Dorothy Was Different
by O.Y. Dalziel
Some Case Histories
This is a short selection of the desires expressed by some of our more extreme customers, taken from my files. In each case I asked for and was granted their written permission to relate their stories, and I always gave them my personal assurance that their anonymity would be protected at all times.
1. "PAINKILLERS PAULA."
I remember this particular case because it was one of the few that reduced Dorothy to tears. She had booked the original appointment for the female customer and began the consultation in a perfectly normal way, but was unable to continue and had to ask me to take over.
Paula (although that was not her real name) was a tall, and at first sight slender and very well groomed woman, with long dark hair, and a pleasant oval shaped face. Expensively dressed in a beige coloured two piece suit and high heeled shoes, and carefully made up. She told Dorothy that she had been tightly laced for a number of years, and had continued to wear corsets on a regular basis, simply because her husband "liked to see a small waist."
Dorothy told me that she had at first found it difficult to get coherent answers to her questions about Paula's precise requirements. It was as if she was repeating a lesson and had been told what she must say, in spite of her own feelings. She eventually handed Dorothy a letter from her husband who was a Doctor, and this detailed in precise terms the garment we were required to supply.
She was shown into Dorothy's fitting room, and at Dorothy's request began to remove her outer clothing. She wore a pinch waisted corset that had obviously been altered several times, and which now had a number of very ugly tucks around the waist area. Dorothy asked her to remove her corset so that she could use a fitting frame, but Paula replied that she was unable to stand upright without the support of the corset for any length of time because her dorsal muscles had ceased to function, and she could only take her corset off if she lay down on a flat surface.
Dorothy called me, and explained the problem. After a few moments consideration I remembered our "Spare bed;" a folding and compact structure that we had purchased in a rash moment in anticipation of visitors coming to stay with us. I wheeled it into the fitting room; set it up, spread a sheet over the mattress and then left the two ladies on their own so that the consultation could continue with the customary degree of privacy.
I was rather surprised to hear Dorothy's shocked and raised voice several minutes later, calling me back into the room. She was very distressed, and asked me if I would mind doing the fitting if Paula had no objections. Paula gave all the appearance of being past caring either one way or the other, so Dorothy quickly and tearfully left the room, and I took charge. The cause of Dorothy's distress soon became apparent.
Paula's body was in a terrible condition, and it was the sight of this that had upset Dorothy so much. Her flesh was a mass of discoloration, in various shades of blue and black over practically the whole of the area that had been covered by her corset She had several surgical operation scars below her rib cage; her waist was red and raw, and my experience told me that her skin and flesh had started to fold and break up.
Much of her waist was bound with strips of surgical tape; her spine bore all the signs of severe scoliosis, and her rib cage was badly deranged at the lower edge, with the base of the sternum having become folded inward. I have seen a number of cases of abuse of the human body, caused by the crushing effects of over enthusiastic tight lacing, but I think I can safely say that this was the worst ever. I could understand why Dorothy was so upset, particularly when she took such care to protect her own skin from similar abuse.
I had to admit to some personal reluctance to touch Paula's body, to prevent any possibility of cross-infection between the two of us, and I took great care to avoid any physical contact as much as possible. None of our stock measuring frames would have been small enough to suit Paula's present waist size, so I carried out a full series of measurements to the best of my ability, with Paula lying flat on the bed, and rolling over on to her side when necessary - which did not make the job any easier!
I persevered, and sincerely hoped that I had 'Got it right.' When the measurements had been done, I lifted Paula by her shoulders; helped her to sit up and put on her corset, and then carefully laced her bruised body to what I considered to be a safe degree. I took the opportunity to check some of my more important measurements over her laced corset, and then quickly left the room while she was re-dressing and thoroughly washed my hands!
Dorothy had by now managed to recover, and she returned to the fitting room after I had finished my work, so I left the two women chatting, and made them both a cup of tea. Dorothy later told me about their conversation, and I could see that she had become very worried by Paula's plight. By a strange coincidence, they seemed to have several things in common, because Paula had also been all alone in the world when she was discovered by the good doctor.
She had neither home, nor friends, and no living relatives, and had agreed to marry the doctor in a moment of desperation and weakness. He made sure that she was fed and housed, but he controlled all the money, supervising the buying of her clothes and allowing her nothing of her own. She could only say, in reply to Dorothy's questions, "He is in full command, and I have to do as he says. It is the only way, now. What else can I do - Where else could I go?" a heartrending statement which again moved Dorothy to the verge of tears.
I carefully checked the completed order form, before sending it off to Gerald, and made a number of minor modifications to the shaping of the waist, which would in my judgement help to alleviate some of the suffering to which Paula was being constantly subjected. She told us that her waist now measured thirteen inches over her closed corset, which meant that it matched the present known world record.
In his letter, Paula's husband had been most insistent that her new corset should measure two inches less around the waist. I found it hard to accept this request, because I felt sure that it would be physically impossible for her tortured body to be laced to even smaller proportions. I tried to close my mind to all the extraneous issues by applying my usual dictum of "The customer is always right," and sent the order off to Gerald, but not without numerous misgivings.
Not surprisingly, Gerald rang me to query the measurements. I gave him a few details of the consultation, and it was obvious that he shared my repugnance of the whole affair. However; he assured me that he could make the corset to my design, and that was financially the most important aspect as far as I was concerned.
In due course the finished garment arrived, and I rang Paula with a request that she should call in for another fitting. She was accompanied by her husband on this second occasion, and several questions were almost immediately answered. He was a silver haired and distinguished looking Doctor of Medicine, who reeked of affluence, and presumably did his daily work in well established consulting rooms in a better class area. He had even brought his 'Doctor's Black Bag' with him.
He was a very dominant man, who took over the whole proceedings as though it was second nature, and I found myself being virtually shouldered aside and relegated to a back seat. He subjected the new corset to a close scrutiny; twisting and pulling the material with his strong hands, as though he was trying to tear it apart. When he was satisfied, he turned to Paula, and said abruptly:
"Right then, girl. Off with the old; on with the new; Eh! Look slippy about it! Mustn't waste this gentleman's time; Eh!" This rude approach frankly appalled me. I had always treated Dorothy with the greatest of respect, and would never have dreamed of addressing her in such an uncouth manner.
Paula seemed to find it quite acceptable, and it was obvious that she was regularly addressed in this way and had ceased to care. She obediently removed her outer clothes; lay down on the folding bed and took off her old corset. She had to struggle into the new garment, with no help being allowed from me, while the Doctor made signs of impatience as though he was dealing with a more than usually difficult patient.
Paula eventually managed to clasp the corset round her body, and then stood up, unsteadily and with some difficulty. She supported herself against one end of the bed, and the doctor began to lace up the new corset. I was moved to utter a protest and urge him to take care, because I did not want all my good work to be destroyed by his impatience. He completely ignored me, and continued the savage and brutal lacing.
The corset closed tightly around poor Paula's waist, and she began to show all the customary signs of distress. I had seen this in many of our other customers, and knew what to expect. It began with an unsteady swaying; followed by a pallor of the face, indicating some restriction of the blood flow, and difficulty with breathing which further added to the facial pallor. I could tell that Paula was on the point of fainting or collapse, and again tried to enter a plea for mercy on her behalf.
And now I come to the totally unbelievable part of the story. If it had been told to me by anybody else I would quite frankly have disbelieved it, but I was a personal eye witness and can swear that every word is true.
The Doctor tied a temporary knot in the laces, and then opened his black bag. He took a hypodermic syringe from a fitted black leather case; carefully filled it from a small bottle of clear liquid, and turned it, needle point upwards. Tapped it a couple of times, squirted a few drops of liquid from it, and then inserted the needle into poor Paula's upper arm and pressed the plunger. He removed the needle, wiped the puncture with a wisp of cotton wool, and returned all his equipment to his bag. I had never seen an operation of this nature being performed with such coldly clinical and unfeeling precision, and could not help but notice that much of Paula's upper arm was scarred with the pinpricks of many similar and previous injections.
