One of my dreams is to, one day, be fitted for my own bespoke foundations.
At the moment, my waist is around 31 inches and my hips are about 45 inches. Although I don’t have the most extreme difference between my waist and hips, I still find it very challenging to find vintage pieces that fit both my waist and my hips. Another issue is that I have a long torso, most pieces I find are short bodied. Basically, I have a very annoying body with very annoying measurements, and each time I find and try on a fan laced girdle and it doesn’t fit, a little bit of me dies inside!
A few decades ago, my measurements wouldn’t have been a problem, thanks to the all but extinct corsetiere.
Not all brands sold their garments in shops, in fact some brands’ business models was to produce made-to-measure pieces for customers in their homes. One example of such a company was Spirella. Spiral started up in 1904 and was sadly closed down in 1989 after being bought out by Spencers of Banbury. The saleswomen who worked for Spirella were very hard working and loyal to the company, they would only ever wear Spirella undergarments, and undergone very comprehensive training to ensure that they knew exactly how to fit women with excellent foundations.
How did corsetieres sell their products?
As I mentioned, the corsetiere would work in her customer’s homes. She would get dressed up, in their finest foundations, and very sharp outerwear, holding her briefcase full of samples and measuring instruments; then she would knock on the front door of a household and offer her help to the lady of the house.
Many corsetieres would demonstrate the effectiveness and necessity of foundations by showing the lady of the house her own sculpted body under her outerwear. Although for some women, this was not a desirable selling technique and they would instead bring their younger and often slimmer daughter along to showcase the foundations they were trying to sell to their customer.
Once the potential new customer had agreed to be fitted, the corsetiere would wrap a sort of ‘one size fits all shapes’ garment with plenty of adjustable bones, ties and laces which would be adjusted to fit the lady’s shape perfectly. The corsetiere would take notes of the fitting and would return a few weeks later with the finished product(s).
I have been asked by many women why a lot of the vintage pieces often only have two or four garter straps. The fact is that most women who were buying these foundations were ordinary working or middle class women who didn’t necessarily have much money to spend on embellishing these garments. Women didn’t consider this shapewear to be a luxury, it was a must. Everyone wore foundations under their clothes. Each garter strap cost money so ladies may have chosen to spend their money on other aspects of the garment, rather than on the number of straps to hold up their stockings.
Women were usually categorised into different body types, such as ‘slender’ or ‘stout’, and would be fitted with the appropriate foundations. Berlei created a wonderful technique to identify a woman’s body type, called the ‘Berlei Type Indicator’. By moving the ruler (of sorts) to the lady’s bust waist and hip measurements on the Type Indicator, the corsetiere would know which category her customer fell into and could advise which (pre-made) undergarments would fit her best.
Not all foundations were made to measure, and standard shapes and sizes were sold in shops too. If you own a fan-laced girdle for instance, you may find that it has some print on one of the bones on the inside; it might say something like ‘short abdominal’ or ‘long abdominal’. Unfortunately, I have not yet found a standard size girdle like this that fits my body perfectly, which is why I am dying to find somebody who will make a beautiful old fashioned fan laced girdle that fits me like a glove.
This is a very short overview of what the corsetiere did during her heyday and if this introduction has made you want to find out more, please click here to be taken to a very comprehensive history of the ladies responsible for the fabulous silhouettes from the 20th century.