The Old Corset Shop
|We had to resist the temptation to title this page "Ye olde corset
shoppe" or something similarly nostalgic, but quite inappropriate.
The incredibly clever Dutch cartoonist, Jan Sanders, captures the ambience of the traditional corset shop in this cartoon (left). Note that not all the serving staff are female. Note the stacks of boxes with different sizes and styles of garment. This is the classic emporium of the two post-War decades, where a thousand variations on what is 'after all' quite a simple theme would on offer, on the counter and for sale. A lady could spend an afternoon struggling in and out of a dozen pairs of corsets encouraged, chided and 'brought back down to earth' by her close friends, the corsetiere herself or her daughter; the latter secure in the knowledge that her turn was next.
Both pictures above (the one on the right from Germany in the 1950's), show a feature that existed for hundreds of years, and yet is unknown in today's liberated society. The corset fitter is a man!
The characters in the cartoon are amazingly reminiscent of those stalwarts from the British comedy series "Are you being served?", and everybody from the matronly Mrs. Slocombe to the rather dotty Miss Brahms is represented. In the full cartoon, a group of sailors have just bought some "frillies" for their girlfriends and are laughing at the poor old Chief selecting something 'appropriate' for his, obviously, well-built wife.
My husband and I are firm supporters of the 'crowded shop' and the museum that fills its rooms full of fascinating objects. The modern museum, with its acres of space designed to show off a few expensive trinkets, bores us and makes us wonder "why bother?" The Victorian corset shop left no space vacant. Every nook and cranny was filled with its wares. The Smart-form shop below in the mid-1930's displays but six garments in a massive 600 square feet. The emptiness inside would hardly seem likely to attract a prospective customer. But Smart-form, which was none other than the very up-market Barclay, sought a wealthier, supposedly more discerning clientele.
Another attempt at a corsetry display from a major department store in 1944 (below) looks more like the window dresser has gone off for coffee half way through her job! Staying on the western side of the Atlantic, the saleslady below (1944) demonstrates how one can transform one's bosom into the 'bullet' shaped cones that, presumably, rose in response to the ongoing war. The war featured strongly in corsetry advertising.
This is what we like to see. Plenty of garments on display, a smiling and helpful lady, ready to give advice, and the line which we all fall for "I've just got in something special that I think would really suit you. It's slightly more than you wanted to spend." Spirella's showroom (above right - 1930) and their London shop (below left - 1952) are excellent examples of the upper end of the market. Berlei and Sarongster feature in the scene from Australia in the late 1950's (below). No doubt the shelves on the right would have contained garments from Australia's other major brands, such as Jenyns.
From the 1960's, a Lancashire corset shop. These were the hey-days of corsetry, however, the chipped paint on the skirting of the shop front indicates that profit margins were never huge in this trade, certainly not in the provincial towns and cities.
Lastly, a sad reminder of present times. The shop below is one of the few remaining traditional corset shops in Britain. The shop is closed, although it is 2 pm on a normal working day. A closer inspection reveals that the proprietress only opens about 15 hours a week. This is not surprising; the lady has run the shop for decades and is well into her 80's. The window displays some relics of a former era and a corset that seems to have been returned, modified, and then failed to find a buyer. There is a good satin girdle on display; however, the general appearance of something better than neglect, but less than faded elegance, pervades the scene. The shop could easily be mistaken for a Charity Shop (Thrift shop in the USA). The badges of former pillars of corsetry, Camp and Spirella, proclaim wares that haven't been sold for years. Oddly enough, the name of Triumph on the door, still holds a firm foundation on continental Europe.
The Camp sign is decades old since the style was modified long after the shop had ceased connection with this company. The shelves, however, still hold relics from this company in the unusual and thus unsold sizes. The Spirella sign, again, a throwback to an era long-gone, would never have been placed in a shop window in the 60's or 70's. The High Street retailer and the bespoke businesses were keen rivals. The proprietress was simply trying to advertise every possible foundation garment to her diminishing clientele. The piles of unboxed corsets hint of damp in the store-room and a consequent unappealing deterioration of the boxes; the corsets themselves survived. Allusions to proud weddings of the past (but not the present) tell a sad tale: for the whole shop is nothing more than a fading reminder of something that has passed away.