He waited for a few minutes, until Paula began to show some visible signs of relaxing. A dreamy smile came over her face, whereupon he again took up the laces. He continued with the brutal lacing until he had succeeded in fully closing the corset from top to bottom.
By this time, my personal feelings were becoming very mixed. On the one hand I was greatly opposed to the whole business, and to the Doctor's total lack of feeling towards his obviously suffering wife. On the other hand, I was glad to see that both my design and Gerald's workmanship had managed to stand up to the extreme strain, and I had to admit that Paula's body was now neatly moulded to a very attractive and eye catching silhouette. Her well formed breasts thrust upwards and outwards, and her waist was now much smaller than when she had first entered the shop. As far as I could judge, she was bearing the increased pressure without any signs of undue pain or distress.
The Doctor then seized one of my tape measures, and passed it round Paula's waist.
"Ah! Excellent!" he said. "Look at that! Exactly twelve inches. Now I feel quite confident that we shall make it. This is already a new world record, you know, but I want to continue until I can be sure she is totally unique and unbeatable."
"But; exactly what are you trying to achieve," I cried. "Surely you will kill the poor girl, if you lace her any tighter."
"Nonsense, young man," he replied. "You obviously know nothing about medical matters. Single figures, that's what I want; single figures. Now then; I ask you; can you beat that? Eh?"
I tried to suggest that the circumference of her vertebrae would limit any further reduction, but he was quick to correct me. He spoke as if he was lecturing a classroom full of rather dim medical students.
"You will notice that Paula has an unusually small and fine bone structure, for a woman of her height. This was one of the reasons why I selected her for this clinical experiment. All her lower or floating ribs have been surgically removed, as have the nodes from the lumbar vertebrae. I believe that, with your help, I can now reduce her to the absolute minimum and still sustain her full and active life. Any pain will be controlled with a choice of pain killing drugs, either orally, or by injection, and I can assure you that she will not suffer in any way. My Hippocratic Oath demands nothing less."
To my mind, he could be judged guilty of some very mixed standards, but it was not for me to say so. He paid for this first, and all his subsequent garments in cash without question, and this classified him as a good customer in my personal estimation. He became a regular client for the next two years, and, after that first visit, sent his orders by post; demanding new garments in seemingly impossible and ever decreasing waist sizes. We never saw poor Paula in our consulting rooms again, and I am unable to say to what size she was finally reduced. His orders suddenly ceased after about three years, leaving me to assume that he must have achieved all his aims.
I looked in the relevant books from time to time, but to the best of my personal knowledge another lady with a waist measurement of thirteen inches still holds the record. I have, in my library, a copy of the book written by her husband, which gives the details of her achievement. I have spoken to her on the telephone, and although she never became one of our customers, I know that her record is factual.
2. STRETCHED ON THE RACK.
This was another consultation that began in the usual predictable way, but was soon to change quite dramatically. A male customer telephoned us with a request for a fitting, and Dorothy put his name in my Appointment Book. He arrived on time, and was immediately subjected to my customary visual 'Body Scan.'
He was strangely 'out of proportion.' There was no other way to describe it. He was extremely long and narrow waisted, and either his arms and legs were too short for his body, or alternatively it was his body that was much too long. He was more than simply 'Long waisted' in the conventional sense, but it was only after he had stripped off his outer clothing in my fitting room, that I was able to discover the reason for his peculiar shape.
He was wearing a heavy canvas and leather 'Body Brace.' My colleague who owned the Surgical Goods shop had shown me several similar garments, when we were in the process of our initial negotiations about passing business to each other. This garment was certainly a 'Heavy duty' model!
The fabric was a dull grey, and very strong canvas, and the boning followed upon conventional lines, but with each bone being much wider than usual. The bones were obviously strong and stiff, and had been inserted into stay pockets made from brown leather, sewn to the canvas with strong and waxed linen thread. The garment was designed to be laced at the back, and had large and riveted brass eyelets of the type sold by ship's chandlers, or sail makers. They were of much greater diameter, and stronger than the ones we were accustomed to. The nautical theme continued with the laces themselves, which were of strong, braided nylon cord, and would have been more suited to a ship's rigging than a conventional corset!
This most unusual garment firmly controlled his narrow waist, and I could see that his body had much more than the conventional distance between his rib cage and pelvic girdle. My curiosity was aroused, and I asked him if he had always been this peculiar shape. After some hesitation he began to tell me his very interesting story.
He could be neatly classified in my 'Punishment' category. A rather unruly young man, who had been punished by being laced by his mother into a corset that had originally belonged to his grandmother, in an attempt to control his behaviour. He had been made to wear it day and night, but in spite of the severe restriction of the corset, and the ridicule of his school friends, he had continued to defy all forms of authority.
His parents had decided to continue this form of punishment, and to reinforce, in every sense, the level of discipline. His father was a harness and saddle maker by trade, while his uncle owned a small engineering workshop, nearby. Father and uncle had put their heads together, and had devised and built a unique combination of apparatus. Father had made the first of several of the heavy body braces, and uncle had fashioned a machine that was based upon a mediaeval form of torture.
My customer was first laced into the body brace, and was made to lie down upon a flat board. Strong leather straps were then firmly attached to either end of his body. One strap was fitted around the top of his pelvic girdle, whilst the other encircled the top of his chest, and passed under his armpits. The straps were fitted with metal rings, and these rings were connected to hooks and cables, one at either end of the board. Two small but powerful winches were coupled to low geared electric motors, and the motors were then switched on.
The cable was slowly wound on to the winch drums; the hooks applied tension to the two leather straps, and the customer was literally stretched on a rack. His body was pulled apart until he showed signs of extreme agony, and the winches were stopped. Brakes were applied, and he was left in that uncomfortable state; often for several hours.
The climax to the performance was that his heavy corset would be tightened to its absolute limit, and he would then be released from the mechanism. If during the course of the tight lacing his corset should become fully closed, it would be removed. His skin would be powdered; any chafed areas suitably anointed, and he would then be firmly laced into a smaller waisted corset.
This man was another customer who found it impossible to stand erect without the support of his corset, and the bulk of my measuring and fitting had to be done with him lying on his back, with a series of cushions supporting his body where necessary.
After his initial reluctance, this customer became quite frank and open about his situation, and was able to give me some interesting and useful information. He freely admitted that, like me, he ENJOYED being tightly corseted. What was meant to be a form of punishment, had, in fact, given him the greatest pleasure, although he had taken care to avoid exhibiting any signs of enjoyment! Far from punishing him, his mother had, by lacing him into his grandmother's corset, actually stimulated him. The tighter she laced him, the more he enjoyed it. As a fellow tight lacer, I could readily accept this, because I was well aware of the many pleasant feelings that he would have encountered.
These feelings are very difficult to explain to anyone who has never been tightly laced into a corset. Those who are without experience tend to violently recoil at the very idea of any form of bodily restraint. People have often raised their hands in horror, and have asked me, "How can you do such a thing?" when I tell them about my corset wearing. I have had to be very careful about what I have said to them, so that they should not gain the wrong impression.
Unbeknown to me, one of my so-called 'friends' was a free lance newspaper reporter, and had written a rather lurid article about tight lacing, loosely based upon some of my personal experiences. Fortunately he had the courtesy to ask my permission, before rushing to print the story. As so often happens, he had come to several false and totally erroneous conclusions due to his own lack of personal experience, and I found it necessary to correct him on a number of major points, and firmly steer him away from many of the unpleasant and erotic aspects of corsetry that are often written by inexperienced authors. I want my readers to know all the true facts about the many pleasures of corset wearing, but I know how easy it is for some writers to distort these facts, in the interests of a supposedly good story!
