I first saw this unique corset at the Oxford Conference of Corsetry in August 2013 when Sarah Nicol brought a selection of the Symington collection for us to look at. Thus began a bit of an obsession and a desire to bring the design out of the museum and back into the world of corsetry.
Sanakor and Symingtons
The Symington collection, housed in Leicestershire, UK, is primarily a collection of corsets made by R W H Symington and Co Ltd from 1860 to 1990. It gives an amazing overview of styles, techniques and decoration used throughout these periods in this factory.
To find out how to visit the Sanakor corset and see the rest of the Symington Collection for yourself, check the Resources section at the bottom of this page.
However, Symington’s also dabbled in something that many companies, even today, use as a tool for getting one up on their competitors: Corporate espionage!
Anything freely available to buy is fair game and the Victorians were no different. In order to try and stay one step ahead of their competitors they would buy in garments and study them to help improve their own catalogue and gain sales. It is this behaviour (thankfully) that means there are many other companies' corsets in the Symington collection that may otherwise have been lost.
One such is the Sanakor. Having endlessly trawled the internet I think I can safely attest to how rare this garment is. Symingtons have two. One is complete, one is partially deconstructed and other than one other image and pieces of ephemera, I cannot find any pictures of any further surviving examples of this design. The only conclusions can be that it is either mislabelled elsewhere, was so unpopular that hardly any were sold or, we come back to that failing of any era, lack of records.
The Lindauer Company
The design was the brainchild of one Julius Lindauer. Julius was one of the three sons of Solomon Lindauer, a corset manufacturer who ran the company "J. & S. Einstein" in Cannstatt, Germany (later " H. Gutmann & Cie” after a merger with a textile company). The elder son, Sigmund, joined his father’s business and renamed the factory "S. Lindauer & Co. " in 1882. The company had offices in Holzgerlingen, Germany, in Paris (led by brother Julius) and in New York, possibly led by brother Max, who also travelled extensively in Australia.
Upon the death of Sigmund, his wife Rosa married author and corset maker Wilhelm Meyer-Ilschen and the company was renamed in 1938 as "Wilhelm Mayer-Ilschen Corset and hosiery factory". Their daughter Marie Meyer-Ilschen led the company after the Second World War from 1946 until 1949 with her daughter Rosmarie Usener. In fact the company under Sigmund is credited with the creation of the first mass made bra, the “Hautana”, and the company continues even today under the brand name “Prima Donna”.
Julius himself seems to have been fairly prolific. There are many of his patents surviving online today. The ‘Sanakor’ patent itself is another attempt to sell the health benefits of the Edwardian style of corset. Developed in 1902, this design aims to decrease pressure on the stomach whilst retaining the ‘pigeon breast’ look that defines this era of fashion. The ‘Sanakor’ name itself seems to have no translation that I can find. It is obviously French (hence ‘Le Sanakor’), but it seems to be a nonsense name rather than a description or selling point.
In order to make this project a reality I asked to spend some time at the Collections Resource Centre for the Symington collection in order to study the materials and construction that make up the Sanakor and then to take the pattern from the original. My time was spent in the company of the lovely Sarah Nicol who assisted both with information and the use of hands for the pattern taking!
The first thing to note about this design is that it does not fit the body in the way it appears to do. The drawings of it are a little misleading, not surprising since there is a serious lack of records about this corset still in existence. The images available on the patent make it seem as though the curved panels should come up to cover the breast. This seems odd, as the fashion of the era was for the top edge of the corset to end just under the apex of the breast. Then I was given this image by the lovely Jenni Hampshire from the San Francisco Call Volume 87, Number 148, 26 October 1902.
This clearly shows the proper way to wear this corset and explains much about the small dimensions of the garment and the position of the waist stay in relation to the top edge. Amazing to think that without this simple image so much can be misread! As you can see, the actual fit is much more in line with the Edwardian ideal in that it comes only halfway up the bustline and does not provide full cover, as the drawn image would seem to indicate.
Upon looking at the corset the first things that stand out are the deep plunge, the extraordinary shape of the centre front panels and the incredibly short busk. These items will be dealt with as we take our trip through the corset piece by piece.
