Monica Dyson: A brief history of a famous undergarment

Queing up for bargain corsets in the 1950s at a Co Op store in Hartlepool.
Queing up for bargain corsets in the 1950s at a Co Op store in Hartlepool.
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When I was a child growing up on a council estate and before the concept of buying a council house was ever thought up by those who didn’t seem to understand what they were for in the first place, we had a couple of professional people living on the road. We knew that from the brass plate on the front of the house. One lady was a piano teacher, and one was a ladies corsetiere.

The teaching of piano we understood, but the purveyor of ladies’ undergarments was a bit of a mystery to us as children. Our mother bought her knickers and bras either from the Co-op or from a shop at Firth Park called Baldwin’s who displayed the goods you could buy in the shop window on dummies causing some interest to small boys.

Actually having undies made to measure certainly denoted a person who might be a bit upper crust and a bit far removed from mother’s undergarments.

It appeared that the garments in question were corsets which every self-respecting woman wore then. It isn’t quite clear why they did, but certainly for women who were born in the early 20th century it seems that it was expected of them. Corsets were seen as a sign of social class or an assumed social class and one of respectability. It was quite common in some big houses to employ kitchen maids, and in order that they might move around freely to fulfil their domestic duties, they started to leave off their restricting corsets. Therefore being thought of as ‘common’. No decent woman ever went out without her corsets.

Corsets were not an attractive garment. The early ones are not to be confused with what you might see today in a Belle de Jour film.

The ones my mother wore had suspenders at the bottom edge, back and front, to fasten a pair of stockings, as of 
course there were no tights in those days. Presumably because there were a pair of suspenders, corsets were referred to as a ‘pair of 
corsets’ although being one garment.

Sewn into the garment were stays which were thin strips of whalebone. These were quite bendy and quite liable to come out sometimes. They were often much sought after by small boys who used them to make catapults.

It’s a wonder that the birth rate stayed buoyant in those days as the corset must have been a total turn-off where the bedroom was concerned, especially as women would 
talk about ‘having a good scratch’ when they took their corsets off. What a passion killer.

Sometime in the 1950s the roll-on came into fashion. Much less rigid than the corset and made of some sort of rubber material, it was decidedly unglamorous and you had to wear a suspender belt on top of it to hold up your stockings. Nevertheless most women started to wear the roll-ons as they were much easier to manage.