I entered the details and progressive measurements of many of my customers in confidential files, and kept them under lock and key, and I was always very careful to obtain the written permission of a customer before publishing anything of a personal nature. I used the information for the benefit of customers with a similar problem, and although I was asked on many occasions for the 'Inside story' of corsetry, I continued to give my solemn oath to my customers and protected their full confidentiality at all times. The customers who are mentioned in this section readily agreed to my publishing their details, with the only proviso being that I should not give any information that might lead to their real names being revealed.
In conclusion, I only need to say that I was eventually able to send another satisfied customer on his way. He had been able to dispense with his ugly and cumbersome body brace, and was now quite comfortably corseted and well supported. I know this for a fact, because I still treasure his enthusiastic letter of thanks, together with the photo he allowed me to take.
3) THE GIRAFFE NECKED WOMAN.
I had to do a certain amount of research, before I could set down the full facts of this case. As so often happened in our seaside holiday resort, 'The Circus came to Town.' Dorothy and I had once been to a performance, and enjoyed it, but apart from that it was just another seasonal attraction the local residents had come to accept.
Dorothy received a phone call, asking if she could do an evening fitting for a young lady who came from abroad, and was only in the town for a few days. This was not unusual, so all the customary arrangements were made.
A high-topped, closed van arrived outside the shop after dark, quite late in the evening, and a middle aged lady got out and rang the bell. Dorothy answered the door, and invited her inside. The lady explained that the fitting was not for her, but was for her companion who was still concealed inside the back of the van.
Dorothy had to work very hard to keep a straight face at the sight of this new customer. She was what is generally known as a 'Giraffe Necked Woman.' A young and quite beautiful girl from the Padaung tribe, in the highlands of Burma. It was the custom for the girls and ladies of this tribe to have their necks stretched way beyond the normal human length or height, and bound around with coils of heavy gauge copper or brass wire.
My research had confirmed that this neck stretching was a long established practice within the tribe, who lived in a remote area of the country and actively discouraged any visitors from the outside world. Apparently, it was taken as a sign of beauty, and the women would often compete with each other to achieve the longest of necks.
The closely guarded secret of the tribal custom was now known only to one old woman, and was in danger of dying out. The neck vertebrae were first carefully dislocated when the girl was little more than a child, and her neck was slowly stretched. Long strips of thick brass or copper wire would then be wound around her neck, and she would remain in this rigid state until her body became accustomed to it. The rings would then be removed, and her neck was once again stretched and secured. The long and slow process bore a remarkable resemblance to my own tight lacing system, when I was assisting one of my customers with the progressive reduction of his or her waist measurement.
The lower metal coils tapered gradually outwards, to rest upon the girl's shoulders, whilst the uppermost coil forced her chin and head upright in what seemed to me to be a most uncomfortable manner. As a slight aid to her general comfort, the girl would sometimes wear a soft and decorative piece of cloth or woollen material under her chin.
This particular young woman had her head raised to a height of approximately fifteen inches above her shoulders when she first came to the shop, and I was told that the length of her neck already came close to being a tribal record. The coils of wire had been skilfully and closely wound around her neck to give a carefully contoured and slightly waisted effect, and she had obviously become quite accustomed to a practice that would have been considered an extreme form of torture to a woman of this country.
The stretching did not seem to have affected her vocal cords; there was no apparent damage to her spinal column, and she could obviously eat her food, although I must confess that I found it difficult to visualise her carrying each spoonful upwards to her mouth. She now led a semi-nomadic life, appearing in a side show at the circus together with two of her younger and shorter necked companions from the same tribe, and they all travelled to various locations around the British Isles.
She had been fitted with her first pair of shoes soon after entering this country. These were a pair of black, laced, Oxfords, with very high heels. The lady who acted as companion and 'Minder' explained that they were in the process of raising her heels to their maximum possible height, but this need not concern us in any way. The reason for this present consultation was simple. The girl had seen some of the other circus performers who enjoyed tight lacing on a regular basis, and she had expressed a wish to be fitted with a corset of her own.
She was naturally slim, and Dorothy was able to carry out a conventional fitting, using a measuring frame. She later told me that the whole fitting had a slightly bizarre touch to it. The woman had only a small command of the English language, so all her requests had to be passed through her companion, who also acted as her interpreter. It was natural for Dorothy to look at the customer's face when checking that the fit of any new garment was satisfactory, and she found it most odd to have to keep looking at the point where the girl's face would normally have been, only to find herself addressing the centre of the shiny coils of metal.
The girl donned her loose robe at the conclusion of the first fitting, and returned to the closed van. We arranged that she would come back to the shop for her second fitting, when the corset was completed. She returned in due course, and after taking the usual precautions went into Dorothy's fitting room. She was then laced into her new, and first corset. Dorothy issued all the usual stern warnings about the dangers of over tightening the corset, but the young woman kept asking to be laced tighter. Dorothy was insistent, and the woman's companion had to intervene to say that she should stay at her present waist size, with the corset partially closed, until they returned to the circus, whereupon they 'Would see what could be done.'
The girl made three further visits to the shop, and was laced into a smaller corset on each occasion. After the third visit she said she was satisfied, and asked us if we could make her a special corset so that she could display her waist to its best advantage.
The new corset was a really stunning creation in gold satin, and was yet another brilliant example of the corset maker's art. The laces were a contrasting blue colour in my favourite shade, and the corset bones were outlined in the same shade of butterfly blue satin. The girl's firm breasts were supported within two breast cups, and a large gold tassel was attached to each cup. Both tassels swung in a most provocative and fascinating way, when she moved. A further fringe of smaller tassels surrounded the lower hem of the corset.
At the conclusion of the final fitting, we were presented with two complimentary tickets for the next circus performance, and were invited behind the scenes to see the girl being prepared for her first appearance in public, wearing the new corset.
This was the first time I had actually had a close look at the girl, because in spite of my curiosity I had always kept out of the way when Dorothy was busy with her fitting. I can only say that I was truly amazed when I saw her. She seemed to be about eight feet tall! Her high heeled shoes had been removed, and replaced by knee high, high heeled and laced boots, very similar to my own, except that the leather on these had been coloured in gold, and the heels were even higher than mine. The visible portion of her legs was covered by a pair of sheer and fine gold tights, and she wore the briefest of gold lamé skirts.
Her new corset covered her from hips to breasts; outlining her tiny waist, and the many tassels swung back and forth with every slight movement. A short gold lamé jacket covered her shoulders and the upper part of her breasts, and the sleeves of the jacket closely fitted her arms. The coiled metal rings round her neck shone as though they had been freshly polished, and her head was crowned with a tall, beaded, and conical golden Burmese metallic headdress, closely fitted to the top of her head. It was about fifteen inches high, and tapered to a sharp point at the top. She was balanced on the high heels of her golden boots, and the combination of the stiff corset, and her even stiffer neck rings made her move in a slow and fascinating way.
Her ears had been pierced, and she wore a pair of long and dangling ear decorations. I could not call them earrings in the conventional sense, and for once Dorothy was unable to give me the correct name of a modern feminine equivalent. Three or four lengths of fine chain; closely clipped to each other at the top end, hung from each ear. The chains were each about twelve inches long, and had bright metal discs or coins attached to their lower ends. The chains reached to just below the 'waist' level of her neck rings, and swung in independent arcs whenever she moved her head.
As a final touch, a set of extended and sharply pointed golden finger nails, each about six inches long, were attached to her fingers and thumbs. Her face was then made up in the highly coloured and exaggerated style of classical Burmese dancers.
When she was finally dressed and decorated to perfection, she was helped to her feet by her assistant, and began to walk slowly up and down the room, in preparation for her forthcoming appearance before the circus audience. Her combined movements provoked a wholly fascinating series of sounds and noises to my sensitive ears, and I had to use every atom of my iron self-control to avoid giving yet another of my well known exhibitions of foolish and jaw dropping amazement.