Let’s start at the beginning. The outer fabric is brocade with a self coloured pattern. The colour is now a cream but the folds show that it was once a pale ivory. The black version does not have any pattern but just an incredible satin sheen (unfortunately I have been unable to study the black version so we will have to concentrate on the cream). The corset is embellished with a cotton lace and an insertion lace with ribbon. There is another ribbon used to keep the front plunge together, and the ends of the bones are flossed to hold them in place.
The lace trim extends from the upper centre back edge to approx 1cm down from the top of the centre front panel (along the join of panel 1 and 2). The lace with ribbon insertion covers from the same place as the cotton lace to the centre front bottom edge (again along the join of panel 1 and 2) and also serves to cover the raw edge of the cotton lace whilst providing a beautiful border for the unusual centre front panels. These laces appear to have been hand sewn onto the corset and the stitches are visible on the inside.
Each side of the garment sports two suspender attachments made from the double ruffled cotton elastic that was popular during this era. The fittings are beautifully etched and the whole set are in great condition. This is unusual, since elastic perishes as it gets older due to the latex content. I doubt that they could still provide the support required of suspenders due to their age, but they are a wonderful illustration of the fitments of the day.
These are guts of the garment and such an interesting study! The thing that really stands out is the half lining. This is a cotton drill and is used as lining for panel 1 and a lining/bone casing for panel 2. The rest of the bone casings are made from twill tape of varying widths (depending on the bone size) with the exception of the centre back casings which are created using a drill panel attached and sewn in the usual way. Under the twill tapes but between the bone and the outer fabric is a section of a ribbon like material, possibly cotton (but not twill) that seems to be used as a further protection for the fashion fabric from the bones. I was unable to verify whether such a technique is used under the drill lining panel also.
As stated above the bones are held steady in the casings with flossing. The flossing is a uniform size and pattern. The only difference is the diagonal bone that runs along the side of the bust area. We can assume by the placement that this was for supporting the forward thrust of the breasts and to prevent the corset from wrinkling.
And what do bone channels contain? That’s right!
Unfortunately all the bones that were removed from the garment have been lost. In a stroke of luck the other side has a hole worn through by the rough top of a bone and this proves what the corset claims. We have a mixture of baleen (the correct term for what is commonly mis-named "whalebone") and steel bones, as would fit the era.
In order to check the rest of the bone materials I had to resort to the old favourite, a magnet. This gave me another surprise. The narrow bones are baleen as we had already summarised and the thicker bones at the side seams are steel. However the centre back did not stick to the magnet as expected thus showing that these are most likely also baleen. This is unusual as steel is the preferred structural material in high stress areas such as sides and centre back. Unfortunately I was unable to remove the baleen bone fully from the channel and so cannot tell whether it should have been tipped with anything to prevent such wear at the ends. I also cannot confirm any tipping of the steel bones.
As I said, the bones in the centre back appear to be baleen and are also flossed to prevent movement and wear. They surround the eyelets in a traditional way (1 bone to either side of the eyelets) and the channels are approx 12mm wide. The 24 eyelets (12 per side) are 4mm in size and appear to be comprised of two parts, much like our modern eyelets. As to their application I cannot comment, but I would assume it would be done with something similar to today’s presses. They are placed ¾” apart from centre eyelet to centre eyelet.
Unfortunately the lace in the cream version is missing, removed possibly at the same time as the bones, and I was unable to look at the black version as it is away on loan. I shall attempt to look in on it at a later date to see if there are any unusual features or whether this is just a normal lace.
Another surprise came in the form of the shortest waist stay I have ever seen! As with many period corsets the manufacturer has used this as an opportunity to print details of the corset and manufacturer, rather than using an extra label. The stay is a 3cm twill tape but it only extends from the centre back to the seam between panel 2 and 3 where the lining begins.
After feeling about I am pretty sure that the tape does not extend under the lining drill. Since a waist stay seems to be a take-it-or-leave-it thing I can only guess that a full width stay was not required due to the design, but that is pure conjecture on my part.
And the bit everyone is waiting for…
The centre front, of course! As stated before, the centre front panels are very different in shape from anything else in the history books. The patent details some of the reasons for this and is a very interesting read despite the archaic language!
The busk itself is short. Very short. 8” long to be exact, and there are more lovely surprises. The hook side is much as you would expect, 1 cm wide with 3 stylised hooks characteristic of many corsets of this era, and a waist hook made of brass.
However the knob side is very different. Same length, 3 knobs that match the hook side but this half is 1.25 wide! To make matters even stranger, the majority of the width is to the centre front and not at the join between panels 1 and 2, as in modern wide busks.
