My corset to share with you this month is a drab coutil corset. (The word "drab" refers to its colour, rather than inferring that it’s a boring corset!)
It uses machine corded fabric instead of bones to stiffen the panels into an impressively curvaceous shape. It also has a sturdy spoon shaped busk. There is no maker's mark inside it, but it has clearly been created by a professional corsetiere or seamstress.
It bears more than a passing resemblance to “The Pretty Housemaid” (pictured and patterned in Corsets: Historical Patterns & Techniques by Jill Salen) from the Symington collection and could have been made in imitation by a smaller company or individual.
This particular corset has a rather sad history. It was given to me by a friend, to whom it had been donated by the family of the original owner because of her interest in the Victorian era. They told her it had been created for the wedding trousseau of a great, great aunt. Now for the sad part – her fiancé had been in the army and had gone away to war, never to return. The family story relates that his inconsolable sweetheart packed up all her trousseau garments and put them in a trunk in the attic. She never married and when she died, not long afterwards, the trunk and its items passed on to her relations.
Over the years the trunk was raided by the family for the useful and lovely fabrics and garments that could be reused and remade, probably during the World Wars when fabric was strictly rationed. Only the corset was left intact, by now out of fashion and not considered remotely glamorous or interesting until our modern age.
The corset itself certainly reinforces this story. It shows very little sign of wear or tear other than at the grommets, some of which have been torn out due to wearing and overzealous lacing by a modern corset enthusiast (don’t worry, the person responsible was chastised severely.) A little of the lace stitching has come away. So, although it’s not much worn, it has not been well looked after either.
The corset measures 32” (81cm) across the bust, with a 21” (53cm) waist and a hip of only 29” (74cm). The busk is 12” (30cm) long, suggesting a petite but bosomy girl of about 5’4” (163cm).
The fabric has darkened over time to deep beige brown, but the original light drab colour can be seen under the grommets, some of which have corroded slightly. Each silver two part grommet is 3/8" (10mm) across; the original lace has long been lost.
It is created in twelve panels, six on each side, and each panel has been pre-corded. You can feel the ends in the seams where the fabric and cords were cut out together. Specialist sewing machines used for cording only were available from manufacturers such as H.Moore of Wellingborough in the UK, but were probably only bought by professional corset makers rather than as a domestic tool.
There are sixteen stitches to the inch throughout the garment (ie a stitch length of 1.5mm); the bobbin thread seems to be of a different, finer type to the outer thread. The use of a different bobbin thread would suggest that the decorative red and cream flowered flossing was also created by machine. Machines capable of embroidery were created as early as 1862 (One made by Grover and Baker is mentioned in the catalogue for The London Exhibition), and enabled cheap corsets to be decorated swiftly and spectacularly, as they were at Symington's in Market Harborough, UK.
A final seventh piece, a densely corded strip, is attached just to the outside of the corset at the side, almost like a boning channel. It is fan flossed top and bottom in cream and red to match the flowered front embroidery.
The corset is also very prettily edged along the top with two types of dainty machine made lace. A 1½” (38mm) deep beige lace has a narrower, denser ¼” (6mm) cream lace machine sewn along its edge.
The spoon busk has only four studs, and a registered mark of 3003 lightly stamped on the insides of its hooks. This is probably a busk bought from another manufacturer rather than one created specifically for this corset or company. It is a true spoon busk, curving in an S shape over the stomach, where the flat profile widens. Spoon busks came into use in the 1870’s as the tiny tight laced wasp waist went out of fashion. The curved spoon shape was thought to put less pressure on the abdomen, making it "healthier". Modern spoon busks are flat, flaring out at the bottom, without the “healthy” S curve.
There are only four bones, two 12” (30cm) steels on either side of the eyelets, tipped each end with a horseshoe-shaped stop. One has cut through the lining fabric slightly (another casualty of its modern wearing) and appears to be surrounded with a cardboard casing.
The outer fabric is a soft coutil (not at all like some modern stiff coutils) and the lining is fairly loosely woven cotton. The machine thread, lace and embroidery are also all cotton. It is bound top and bottom with roughly woven cotton tape, machine stitched. This is an extremely stiff corset; the cording keeps it in a permanent curve of readiness.
This would have been a very low priced corset. Could it have been bought by someone without a lot of disposable income but who still wanted to be fashionable and pretty? Perhaps it was the corset of a hardworking girl from a working class background, excited at the prospect of marrying a dashing soldier?
I would date it as a contemporary to the “Pretty Housemaid” so from around 1885 – 1890, but, given this date I’m not sure what war her fiancé might have been killed in. The first Boer war was over and the second yet to begin. The Zulu war was fought in 1879, so that too was a little early. However, there were constant conflicts in the ever expanding British Empire that the army was continually being sent to, and it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that her soldier love succumbed to disease or accident rather than battle.
I shall probably never find out for certain; family legends change and are embroidered from generation to generation, but for me this is a special corset and I like to think that the girl for whom it was bought would be proud to have passed something so exciting down through the generations.
Next month, Jema shares with us how to create a replica of this corset.