Her tightly laced corset began to creak, in the same way that Matron's corset had creaked in my hospital days back in my distant youth, and re-awakened many long forgotten memories. The small metal discs jingled against each other, and reminded me of the sounds that were made when loosely hanging corset suspenders knocked against each other. When they were at the fullest extent of the swing, the metal discs would occasionally tip-tap against the thicker metal of the neck rings, and this tapping resulted in a deeper and peculiar diatonic ringing sound.
The lengthy transformation had been carried out in one of the circus dressing rooms, and the walls were lined with more mirrors than my own fitting room. The girl finally stood in a position where she was reflected in the many mirrors, and could be viewed from every angle. I begged for permission to take a photograph of her, to add to my collection. Permission was granted, and I busied myself with my camera.
We were glad to have been given the tickets, giving us two reserved seats for the performance, because the girl, in all her golden glory caused an immediate sensation as soon as she appeared before the public. People were fighting each other, and climbing over the backs of some of the seats to get a closer look at her, and it took some considerable time before order was restored. She certainly was a 'Show Stopper.'
It only remains for me to say that this lady proved to be the source of some quite profitable custom, and she, and all her friends were highly delighted with the standard of our work. Some time later I received a complete set of promotional photographs of her in her regalia, and they made a welcome addition to my already large collection.
4) BONED LEGS.
I remember one man who had sent me what appeared to be a totally impracticable design. He called for a corset of such a considerable length that it resembled a roll of carpet, more than anything else!
A long and well boned back lacing structure, which, from his measurements, would enclose a man of average height from under his armpits to well below his knees! He specified boning of extreme stiffness, and it was immediately obvious that the wearer would be totally incapable of either walking or sitting down. I was very worried about the practicality of wearing such a garment, and sent him a polite letter of enquiry. He replied with some asperity, saying he knew precisely what he wanted. His cheque was good, so who was I to complain? I had the order made up to his specification; sent it to him and heard nothing more about it at the time, so I assumed that he was satisfied.
Now that I come to think about it, I know he was satisfied, and I can tell you why. It must have been about six or seven months later when we received his next design, together with a request for an estimate of the cost of making it. This specification was totally unique, and neither Dorothy nor I had ever seen anything like it before. Oh, dear me yes; I remember that we very nearly defeated Gerald with this one!
It started conventionally enough, high up on the chest; was well shaped into the waist; continuing down over the hips, and even further down over both legs, as far as the knees. The difference was that, this time, the thighs had been separated and each thigh was contained within a small tight lacing corset of its own, making it look rather like a pair of tight laced knee length trousers! Neither Dorothy nor I had seen anything like it before, and we had never even considered trying what Dorothy was quick to christen 'Boned legs.'
The full boning detail called for very long and firm bones, from armpit to knee, and quite closely spaced. There was full length back lacing, and a strong and rigid wedge shaped busk was specified, with a similarly shaped reinforcing bone behind it. A short section of lacing at the top of the legs was presumably intended to cater for most conventional toilet functions, but, in my opinion, when all the laces were fully tightened and secured, the garment would only allow the wearer a limited and constrained walking movement, and it would be extremely difficult to bend, or to sit down.
The final unusual detail called for a pair of wide and strong shoulder straps that had to be especially long, so that they could pass from the top front of the garment, up over the shoulders; crossing over at the back, and continuing down through a series of loops around the waist, to fasten at the front with a heavy metal buckle. The strong straps were intended to correct any tendency to develop round shoulders, and I could see that the shoulders of the wearer would be forced backwards as the buckle was tightened. It was, all in all, a fearsome garment!
I sent the design off to Gerald without making any comment, and was not really surprised when he rang up to say he was having difficulty constructing what he would insist on calling (to my annoyance) the 'Codpiece.' Apparently the point where the single corset divided into the two legs was proving troublesome, and I offered to help him, when he had explained the nature of the problem.
I looked through my catalogue collection, and was able to find a picture of a basically similar corset in a foreign publication. This gave greater detail of the separate legs, and the way in which they were joined together under the main corset. I sent a copy to Gerald, together with a few hints and tips of my own, which enabled him to complete the project.
The final cost was considerably in excess of our original estimate, so we sent the completed garment to the customer, and waited apprehensively. He sent us his full payment by return, together with a delighted letter telling us that it was perfect in every detail, and ordering another garment. This was generally similar in design, although it was smaller; and with obviously feminine dimensions, modified shoulder straps and the addition of lace trimming at the top.
5) THE TORTURE CHAMBER
One man does stand out in my memory. He sent us a polite enquiry on headed notepaper, asking for a home consultation and fitting, and enclosed a cheque to cover my expenses. His address was quite near, so I telephoned him, to make an appointment to call, and he sounded to be a perfectly normal man over the phone. I took the van; followed his directions; and eventually arrived at an isolated house in the country, standing in extensive and well tended grounds. A middle aged man opened the door. He was wearing a dressing gown, with a high stiff collar at the back. He was tall; dark haired, and facially resembled the popular image of Sherlock Holmes.
He invited me into his study; leading the way down a long, dark corridor; his footsteps echoing loudly on the parquet flooring. I looked for the cause of the noise, and noticed that he was wearing high heeled boots, with sharp spurs attached to the heels. It was then that I realised that this could be a troublesome visit if I was not careful, and my misgivings were in no way allayed when we entered his 'Study;' a very large room, containing a surprising assortment of unpleasant items.
He had an extensive collection of whips, canes, and cats-o-nine-tails, all mounted high up around the walls, in an artistic display. A reproduction of a large wooden grating, similar to those I had seen being used for the flogging scenes in old time navy films, was mounted at one end of the room, with sawdust spread upon the floor beneath it. Standing in the centre of the room was a wooden pillory, with holes to secure the hands and head of a malefactor, and it had a large modern padlock to fasten the apparatus in a closed position.
There were two glass fronted display cabinets standing against the wall; the larger one containing a number of strange leather helmets that appeared to have been designed to totally enclose the head, and prevent any movement of the mouth or chin. Two complete black leather suits with full length lacing on both arms and legs were also displayed. The smaller cabinet housed some leather collars in various heights, with matching armlets and wrist bracelets. All these items were liberally studded with vicious metal spikes. The other furnishings were an assortment of strangely shaped benches and stools, with a curious array of chains, fetters and handcuffs attached to them, These had been placed at random around the room, leaving me at a loss to imagine what their purpose might be.
The man stood in the centre of the room near the pillory; drawing back his dressing gown, and revealing himself for my fascinated inspection. He showed no sign of embarrassment, but was smiling in an odd sort of way. He was wearing one of the high spiked collars around his neck. A tight fitting one piece black leather corset enclosed him from shoulder to crutch, and he wore laced up and high heeled leather boots similar to mine, although his were thigh length; close fitting, and had sharp spurs attached to the heels. He completed his ensemble with full length laced up black leather gloves on his arms, and extended epaulettes on his shoulders. I was very interested in his unique wardrobe, but somewhat repelled by his assorted flagellationist paraphernalia.
He showed me a photograph of a tightly corseted lady, who was dressed in an outfit that was much the same as his own, and explained that she was his German pen friend. I noticed that she had a really tiny waist, and I commented upon it with considerable interest. He confirmed that it was believed to be one of the smallest waists in Europe, and told me that he had consulted me because he also wanted to reduce his waist, and possibly set a new masculine record! He gave me details of the stiff, and well boned, leather corset he wanted me to make for him.
I was sympathetic to the customer's needs, and wished him every success in his efforts, but I had to tell him that, unfortunately, we were not equipped for working with leather. I agreed to take a series of fully detailed measurements while I was there, rather than waste my time and his money. I also offered to pass the information on to another manufacturer who I knew specialised in this type of leatherwork, and who had proved to be quite generous when I had provided him with similar commissions, in the past.
