I had a fascinating day last Saturday visiting the Symington Collection to fondle original Victorian and Edwardian corsets.
What can I say? I felt like a child in a sweet shop, surrounded by delights; drooling and desperate to sample all of it in the all too short allotted time. Suffice it to say that I took over 300 pictures of the 30 or so corsets that were laid out for us to examine and pore (paw) over and the rather good public Fashion Gallery, which put the V&A to shame.
(Do click on the pictures to get an enlarged view)
Undergarments have always been appealing for a variety of different reasons, whether seductive, titillating, figure-flattering, practical or just comfortable, depending, to some extent, on whether you are the wearer or just an interested observer. Corsets are probably the most fascinating of these undergarments and, more recently, have emerged from their veil of mystery as underthings to be worn as outer garments to be displayed in all their glory. The corsets in the collection were not intended for public display, seen only by the wearer and possibly her husband and maid. Some were, nonetheless, exquisitely beautiful and I have no doubt gave the lady wearing them the kind of confidence and figure that only beautiful and well-fitting underwear can provide.
After their Victorian and Edwardian heyday, corset wear declined in favour of other forms of support, which allowed for greater movement and the changing sillhouette of fashion. However, corsets are not as restricting as you might imagine and although it is true that ladies of leisure may have indulged in tight-lacing for that wasp-waisted look and often found themselves swooning after meals as their stomachs encroached further on their lung space.
Servants also wore corsets, as did all respectable women, and still managed to go about their daily business of scrubbing floors, cleaning out fireplaces etc. The “Pretty Housmaid” is an example of such a corset; aimed at working women, it is cane boned and corded with a wide steel busk and additional reinforcement at the waist to cope with the strain of repeated bending, but is also, as the name suggests, pretty rather than simply utilitarian. The fabric may be simple drab coutil, but corded hip panels make for a pleasing shape and a little lace along the top edge and the bright blue flossing over the side boning add a nice decorative touch. After all, everyone likes pretty undies 🙂
From a technical perspective, it was an unparalleled opportunity to compare different designs. There were straight, curved and diagonal seamed models, boned with cord, cane, flat or spiral steel and even a rather unusual corset with very little boning and quilted panels, interlined with stiff hessian instead. Lace and plain or colourful embroidery adorned almost all of them and the stitching was almost invariably frighteningly straight. The variety of designs and techniques employed in making these garments was extraordinary. Oddities included a tricot (knitted) corset and a skeletal model that, while extremely appealing, left one wondering what happened in the bits of body in between (I’ll leave that one to your imagination).