Chapter 4 - MY OWN EXPERIENCES IN THE 1930s AND 40s
PART ONE - How my interest in stays and associated matters was aroused by a close association with female relatives.
After the atropin treatment ceased and I could see again, I tried to find out more about the stay by looking at garments which were sometimes lying about at home to be ironed after having been washed.
I was fascinated by these stiff, heavy garments, which were worn only by women, (I did not know that the Colonel wore one until later), and wondered why it was necessary for them to do so, especially as they regarded the stay with undue respect and even trepidation.
I could understand why a woman wearing such a garment would be restricted in her movements, and also how it would mould the figure, but I did not appreciate why this was considered so essential, when the stay wearing produced other undesirable problems about which most ladies complained.
I asked questions of my father, but received a reply that said that I should understand later and should always treat a stay wearer with consideration. When a little older, I became very aware of the profound effects of the stay on my young lady acquaintances, but it was some time before I appreciated the full implications.
I was probably 13 years old when a girl, Sadie, came to stay with us whilst her mother was in hospital for a lengthy stay. She was younger than me, and I overheard a conversation between my mother and her father, who said that it was high time that Sadie was "put in.” The man said that he did not wish to bother his sick wife with the matter, and said Mother was to do what she considered right.
Sadie was accordingly corsetted, and she did not like it at all. There were scenes in the morning when the corsets were put on, and complaints during the day, but Mother won: She remained in whether she liked it or not. After being corsetted, she was no longer as energetic as she was previously, and she told me how she hated to be confined, although she was not really tight-laced.
The corsets used were quite long and well boned, with a back lacing and an underbelt. I frequently saw Sadie in her corsets and directoire knickers before her dress was put on, or as she undressed at night. In those days, houses were heated with coal fires, and it was unusual to have more than one fire, except on Sundays.
In the winter, it was customary for children to undress in front of the fire before going to bed, and this was the time when underwear was revealed. Undressing was done discreetly, and the body was kept covered at all times, the corset being removed after the loose nightdress had been put on. Sadie often said, "Thank goodness they are off!" but I thought how much better she looked with them on.
Soon after the Second World War broke out, my parents had an eleven-year-old evacuee, Barbara, from Portsmouth, to live with them. She came from a poor family, did not have much clothing or anything else, and was rather wild. This presented a challenge to my mother, who set about teaching her some manners and instilling some discipline.
She was put into corsets similar to those worn by Sadie very quickly, to which she objected most strongly. Barbara complained to her school teacher, and also to the evacuee placement woman. Mother had some discussions with these authorities, because it was said that the corsets used were far too strong for a growing girl.
Mother won, and the girl wore her corsets without too much argument when she got accustomed to the restrictions. The authorities thought that the girl should wear corsets, but not ones which could be contracted at the waist so much. Mother said that the other types did not form the waist as a good stay should.
Barbara eventually appreciated mother's ministrations, and came to visit her, bringing her own family. Strong corsets were not continued for long after her marriage, a firm girdle being adopted.
While I was at school, I did not come into much contact with girls, but obviously knew a few, mostly sisters of friends or daughters of relatives, or friends of the family. The Church and associated clubs formed a meeting place, and nearly all the girls I met wore stays or corsets of some kind.
I was so young in the 1920s that I cannot really remember the 'straight', uninteresting fashions of that time, but I have been told that very few women discarded corsets altogether, although some foundations were shapeless.
In the 1930s, women were again becoming more curvacious, and were reverting to heavier foundations to give more shape to their figures. Mothers, having been brought up in Victorian times, did not like the fashions of the 1920s, and, fortunately, still had sufficient influence over their daughters to govern the way they dressed, particularily in the way of underwear.
Most wore boned and laced corsets of varying strength, a few wore elasticated garments, but very few wore nothing at all, partly because something was necessary to keep the stockings up. Stockings were worn universally in those days, even by school children, and a corset was worn to ensure a flat tummy so that was no suggestion that the girl could be pregnant.
I remember a holiday at Margate, probably about 1934, with family friends who had two teenage daughters, one my age, and one two years younger. The mother and two daughters were corsetted in long and very firm back-lacing stays, the younger having only been "put in" about two weeks previously, and was still feeling upset about it.
Mother, discussing the matter, was heard to say how she approved, and how she felt those without corsets to be irresponsible. I thought the girls looked good with their lacings slightly visible at the back through their light summer dresses, and I liked the hard shell if I touched them.
Undressing and dressing to bathe was a long process for which the girls retired to a bathing cubicle with their mother, who did not bathe. I liked the girls much better dressed with their corsets than when they were in their bathing costumes, as their figures were so much nicer. I was intrigued by the red weals which were evident when they were bathing and asked if the stays hurt to form the weals, but was told, "No."
Most girls exhibited such weals. Bending and sitting on the beach was difficult for these girls when dressed, and they went down on both knees rather than sit so that they did not have to bend in the middle, a feature that I found most attractive.