All my arrangements were carried through with my customary degree of efficiency. I never went back to that house, but I subsequently learnt that my service had again been satisfactory to the customer. I told Dorothy about the clothes the man had been wearing, but gave no details about the other things in the room, for fear of upsetting her.
6) THE "PIPE-STEM" WAIST
I have already written about some of the abuses and criticisms to which corsetry has been subjected, over many years. The objections mainly come from those who I like to call the 'Uninitiated;' the people who have never had any practical experience of the many and varied pleasures of wearing any form of corset, and whose opinions are usually based upon what is little more than oft-repeated hearsay.
Samuel Orchard Beeton, the husband of Mrs.Beeton of cookery book fame, could possibly be cited as a case in point, although, in fairness to him, perhaps he was only using the corset for his own commercial gain. He published many Victorian magazines and periodicals, and was well known for his numerous correspondence columns, in which he invited his readers to submit their points of view on different matters.
The subject of corsets and tight lacing was raised in the early 1870's, in one of his periodicals entitled 'The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine.' Some similar letters also appeared in other magazines. It has been suggested that the subject was first raised by Beeton himself, as a clever way of boosting the circulation of the magazine, but I am unable to confirm this. Much space was devoted to various aspects of corsetry, and the opinions of readers were constantly being invited.
Replies were soon received from female correspondents who had obviously enjoyed corset wearing, and who could speak from a wealth of personal experience. These were then promptly countered by other female readers, who claimed to have suffered varying degrees of pain and abuse as a result of wearing an ill-fitting corset. There was a new and interesting twist when a male correspondent ventured to submit some of the details of his own experience of wearing a tight corset from personal choice. He was promptly joined by other men, who also offered some interesting opinions, including some examples of enforced corset wearing.
I suppose it was inevitable that the imagination of some readers was allowed to run riot, and some quite outlandish claims were made, particularly by certain readers who claimed to have been physically punished by being forced to wear a tightly laced corset. I have to agree that this is known to have been done, but the imagination of the subscribers to the magazines far outstripped the details that were passed to me by some of my own customers, whose stories I know to be true.
This corset correspondence was resurrected in a rather similar style in other magazines of the 1930's, and once again the more imaginative readers were allowed to have their say. Some of their suggestions were patently impractical, and it is a wonder that they were permitted to pass Editorial scrutiny. I tend to dismiss many of them out of hand, as the figments of overheated imaginations.
One rather dubious innovation was the so-called 'Pipe-Stem Waist.' The narrowing and shaping of the waist in Victorian times had become a classical art, as well as being a well established and acceptable fashion. Names such as 'Wasp-waist,' and 'Hour Glass' were common parlance.
Some of the more imaginative of the modern magazine's contributors tried to claim that it was possible to completely re-shape the waist by stretching the spinal column to such an extent as to form a waist of extended height; with parallel sides, rather like a cylinder, or tube! Frankly I have to say that I find this suggestion rather hard to accept. Perhaps the writers of the articles could have been influenced by the previously mentioned 'Giraffe necks.' I know from personal experience that it is possible to stretch the neck, but I have grave doubts about the possibility of a similar degree of waist stretching, however desirable it might seem to be.
It must be obvious to most sensible people that to try and lengthen the spine in this way would require a considerable degree of enforced traction. A rigid and tubular corset, designed to achieve this effect, by applying strong pressure at each of its ends would of necessity have to be very stiffly and rigidly boned, and would soon become extremely painful to wear. It would exert a great deal of upward pressure on the lower ribs and ribcage, and a corresponding downward pressure on the bony pelvic girdle. The compressed flesh that was trapped between skin and bone, would soon become painful to an unbearable degree.
I have mentioned elsewhere a well documented case where extreme traction had been applied to one of my male customers. It certainly had the effect of extending his body beyond all reasonable limits, but by no stretch of the imagination could he have been said to have the remotest suggestion of a straight or parallel sided pipe-stem waist. I would venture to suggest that a corset of the type described in the correspondence columns could only have been worn for a very short time - if at all!
Perhaps one of my more knowledgeable readers (preferably possessed of some practical experience, and pictorial evidence!) would care to disabuse me!
There comes a time when truth is indeed stranger than fiction. The imagination of the readers was allowed free rein, and I fear that some of them may have reached a stage where they honestly believed the truth of their written fantasies. A few rather outlandish drawings accompanied some of the letters, but it is perhaps worth mentioning that, although photography was by this time well established, to my personal knowledge no photographs of pipe-stem waists were ever published. I know from my own experience that many customers requested photographs of themselves, once they had proudly donned one of my creations, but I can only say that in the whole of my working life I never saw a customer who either had, or who wanted one of these pipe-stem waists.
A considerable amount of nonsense has been written about Corsets and Tight Lacing over many years by authors who have no practical knowledge or personal experience of their subject.
Most of these writers will try and titillate their readers by relying upon the constant repetition of popular words and phrases such as "I felt as if it was cutting me in half," or "She laced me in until I was unable to breathe," or by introducing unnecessary elements of coercion and corporal punishment into the story, thereby implying that this is an essential part of the natural process of wearing any form of corset, which of course is quite untrue, as this book will attempt to prove.
Any mention of a small waist measurement in typical works of corset fiction seems to suggest that the reduction has been a considerable, immediate, effortless and permanent achievement. The chest, bust or hip measurements are seldom mentioned in relation to the waist size, and the original and natural waist measurement often remains something of a mystery. Yes, an "eighteen inch waist" is an eighteen inch waist, and it can be achieved. This is a well documented fact. But what did the waist, hips and chest or bust measure before the corset was "Laced fully closed?"
Ridiculous statements are often made, claiming impossible waist reductions just by "Hooking up the front and pulling on the tighteners until the corset was fully closed up." This makes me want to reject the story out of hand, because it quite obvious that the author has absolutely no personal experience of the many pleasures and delights of wearing a well boned, well fitted and tightly laced corset, and does not know what he or she is talking about. It is a "Dead Give-away," and the whole story can be dismissed as no more than a work of puerile fantasy.
To emphasise my point, let me just say that a naturally slim or thin person might have much less difficulty in achieving quite a small waist measurement, as compared to someone with a larger and perhaps more natural build, who would have to work very hard over a possibly extended period of time, utilising a series of progressively smaller waisted corsets to achieve a similar degree of reduction.
Dorothy and I were accustomed to wearing our corsets on a daily basis. And yet, we were not "Tight lacers," in the generally accepted sense of the words. We had both become slowly and carefully accustomed to our new and well defined dimensions, and could remain in a comfortable state from early in the morning, throughout the whole of our working day, and until late at night. We removed our corsets before going to bed, and put them on again first thing in the morning, without either of us giving it a second thought. It had become just a natural part of our daily process of dressing and undressing. Nothing more than that.
I have always enjoyed being tightly laced, and when Dorothy had commenced my figure training after my first mistake, she had placed great emphasis upon the folly of 'Overdoing it.' I had wanted much more from the very first moment that she laced me in, but she had been firm in her denial. With her continued help and guidance over the years, I did manage to progressively reduce myself; eventually remaining at a steady twenty three inches for several years. I could, lace myself smaller on our special occasions, and was always reluctant to sacrifice any of my hard won inches, but I found it necessary to enlarge my waist as I became older. Of course, after my accident it was different altogether; but more of that later.
Dorothy's waist had measured twenty one inches when I first met her, and we had fully closed her mother's sixteen inch corset on our honeymoon, although we were unable to confirm the measurement at the time because we did not have a tape measure. I managed to span her waist with ease, which was all I wanted to do. We had a most unfortunate mishap when we tried to repeat the experience.