The corset itself shows us that the reason for this was to provide a front modesty panel and possibly to add extra support for the stomach area. Also the top of the busk is so low that a normal width and closure would possibly have pinched the flesh and made the garment uncomfortable. The wide steel is backed with a hand sewn mohair panel for comfort.
Upon looking at the wide section of the centre front it appears that either the manufacturers made a mistake, or their pattern making was lazy, or otherwise. The outer layer of the wide busk section shows an extra piece of fabric added in to accommodate the width of the busk. After much pontificating on the reason for this extra piece of fabric we (Sarah and I) came to the conclusion that the original pattern must have followed the norm and only been comprised of one side of the whole.
If this was the case, then the centre front piece would not have been wide enough for the unusual busk, and so a piece of fabric had to be added. I measured the centre front pieces and indeed the sizes are the same up to the additional section. Obviously I cannot state that this was a mistake since there are no records to indicate either way. This may have been intentional as it was easier to have just one pattern and then the additional piece rather than to draft a second front panel. It will have to remain a mystery for now.
Binding the Edges
The bottom edge is bound in an expected way though not with bias binding. Rather it seems to be a ribbon of some kind. The top edge is different again. The same binding is used as the bottom edge but it only extends up to panel 2 where the drill lining begins. Here the lining and outer fabrics are folded in ¼“ to create a finished edge all the way down to where it meets the centre font panel. The binding ribbon is approx 12mm in total width, providing a 6mm binding.
Taking the Pattern
As I said in the beginning, the version of the corset that was put out for me to study was perfect for this project. As the bones had been removed from one half, the garment laid perfectly flat, which made tracing the pattern out much easier and removed the risk of extra damage that could have been caused otherwise.
Going into this project I was not sure what the best method of taking a pattern from an existing garment would be. I had read several different thoughts on several different methods and so took a wide selection of paper and drawing utensils with me.
In the end Sarah came to the rescue as she has done this many times! Acid free tissue paper coupled with a soft pencil and two pairs of hands make the perfect pattern taking combination!
We laid the garment down on the table and placed the piece of tissue paper over it. Then holding it securely and tightly over a panel we simply drew over the seam lines. Rinse and repeat for all panels – five in all. The only addition was that we made a pattern of both centre fronts due to the different widths of busk section. I felt this was wise as simply marking on measurement differences and writing about it may have resulted in a loss of data and accuracy.
Once we had traced the basic shape of each panel I then traced it back to a sheet of sturdier paper for further markings. Before getting to that I decided to check my creation and out came the tape measure. In order to make sure that the tracing was accurate I measured every edge, side, top and bottom and every angle on the original and compared them to the tracing. With the exception of 2 tiny areas I was spot on!
Now that the outlines were verified as correct it was time to fill in the blanks.
Judicious use of all kinds of measuring tools were made to accurately record the placement of the bone channels and all the interior details including approximate seam allowances, eyelet placement and flossing areas. Seam allowances all seemed to come out at ¼”
The most challenging portion to mark was the diagonal top stitching on the centre front Panels. The measurements just wouldn’t work and I was possibly tired after 6 hours of photographing and drawing! After much struggling finally it was complete!
So much of this corset remains a mystery. For example, the fact that it is so rare and that one of the period adverts alludes to it being specially made to order seems to be backed up by the available images (the two surviving corsets and the image from the San Francisco Call) all show subtle differences in the materials used in this creation. Most of the garment makes sense from a practical viewpoint but some of its quirks are puzzling and fascinating all at the same time. I will continue to search around and see if I can turn up any further insights into this and I really do find myself hoping that more of these survive somewhere.
In the next instalment I shall be attempting to recreate this amazing corset in its original size as accurately as I can, using the pattern I have taken and my many photos for reference. I shall also be making the pattern that I have taken available for download.
See some of the corsets behind glass in a traditional museum setting at Snibston Discovery Museum in Leicestershire, UK
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Why is this article free to view?
We are delighted to be able to share detailed photographs of a Symington collection antique corset for the first time. As part of our arrangement with the Leicestershire Museums Service, we have agreed to allow all images of the collection to be free for anyone to see. As a result this whole article is free to view for members and non-members alike. Part 2, containing the pattern pdf download and instructions, is members-only as normal.