In the late 1930s, I started to go with girls, and to attend social events for which a girl's company was expected. I had many friends, and had some good times with girls I sometimes took home.
I can remember taking only one home who did not wear corsets of some sort, and I had a lecture afterwards because mother considered her not to be up to the standard I should look for, and called her a "hussy" for not wearing corsets, as she looked pregnant because her tummy was not flat. I was told I was risking my reputation and that of my family by associating with a girl who looked pregnant.
Her family could not be of the correct class if they allowed their daughter to look pregnant in public. This may seem almost unbelievable in today's circumstances in which, judged by the 1930s standards, almost all women would be suspected of being pregnant with their disgusting prominent stomachs that are now accepted as normal.
This seems to show a degree of prejudice, which is a little unfair. I would like to see more women wearing corsets to reduce their figures, and feel sure that they would feel more comfortable in a good corset. However, to describe them as "disgusting" is a bit strong. In the 1930s, pregnancy was a fact to be concealed, and was rarely spoken of in polite company, even when the woman was married. A pregnant, unmarried woman was a social outcast, and they were usually sent away from home as soon as they started to 'show,' not to return until after the baby had been born and sent away for adoption.
It was therefore very important to most middle class families with daughters to ensure that they conformed to social standards, and corsets were necessary to ensure a flat tummy, even if no tight-lacing was involved. Because of the desire to have a flat front, all corsets at this time provided firm abdominal support, and underbelts were popular because they gave such strong support and enabled the tummy to be completely flat.
Tight-lacing also produces undesirable fullness in the stomach, and if the tummy is to be flattened, an abdominal belt becomes essential. This was realised in Victorian times, when the abdominal belt was usually over the lower end of the busk. But in the 1930s, the belt was usually under the busk.
I imagine that many of the women with whom I associated in the 1930s wore stays and corsets with underbelts or abdominal belts, but I could not normally know this unless I could examine the garment, an opportunity which rarely occurred. I soon dropped my friendship with the uncorsetted girl because I agreed with my mother and disliked uncorsetted women anyway.
About this time I became aware of my deficiencies in the art of ballroom dancing, as a result of attending parties and social events. We had a neighbour whose daughter was a dancer working in a local school of dancing and she arranged lower fees for me to go and learn; she usually took my lesson.
Teaching me to dance was akin to teaching a pig to fly, but I had known this pretty girl for years, and knew she was a corset wearer because I had heard discussions on the subject when she was young. She wore a strong front-lacing corset which was high at the back, waist length at the front, and fitted well down over the thighs, with a little laced skirt below the busks.
The front panel was very heavily boned and also, I learned later, fitted with an underbelt. There were eight suspenders on wide straps, 4 of which looped round between front panel and underbelt. The corset was not the right shape for tight-lacing, but it held her very firmly indeed. I complimented her on her figure and said how I liked to hold the steel frame around her as we danced.
I knew how her mother had put her into corsets when she was at school, but she now told me that she was quite used to the restrictions and liked the firm support, which I was pleased to hear. She also told me that her mother had refused to let her go on the stage as a dancer, and had only agreed to let her work at the school of dancing when she learned that the middle-aged owner was a staywearer and tight-lacer of long standing.
This lady insisted that her girl employees wear heavily boned corsets with rigid front panels because many men partners held the girls closely to them. If the men got excited, the girls could not feel it through their armour, and so, proprieties were observed.
For the same reason, she wore a strong, up-lifting longline brassiere which had built-up shoulders and completely covered her bust. The two garments overlapped in the middle, and the lower edge of the brassiere was provided with tapes that attached to the corset to prevent it from riding up.
There was no gap between the garments at the waist where prying fingers might find soft flesh. I was to have more profound and frustrating experiences with such protective attitudes later. I have kept in touch with this woman over the years, and she still retains the elegance for which she trained so hard, showing the remains of her shapely figure, although she does not tight-lace.
A few girls are remembered as being exceptional. Helga was a good looking girl with a nice symmetrical figure. I took her out several times, and she was never without a firm front-lacing corset with a high back which came well down over her hips. She knew I liked her in her corsets, but did not like to talk about them.
She claimed they were uncomfortable and did not tight-lace, and that she only wore them because her mother insisted. She liked clothes, and dressed well, usually to show off her figure and prominent bust, but would have looked better if her bust had been raised a few inches.
Gwen was the sister of a close friend whose rather elderly mother introduced her to corsets at the age of eleven. Her corsets were back-lacing of the Victorian style, which emphasised the waist and held her straight, with a high bust and long waist. I knew her before she was put in and there was a lot of trauma at the time, with tears and rebellion against a corset which was very severe for a growing girl.
Her mother pointed out to her that had she been a girl thirty years before, she would have had tight-lacing to contend with as well. She eventually accepted the stays as a means of forming her figure, but disliked the restrictions, which prevented her from engaging energetically in active sports. She was quite tall and grew up with a shapely matronly figure, although not small.