Some time after the honeymoon, I mentioned how much I had enjoyed that first occasion, and Dorothy offered to repeat it for me. Of course, I was only too eager; but just as I was finally closing the laces the brittle whalebones began to disintegrate and several snapped at one side of the waist. The sharp ends penetrated the lining; digging painfully into Dorothy's flesh, and causing her to scream at me to take it off. I picked up a pair of scissors, and quickly cut the laces, fortunately before she suffered any lasting harm, but the old corset was damaged beyond repair, and Gerald had no replacement whalebone, so we were unable to measure her waist with it on.
She knew how much I had enjoyed spanning her tiny waist, and she also told me a little more about the delightful sensations she had experienced as my hands had completely encircled and gently squeezed her. She had been determined not to cry out while I was lacing her, in spite of the increasing cruel pressure and the terrible pain. She had an inner sense of triumph as I was spanning her waist and expressing my delight, and she said that when my hands surrounded and caressed her it seemed to instantly soothe all her pain away. She said it was "As though I had Healing Hands." From that moment she had only been aware of the deepest personal pleasure; which had considerably increased in depth as the evening progressed!
Without saying anything to me, she asked Gerald to make her another special corset in my favourite butterfly blue satin, but with a sixteen inch waist measurement. She put it on one Sunday morning, and asked me to lace her up. At first I thought it was her original blue one, and then I realised what she had done and just what she was doing for me. We did not manage to fully close it, because she began to suffer far too much cruel pressure on her lower ribs, and it would obviously have been too dangerous for her to continue. I was just able to span her waist with my fingers and thumbs, but that was all.
I came to the reluctant conclusion that Gerald must have made some slight miscalculation with his measurements; or it could have been that the metal boning lacked the flexibility of whalebone. Dorothy did eventually maintain her waist at eighteen inches for about ten years, but, like me, she had to relax a little, as she became older.
TALKS AND LECTURES.
Dorothy joined a local ladies social circle as a form of evening relaxation, and to give her a break from routine. She enjoyed the company, and the group were always looking for speakers or people who could give them lectures; slide shows, or similar forms of entertainment. She asked me if I would like to give them 'A little talk' one evening, and after some reflection I agreed. I thought it could be a good public relations exercise, and might bring in more business.
My personal collection of books and photographs had grown considerably over the years, and was now taking up a lot of space in the sitting room. I did a little basic research, and made some notes. Oddly enough, I found all my notes again only recently, and discovered that I had called my first talk "The Evolution and Development of the Corset, from the Minoans of Crete to the Present Day." It was an unnecessarily long title, and I fear that I may have spoken for much longer than the other speakers; but as I recall it my talk was well received. Dorothy later told me that several of the women who had been present had called at the shop and made purchases. Some had said how much they had enjoyed the talk, and one or two had been very surprised that a man should know so much about the subject, but apparently no-one had openly objected.
I repeated my talk by popular request on several occasions, over the next few years; shortened the title to "Corsets Through the Ages," and illustrated it with some slides and photographs. I eventually travelled to several different towns to give the talk, and seemed to be well received. Dorothy often accompanied me, and handed out her business cards, which helped to put our little shop on the map.
MUSEUM AND ARCHIVE.
I had often considered forming my own specialised library, or possibly even having a small museum of corsetry. I had been impressed by Gerald's collection on the occasion of our first visit to his factory, and thought it would be a good idea if I could have something of a similar nature. I had initially been prevented from developing this objective by the simple combination of 'Too much expense, and too little time.' The years went by; money became more plentiful, and I had a roof built over the back yard, to provide us with a garage for the van, and more space for expanding the mail order department. We also had a room built above the new garage, which was meant to be a bedroom or nursery when our family came along. We tried hard for several years, but never did manage to have any children, so eventually this room became my museum.
I started in a small way by having part of the room shelved, allowing me to put my books in some sort of order, and later obtained a drawer unit from a firm of office suppliers, giving me safe storage for my extensive collection of photographs. I made numerous visits to antique shops, second hand book shops, and general dealers. Dorothy preferred to visit jumble sales, and by our combined efforts we managed to find many interesting items of corsetry; washing, renovating, and using them as dating features. If any garment was of considerable importance but was in a disreputable condition, we would send it to Gerald, and he would have a copy made.
A fellow enthusiast died, and bequeathed to me his unique and extensive collection of corset catalogues. He had researched widely; collecting a large number of interesting brochures, catalogues, leaflets and booklets from all over the world. I spent a long time listing; cataloguing, and making a card index of the papers, for ease of reference. The generosity of this gentleman enabled me to fill in several missing pieces relative to the history of corsetry, and I decided that, when I had time, I would sit down and compile a comprehensive corset encyclopaedia. A profusely illustrated, in depth study, possibly running to several volumes. A book that might be generally recognised and universally accepted as the definitive work on the subject. It would be pleasant to leave my name on something I could be proud of, and I had all the necessary data and pictures. All that I needed was time!
I was delighted to find among the collection of catalogues all the missing details of My Great Aunt's 'Elfrida' corset, of so many years ago, and of which I still retained the fondest memories. The text read:- "By popular request, we are once again including this model. It has found high favour with our more mature customers, and we have received many testimonials, all loud in praise of its firm support and day-long comfort." The catalogue was dated 1911, so that made my old 'Elfrida' a genuine late Edwardian original.
Of all the items in this valuable collection, the most interesting to my mind was a copy of a catalogue of several of the garments that were modelled by Dorothy's mother. It had withstood time and usage very well, and was in quite good condition, having been printed on glossy paper, and using photographs that had been cleverly and artistically enhanced, to improve the silhouettes of the models.
The modelling had been shared between Dorothy's mother, and another lady, and a considerable amount of space had been wasted in each photograph by the inclusion of large fern or aspidistra plants, in ornamental pots on ornate wrought iron stands. The legs of the two models were hidden under artistically draped voluminous petticoats, of a late Victorian or early Edwardian style. The two ladies had superb figures, and elaborate hairstyles. The front cover bore a large photo of Dorothy's mother wearing a severely tailored, straight-fronted Edwardian corset, and leaning gracefully, in a classical pose against a Grecian pillar of the Ionic period. The contrast of her sweeping curves against the straight lines of the pillar was most striking and impressive.
I could see Dorothy's strong likeness to her mother, because they each had the same way of looking at you, with a frank and open direct gaze. Mother held herself stiffer, and was rather more erect than Dorothy. Her carriage and deportment was similar to that of Matron, and no doubt the well boned corsets were a contributory factor! I made no mention of my discovery, but had several copies made and gave one to Dorothy on her birthday. She was deeply and visibly moved, and carefully stored it away along with her other personal treasures.
SKIN CARE, AND HEALTH.
I can recall one occasion when Dorothy's health gave me cause for concern. She began to complain about pains in her back at night, and again on rising in the morning, although it went away as soon as she put her corset on. She tried to ignore it, but it persisted, and I had to help her by applying massage at night. The condition did not improve so I eventually took her to see the lady Doctor. She examined Dorothy, and decided that her condition arose from wastage of the muscles. She had worn a corset all her adult life; the corset had provided the support for her body, causing her dorsal muscles to relax and become disused.
An old fashioned remedy was prescribed, and Dorothy began to wear what she called her 'Night Stays.' A lightweight alternative to her daytime corset; made of a cellular material, and lightly boned, with an elastic panel at the back, and hook and eye fastening at the front.
We sent our design to Gerald, and he obliged with his usual efficiency. I helped Dorothy to put it on, the first time, and quite enjoyed it! It gave me a lot of pleasure in bed, at night, to hold her and feel the corset bones. I found that with her waist pulled in, I was able to slide one arm beneath her body as she lay on her side. Then I would snuggle up close..... It gave us some very pleasant nights! But seriously; it soon cured her back trouble, and helped us to give some good advice to customers with similar problems. It also took my mind back to our earlier years.
