If you go in to the John Johnson Collection digital archive at Advertising, and take the lift to Women’s Clothing and Millinery, you will find there a thin pink booklet, item 15, published in 1935 by Berlei on behalf of Walpole Brothers of New Bond Street. It shows a modern young woman breaking out of a wasp-waisted Edwardian corset. ‘We don’t want to cramp your style’, they say, and there seems no danger of that because not only have they got a corsetiere, but Mother has come along too.
We don’t want to cramp your style, (B & M: [c. 1935]), Women’s Clothes and Millinery 1 (15)
Over the page, the modern young woman (‘she is young and very sweet’) is with her mother in discussion with the corsetiere. “I am not going to wear a stuffy old corset”, she says. “I don’t care if my hips are wide”. But mother knows best. Together they agree on a garment made of Batiste with stitched panels of LASTEX yarn, and they do this, according to Berlei, to slim the girl’s hips, lift her bust, and reveal a new 23-inch waist. ‘It gave her freedom: she could dance in it, ride in it, indeed she almost felt she’d like to swim in it’. The corset is stylishly called Sway Back and it costs Mummy two guineas.
We don’t want to cramp your style (image 4), (B & M: [c. 1935]), Women’s Clothes and Millinery 1 (15)
Next up is a lady whose ‘problem had always been a spreading hip line’. Like the modern young woman before her, she is not in favour of being controlled. “I warn you”, she says, “I hate corsets”. But once seen, and fitted, and convinced, ‘she hardly felt she had a garment on’. This corset is called a Hip Type. Fifty two shillings and six pence.
Next in line is an older woman with a thickening waist. “Don’t make me tight”, she says. On the contrary, she can’t believe her good fortune: ‘it gave her so much freedom of movement’. It’s called an Average. Three guineas.
Now the shop begins to fill up and the mothers arrive on their own account. ‘She was a well built woman round about forty’ but her daughters had told her she was beginning to look fat. Solution? The Abdomen type. Thirty seven shillings and six pence. Then someone with heavy breasts. ‘It’s all rather dangerous’ she is told, but Short Below Waist will do it. Sixty three bob or, if you prefer George Orwell over Walpole Bros., twice the weekly cost of keeping an unemployed miner, his wife and two children on a state sponsored diet (and out of corsets), in Wigan, in 1936.
One flimsy pamphlet from the John Johnson Collection show how these women of 1935 were wrapping themselves in strong materials in order to flatten some parts of the body and push out, or shape, other parts – particularly the two secondary sexual parts, bosom above and buttocks below. According to the makers, this was not a question of women holding in, it was women breaking free. ‘You’ll feel younger, slimmer, fitter, freer when you are wearing a Berlei’. Corsets used to be called ‘stays’. But 1935 girls didn’t want to be stayed. They just wanted to have fun.
What about their mothers? What did they want? When they were young they wanted to have fun too. The Liverpool Manufacturing Company showed it. In 1910, they reckoned young women wanted to look something like this:
Corsets for 1910, (The P.P. Press, Liverpool: 1910), Women’s Clothes and Millinery 1 (20)
The pamphlet that carries this illustration says that Royal Worcester Corsets have ‘the utmost regard for health’, that they are ‘anatomically arranged to permit respiration’, and that the wearer can sit ‘in perfect comfort’ with ‘freedom to every movement’. That is what they say. But what they show is a woman cut in half, her bosom swelling like a ship’s figurehead at the top while wasting away to a genie out of its bottle at the bottom. To get even near this fantasy shape in white Batiste in 1910 you needed eight shillings and eleven pence and a willingness to crush your rib cage so hard it damaged your internal organs. This in turn would provide all the romantic fun a party girl could imagine – breathlessness, palpitations, a fine pallor, a small appetite, heaving breasts, swollen legs.
Berlei laid claim to modernity in 1935. Royal Worcester Corsets laid claim to it in 1910. In other words, corset makers were making the same claim to be modern based, somewhat paradoxically you might think, on the freedom of women’s movement. To equate modernism with movement as these pamphlets from the John Johnson Collection do is a clue to the 20th century, but to equate modernism with the free movement of women is a brilliant and original idea that is capable of taking us in many directions. You could read any number of books on social and cultural history before they told you such a thing (if ever they told you such a thing). No wonder the two corset salesmen on the train in Alfred Hitchcock’s film The 39 Steps (1935) are excited by the superior freedoms of elastic over whalebone. No wonder that Hitchcock’s on-the-run hero, Richard Hannay, whose interest in women is perfunctory, grimaces at the salesmen’s antics. Unlike him, these chaps are true moderns. They understand such things.
However, in this case, what ‘modern’ really means is determined not by what the corset makers say, but by what they show. The women of 1910 are promised free movement and respiration, but are depicted staggering their way to a prolapse under the pressure of a 19-inch waist. The women of 1935, on the other hand, not only have the vote but are shown with the sun glasses and swim suits that prove their freedom. Simpson’s of Piccadilly in 1938 had a fourth floor dedicated to beautiful warm colours and the genuine free movement of women. Amidst the beach hats and tied tops, the shorts and tennis shoes, there is not a corset to be found. Mind you, it would appear that what LASTEX did for corsetry it also does for swimming:
Simpson Piccadilly women’s fashions fourth floor (image 4), ([s.n.]: [s.a.]), Men’s Clothes 8 (19)
Of course this is not how their daughters would come to see the 1930s. Girls would grow up in the 1960s to make their own fun, to see their mothers as stupid or at any rate conservative creatures, and get rid of corsets altogether. Germaine Greer’s 1971 The Female Eunuch famously showed why women did not need liberating from their own bodies.
Nowadays of course we don’t have corsets, let alone ‘stays’. We have Spanx ‘controlled underwear’ for men and for women. All the celebs wear it.
Historians of women will squeeze John Johnson for all he is worth. They will take you back in time and tell you not only about corsets, but about those who fought so hard to burn them. “Burn the corset!” “Make a bonfire of cruel steels!” “Your emancipation I assure you from this moment has begun!” cried the English Women’s Review in 1874. Certainly the Suffragettes made much of the struggle for women’s bodies. Mrs Fawcett’s National Union of Suffrage Societies presented women’s suffrage as an act of male chivalry, rather like the opening of a door. The Pankhursts, however, lashed out at men for the violence they did to women’s bodies and one part of their strategy was to provoke it. In Emily Wilding Davison the Women’s Social and Political Union discovered their one true martyr. Emily died by throwing herself at the king’s horse at the Derby on 4 June 1913. The day before, she had gone to lay a wreath at Joan of Arc’s statue. The feminist newspaper The Vote described how Emily’s body had been “bound, tortured, forbidden”. The six thousand women who walked at her funeral walked for freedom but it would be equally interesting to know how many of them wore corsets and why.
In his poem Spain (1937), W H Auden referred to the ‘flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting’. Well there’s nothing flat, boring, or indeed ephemeral about The John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera. It is as rich and vital and yes, as uplifting, as a source could be.
Added by Andrea