She continued her strong corsets until she joined the WAAF in the early 1940s and afterwards used modern, but strong (1930s style) front-lacing corsets, which were a normal issue for service women. I was frequently invited to my friend's house and have vivid recollections of Gwen, when she was about 15 years old, walking about the house in a long vest with a high neckline and short sleeves, stays over the top and directoire knickers over that. Apparently, there was no embarrassment for her, but lots for me. I used to get very excited over such an exhilarating spectacle.
There was a younger sister who was also corsetted subsequently, but this occurred later in the 1940s, after my friend and I were called up in the Second World War.
Another with whom I was friendly for a time was a Jewish girl, Rachel, who was beautiful, very elegant, and had expensive tastes. She wore a long, strong modern (1930s) corselet, well boned and back-laced, which held her firmly from her armpits to her thighs. It was not a Victorian wasp-waisted style.
Although the garment was tight, it was not a style used for true tight-lacing, but her figure was well formed and curvaceous in a modern way, with the classic size of 36-23-36. She was strikingly extravagant with her clothes, and heads turned to look at her.
She always wore high heels, and was more inclined to like shows, cinemas and dancing than the outdoor activities to which I was attracted. Our friendship did not develop mainly because of religious objections from her family and because of my low income.
Lydia was the one I really fell for, as she wore a very long rigid stay, more in keeping with her mother's era than with the 1930s. Of all the girls I associated with, Lydia was the most firmly corsetted. She was a buxom young woman and said her waist was 22", with a bust of 40". She was an assistant in a high class dress shop and was always well-dressed, in a discreet manner.
Her employers were a man-and-wife team, the wife being an enthusiastic corset-wearer who persuaded Lydia to wear corsets soon after she went to work for them at the age of sixteen. I met her six months later, attracted by her firm, symmetrical figure. She was a natural, and was soon wearing the most formidable stays with an abdominal belt, and tight-lacing moderately.
The stays were made-to-measure and provided very cheaply by her employers, who wanted to encourage her efforts. Her splendid bust was held high and firm by her corset, and there was a line of boning across the centre where her stay finished, which I found most attractive. When she learned that I liked a small waist, she took another inch off by closing the staylacing, always appearing like this when meeting me, and promised to obtain smaller stays when she next needed them.
Lydia was of a quiet disposition and did not like too much social life or for people to comment on her figure, hence she tended to stay at home a lot. She married a friend of mine, still wears corsets of a less formidable nature, and has retained her superb figure. I have often thought that had our friendship developed and we eventually married, I would have had no difficulty in persuading her to continue with her stays and to undertake some proper tight-lacing.
She never complained of her stays in my hearing and always kept reasonably active in spite of the severe constraints she suffered. She even rode an upright bicycle, which I appreciated because I used to cycle for miles for pleasure and she occasionally came with me, cycling slowly so that her stays would not chafe.
It was delightful to put an arm around her to feel the hard shell extending from her armpits to her thighs and winter or summer, I never knew her to be any other way. I never did see her without her being properly dressed and fully corsetted. She was the first one to acquaint me with the 3-layer method of underwear, of which I was to learn more from my mother and wife later.
It was an old wives’ principle to keep warm and prevent chills and was a minimum requirement to wear at all times. Basically it consisted of a woollen vest or combinations next the skin. Over this, the stays, and then a petticoat with knickers. There were variations such as a vest, stays and then combinations to cover all. In some cases, another pair of knickers was worn to make sure the unmentionable parts were well covered. With combinations worn over the stays, it was easier for the girl to gain access for bodily functions.
We are still in touch by the exchange of Christmas cards and I have many happy memories of delightful Lydia.
There were many others I can recall, but I have mentioned the most remarkable of my friends. While I lived at home, there were a number of my parent's friends with whom I came into contact, and many of the ladies tight-laced. Some were school friends of my mother who had tight-laced ever since their early training at school.
Many had children and had regained their figures, first by conscientiously re-lacing their figures back into shape, and then by tight-lacing to regain their waists, usually with the full approval of their husbands. Once these women had become habitual stay wearers from their schooldays, it appears that the habit was very difficult to break, and very few did. Whilst they all had their traumas at school, once the stay was habitual, they appreciated the training they had received and did their best to ensure that their daughters followed in their footsteps.
During this period, when I regularly associated with well-corsetted women, I should have used the opportunity to learn more of the attitudes and feelings of these people, and endeavoured to find out who motivated them to wear stays and to tight-lace. Were they self-motivated, or were they made to wear stays, and, if so, by whom?
What were their feelings when they were first put in? No doubt careful enquiries would have brought forth many interesting details, which have now been lost. I am extremely sorry that I lost the opportunities to learn more of the subject, but while I realised that "tight-lacing" was becoming a lost art, never did I anticipate that the corset would disappear into history.
In 1938, I met the girl who I was eventually to marry and she was, of course, a stay wearer.
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