I recall that, soon after we were married, I tried to persuade Dorothy to wear her corset twenty four hours a day, and I must now freely admit that my motives were purely selfish. Dorothy had always considered it to be more healthy to remove her corset every night, because she was most particular about personal hygiene and the cleanliness of her garments. She had repeatedly argued that: "Human skin needs to breathe," and she said that keeping her body continually enclosed in a tight corset could lead to many unpleasant skin disorders.
She had experienced this in her early days of corset wearing, because during the course of a normal working day the corset would move up and down slightly. The movement would cause small creases to form, usually around the waist, and the creases would pinch her flesh and start areas of inflammation. If left unchecked, the inflamed area could soon develop painful skin breakdowns, and often open sores, which would be difficult to heal beneath the tight corset. The wounded area would have to be rubbed with a soothing or antiseptic cream, and padded with sponge or other absorbent material, causing ungainly lumps in the outline of the corset. She was less troubled by the condition in her middle years, because her skin became hardened at the main points of contact; and the added care we took with her fittings did much to prevent the creases in the cloth.
I had originally tried to advance the argument that if Dorothy would keep herself in a partly laced condition all night, she might save time when she was dressing in the morning. She countered this by saying that she took her time over dressing in the morning, because she thought I enjoyed watching her. She was quite right - I did!
She emphasised her point, one morning, by jumping out of bed when the alarm clock went off; throwing off her night dress; grabbing her corset, and fastening it with a sound resembling a burst of machine gun fire! She rapidly tightened the laces like a high speed angler reeling in a fish, and did all of these things while I was still scratching my chest, and groping for my own corset. It was an impressive demonstration, but was not nearly so enjoyable as her regular daily routine, so I quickly withdrew my argument.
The experience we gained over the years helped us to combat the skin problems, and other similar obstacles. We learnt that natural fibres were well able to absorb body moisture, although many man-made fibres lacked this quality. We always made sure our own garments were made of materials containing a large proportion of cotton, and the wide range of cotton based satins, with their shiny outer surface, were my particular favourites.
Many customers asked for well boned corsets made of Nylon fabric. We made a practice of supplying all their requirements, and some spectacular garments were made in this strong and durable material. We eventually offered all our customers a varied and graded choice of materials, ranging from durable and practical coutil or heavy broche, to one exotic combination of gold satin, trimmed with fine lace, and decorated with semi-precious stones that had been ordered by a well known theatrical female impersonator. We were quite willing to give our customers the benefit of our advice about the materials, but over the years we found that we often had to adopt the principle of: 'The customer knows best.' Or, at least, we let them think they did! In a word, the answer to the problem of skin breakdowns is "CARE." Care in the selection of suitable materials, and care in the manufacture of a perfect garment. We always took the greatest of care - and were well rewarded.
I ought to include a few brief words about these people.They were usually middle aged women, with "Problem Figures," who considered corsetry to be a subject of a wholly feminine nature, and something to absolutely forbdden to men. They were afflicted with a habit of sniffing loudly, and walking out of the shop if I was standing behind the counter. They would often make exasperated tutting noises, even if I could be seen innocently engaged with the packing and despatch of my mail orders somewhere in the background. Epithets such as "Depraved," " Disgusting," or "Perverted Sex Maniac" would be freely applied to any man who dared to pass even the slightest opinion about anything that was in any way remotely related to corsetry.
These women had a very annoying habit. They would come into the shop and take a considerable amount of time over the choice of a garment from Dorothy's offered selection. They went into the changing cubicle with a number of different garments, trying on each one, often with no intention of making a purchase.. After a considerable passage of time, they would return to the shop brandishing their chosen corset, and the remainder would be dumped and discarded on the counter in a tangled heap. They would usually say, "This one is not a very good fit, but it's near enough. I think it will be better when I have broken it in."
Their "Breaking in" process would necessitate the removal of a number of the most important and strategically placed bones, and then they would return to the shop and complain that the garment did not give them sufficient support. They often reduced me to a state of after hours fury, and made me wonder whether all my efforts were worthwhile.
I was surprised to encounter resistance from a few of the older museum curators in the early days of my research. On hearing of my interest in corsets, they would immediately adopt a guarded look, and raise barriers against me. I was often passed on to a junior member of staff, who would have been given the strictest instructions to "Keep an eye on this fellow. Remember, we want no trouble."
We once went to see an exhibition of Victorian and Edwardian costumes at the Town Hall. The garments had been collected by an enthusiastic group of people who believed - and I agree with them - that the various items should be publicly displayed on live models, rather than being confined to a museum showcase. It was a very interesting collection and contained a wide variety of genuine period dresses and underclothing, all well described and displayed.
Three corsets were modelled. Two late Victorian, and one very good example of the Edwardian straight front, although I could not help noticing that not one of the garments had been laced fully closed. At this precise moment in the programme I heard a distinct and prolonged sniff immediately behind me.Someone poked me in the back, and I heard a woman say to her companion in a loud voice, "I don't think they should allow MEN in here!"
I turned around, gave the woman a dirty look, and was just about to say "Madam, I obviously know a great deal more about corsetry than you do," when Dorothy spolit it by holding my hand and having a fit of the giggles. As we stood up at the end of the show, Dorothy took one of her business cards from her handbag, and without saying a word handed it to the woman. Then we walked out ahead of her, with our arms around each other's waists!
As time went by, life began to be all work and no play. I had wanted to help Dorothy, and had succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. Since meeting her my life had improved so markedly that I began to look upon her as something of a lucky charm; so much so that I started to worry in case it all went wrong again. We used to enjoy having fireside chats, and took pleasure in discussing the special desires of our customers, and the ways in which we had been able to help them. One of our strongest selling points was that we never considered any order to be 'Strange' or 'Unusual.' I had been very precise about my own original design, and could appreciate that there were other people who might have special requirements of their own.
Many customers ordered replicas of Victorian or Edwardian garments, often sending photographs or sketches depicting their requirements, and we gave each order our most careful attention. Gerald excelled himself on our behalf, and over the years we built up a good business relationship, which we each found to be highly profitable.
We eventually had a steady stream of callers, both male and female, coming into the shop, and a regular pattern emerged, with Dorothy looking after the ladies, while I attended to the men. We could occasionally have requests for a reversal of this role, and always did our best to oblige.
We had a few calls from what I could only call 'Queer' people. I had been aware that this might happen, because I had often encountered a strange, and sometimes unpleasantly erotic undercurrent, where some aspects of corsetry were concerned. I had always done my best to protect Dorothy from any contact, because I was afraid it might distress her. We developed a system whereby she asked the customer to ring again during the evening, and speak to the 'Consultant,' if she had any doubts; and if they did ring again I took the call to verify that it was a genuine enquiry. We had some very peculiar requests from these oddballs; a few of them even asking if they could be laced into a tight corset, or tied up with ropes, and then caned or whipped by a dominant lady! I could not ask Dorothy to act in that capacity, because it was against her whole nature, and, speaking personally, I wanted nothing to do with that sort of thing, so I soon got them off the phone.
One of Dorothy's innovations was the 'Lacing Bar.' Strictly speaking, it was not her invention, but she discovered the reference, so the credit must go to her. I had picked up a likely looking bundle of books at a jumble sale, and she had been riffling through them
"This seems like a good idea." she remarked. "Have a look, and see what you think."
It appeared to be a simple enough device; amounting to little more than a wooden bar; suspended from the ceiling, and similar to a small trapeze, or swing. There was a drawing of a lady being tightly laced, and she was reaching above her head, and holding the bar with both hands. Obviously the apparatus would have the effect of applying mild traction, and stretching the body. The traction would thus increase the distance between the lower ribs and the pelvic girdle, and permit greater and easier reduction of the waist. Dorothy said: "I remember Daddy asking the customer to reach up; you know, like you did. This seems to be a much better way of doing it. Do you think you could possibly rig one up somewhere?"
