsets but probably would wear a girdle. She would normally have the basic three of the same style (one on the body, one in the drawer and one in the wash). There would be a corselette or ‘special occasion’ foundation. She might even have some in different colours. If she was prone to weight fluctuations there would be more. Impulse buys at a sale could account for another couple, rarely worn. If she was a Spencer client, then no corsetiere worth her salt would allow a client to order a girdle or corset without adding two matching brassieres. Suddenly our hypothetical client has accumulated at least seven lower foundations and 10 upper foundations; quite a collection!

One thing is certain however, women will possess more foundations than they actually need. The tighter girdle for those special occasions may lie unmolested at the back of the drawer for years until duty calls.

Our nieces were inspecting our collection of foundations (about 2004 when they were both at university). They find it fascinating and oddly enough, it is the scientist who likes to try on the various articles whilst the literary one looks on in mock horror. They must have made some sort of bet for I found the scientist trying to wear as many panty-girdles as she could. Sensibly she started with the smallest, and one by one the garments the garments were forced on, the last girdle determinedly rolling up the legs of the previous one that then had to be straightened. At girdle seven, she was looking awfully red in the face and by girdle ten she complained that her legs were feeling numb. I called a halt at this 'world record?' and observed my normally thin niece looking rather 'padded' and tottering like a marionettte. On removing the girdles, a quicker exercise than donning, I felt that at about girdle three she had the firmness, silhouette and flexibity just about right. Needless to say she reverted to her non-supporting knickers in short order. What a shame!

 

Unusual Boning 

 

Like many people, I always considered boning to be vertically mounted within any garment. Perhaps the most obvious exception would be the under-wiring of the brassiere cup. Yet, in European corsetry, lateral bones and curved bones can be seen. I first noticed this in Holland in 1994, where the old corset shop in the Laan van Meerdervoort displayed a corset which, within the front panel, had an inverted horseshoe shaped bone (2nd from left). The corset was of German manufacture, and apparently of recent production. Why the strange bone was not replaced by two vertical bones, I have no idea. Was it whimsical design feature? I doubt it, since it would be rather expensive to produce the complex bone pocket. In other German garments, dating about a decade earlier, elliptical bones appears (below). The horseshoe bone is, in fact quite common. I don't know why since the bone (as it does in the picture below left) takes the line of least resistance and will tend to flip over creating a ridge.

 

Horizontal boning occurs quite frequently over the tummy in French corsets (blue below). The German girdle (right - pink), appears to have horizontal boning over the derriere; surely not? Perhaps this is stitching, and the horizontal stiffness is caused by the vertical bones running down either side of the back. The boning I really cannot fathom is the front panel of the corselette on the right. Why the two bent spiral bones? Perhaps it was 'the property of a Teutonic equestrienne!'

 

An absolute French classic. Chevron stitching, vertical bones and horizontal bones.

Why didn't the manufacturer simply insert a steel plate?

 

Bones of every shape, size, alloy and steel, horizontal, chevron, horseshoe, elliptical,  spiral and boring old vertical! I can't really understand horizontal boning, but the French and Belgians obviously do.

 

 

Not actually boning, but a lovely idea, and what a superb touch for any corset is the lacing over satin. As all corset wearers know, there is a lot of friction in those laces. A Canadian Spirella by Spencer (the companies merged log before they did in Britain) uses a satin facing of the friction area. I've only even seen this extra-cost option once. Fan-lacing might overcome the friction problem, but these latter solutions get around the problem in such a pretty, feminine and probably practical way.

The (otherwise conventional) Belgian corset on the left here flatters deceive. That gorgeous heavy satin front panel conceals a trio of solid unyielding, steel bones. Certainly, a protuberant abdomen is embarrassing to many women; however, this appears almost bullet-proof.

 It reminds my husband of the story of Madame Chang Kai-Chek, who lost her bullet-proof pink satin corsets in one of her husband's escapades. (One dare not ask how).

On the right is a lovely quilted satin effect. Again, this is a European corset.

 

 

 

A visitor to the web site kindly sent us some more interesting pictures of chevron boning from Belgium (right). The garment has three vertical steels on the front panel with chevron boning between them. On the inside of the garment, and typical of so many continental manufacturers, the bone casings are tipped with cloth or leather at their ends. In many cases this was to allow removal of the bones, or insertion of stiffer bones. The European woman doesn't want her tummy to bulge; absolutely not!

 

Additional Note: 14th February 2004:  I've received so many pictures of odd and strange boned garments recently, that I begin to suspect that such boning is not odd at all. It is simply that my limited knowledge makes it seem strange!

 

Additional Note:  1st March 2008:  A great example can be seen on the 'Corsets and Crinolines' web-site (left):-  http://www.corsetsandcrinolines.com/vintage/lingerie

 

An erudite discussion (in German) of boning can be found on:-

http://members.fortunecity.de/miedermuseum/50er/fibel/formgeb1.htm

 

 

One great failure of bending a spiral bone is that it might lie flat when the bone casing is new, but once the girdle has been worn for a bit, the bone will try to lie on its side and produce the ugly ridge on this otherwise perfectly functional Austrian-made, Triumph girdle.

 

Not boning, but buttons! Why did the French persist with buttoned corsets well into the 1960's? Certainly buttons are cheaper to buy than a steel busk but surely the top and bottom ones must be subject to considerable force. Also it is almost impossible to align them evenly and thus distribute the force of the corset along the fastening. Nevertheless, they were a common feature of French corsets.

I am just surprised that such a bulky fastening was ever adopted by the chic French. Perhaps they were more popular with the ever practical country folk.