I bought some suitable odds and ends from the local handyman's store; screwed two pulleys into a firm place in the ceiling, and made the trapeze, using a clothes line, and a piece of wood sawn from a broom handle. The finished unit could be adjusted and fixed at any height to cater for different sized customers, and could be raised up to ceiling height when not in use, so that it was out of our way. We spent some pleasant evenings testing and modifying it until it was an effective unit.
I was always looking for any interesting items relating to the history of corsetry, and jumble sales and junk shops were often a useful source of supply. My 'Finds' could be used in a variety of ways and were very useful as illustrations when I gave my lectures. I once discovered two examples of Victorian 'Patent Lacing Machines.' They were small and light hand winches, mounted on wooden stands or clamps. I did some research, and was able to identify and date them. Dorothy and I tried each of them, but found them to be impracticable, although they made quite decorative antiques when they were polished up.
I found an excellent example of scrimshaw work in an antique shop. An elaborately carved and decorated whalebone corset busk, bearing a central motif of a pierced heart, entwined with flowers, and two sets of initials. Apparently the sailors on the early whaling ships often resorted to this form of work as a way of passing time between watches, and making presents for their lady friends. The carving could take many forms, but was principally a way of expressing affection, making it very appealing to Dorothy's romantic nature. She thought it was delightful, and put it on display in the sitting room.
Gerald's measuring frame was a useful device, and had been a great help in the early days of our fittings. I was constantly thinking about new ways of improving our service to the customers, and felt it might be possible to make some improvements to the basic design of the frame. Although it was well equipped with many different lacing sections, it had the disadvantage of having only minimal boning. I could accept that it was only intended for short term use during fittings, and that it was unlikely to form wrinkles, but I consider that the correct layout of boning is of the greatest importance. When properly and medically prescribed, it can be of considerable help in easing the discomforts of certain muscular and spinal disorders. I wanted to be able to design and build up a boning ensemble for each individual customer. No two customers were exactly alike, so no boning arrangement could be considered truly universal.
I used my first corset design as a model, and had another planning and drawing session. I was five feet ten inches tall; Dorothy was five feet five inches in her bare feet, and her corset was similar to mine; rising to the level of the chest or bust, and low over the hips. A comprehensive series of measurements, taken over the pair of us, enabled me to classify her as 'Medium Female,' and myself as 'Medium Male.' I took similar measurements over other suitable customers, whenever possible, and in due course was able to work out a set of typical dimensions for large, medium and small sizes for both males and females.
The garment had to be easy to put on and take off, because many of our customers were pressed for time, so I decided upon a heavy duty zip fastener running the full length of the left front, backed by the strongest hooks and eyes available. A strong and durable material; able to stand repeated washing was made up with a smooth inner and outer layer, and sewn together by means of many parallel lines of strong machine stitching. The lines had to run more or less vertically, and were in effect a continuous row of stay pockets, set around the circumference of the garment to the full capacity of the waist, with the fluted sections above and below the waist being stitched to allow shorter and graded bones to be inserted. I now had the full facilities to enable me to add or subtract a wide variety of different bones to meet with each individual customers expressed desire. A wider pocket was inserted at the front, to take the larger and stiffer bones, used to simulate the front fastening busk.
All the individual stay pockets could be closed at the top and bottom by means of a conventional press stud fastener, and this prevented the bones moving out of position when the laces were being tightened. Loops of tape were sewn all round the lower hem, to allow any number of suspenders to be attached in different places. Several of our more particular customers had specified many extra suspenders, and I was now able to cope with each individual choice.
The full length lacing at the back was retained unaltered, but I modified and re-sited most of the small laced sections, placing one at either side of both the chest and hip sections, and managing to include three small sections around the waist. Many customers shared my interest in small waists, and with this combination, plus the back lacing I was now equipped to offer quite a severe degree of reduction, if so desired.
A comprehensive library of bones, clasps and busks was assembled, in widely assorted lengths and strengths, together with a selection of suspenders, and numerous spare and strong laces. There were a few other minor additions, such as the conventional velvet strip behind the hooks and eyes, to protect the wearer's skin, and each of the laced sections had a strip of material behind it, to prevent surplus flesh being squeezed out between the laces in the way that mine had been, when I had first laced up my converted maternity belt. I wanted the customers to be able to look at themselves with pride after they had been fitted by me, because I was proud of my skill as a specialist fitter.
Gerald's original frames had to be washed by hand after each fitting, in the interests of hygiene, and this made it something of a chore for Dorothy. The boning and lacing could easily be removed from the new frames, and the fabric was machine washable; making life much easier for her. When it was all complete, the outfit contained large, medium, and small frames for both males and females, and I later had to add both an extra tall one and an outsize one to cater for the larger customers of either sex.
I had originally visualised a portable outfit, that could have been loaded into the van, and taken with me on my home consultations, but the assorted metal of the multiplicity of bones made the whole thing too heavy, and it became obvious that the customers who required a specialist fitting would have to come to me. When they did call, we would first visually assess them, and then select the appropriate frame size. A tentative boning pattern was quickly inserted, or else we could duplicate their existing pattern in no time at all. We would help them into the frame; then modify the boning in endless ways; first loosening the laces a little, making it easier to remove or replace the appropriate bones.
Each stay pocket had a number indelibly printed upon it, matching the numbers on the measurement form, and all the bones were colour coded for length and strength, and this made it much easier to specify the final boning requirement. Gerald supplied all the components, and had the whole assembly made up and boxed to my specification. He was very impressed with the finished product, and sought my permission to market it through some of his other outlets. We came to a suitable financial arrangement, and I understand that a considerable number of 'Mason Universal Measuring Frames' were sold up and down the country, mainly to the larger department stores. It really was one of the most useful items in our fitting room, and our specialist customers always asked us to use it.
Naturally enough I wanted to be the first to try it, and Dorothy said she would help me, although she had her old sidelong grin on her face when she made the offer, and I wondered what she was planning. One quiet evening, she said:
"How about trying the new frame? Do you feel up to it, or are you too tired?"
I was in the mood to have a go, so she went down to her fitting room, and came back carrying the frame; rolled up, and looking rather stiff. She was very flushed, and looked as if she had been struggling with something. She dropped the frame on my chair with a thud, and said:
"Let's do it in here, by the fire."
I stripped off my clothes and my corset, and reached for the frame; but it was so heavy I nearly dropped it. I was surprised to notice how stiff it had become, and then I saw that Dorothy had put a strong and flat bone into each of the full length stay pockets, to the full capacity of the waist. She had also filled all the other pockets with shorter bones until everything had been totally filled. There must have been dozens of bones altogether, which made the whole thing feel like a suit of plate armour. It certainly served to show the accommodation capacity of the frame, but I was sure it would be impossible to wear it.
I could not resist any challenge where corsets were concerned, and was not going to be beaten by this one. Dorothy had to assist me by holding up the frame until I was able to fasten sufficient hooks and eyes, and secure the zip fastener, and then she continued fastening, while I supported the weight. Once it had been hooked and zipped up, she set about lacing me in, and for some strange reason seemed to be enjoying every minute of it. I bore it patiently, although the frame was so heavy that it caused my legs to ache.
She kept tightening each individual lace a bit at a time, making me feel as if I was being held in a cold metal vice. She tightly enclosed my hips, and then my chest, until I began to have difficulty with breathing, finally working upon my waist; tightening the back lace severely, and then proceeding to each of the small laced sections in turn. She put on a pair of black leather gloves to protect her fingers, and used a strong metal button-hook to draw out the crossed laces even further. She continued in this manner for some time; walking round me, pulling a little more at each section, and telling me to press on the sides of my waist with my hands.
She kept grunting with the effort of pulling, and I was grunting with the combined effort of standing and breathing. We tried using the lacing bar, but the rope began to stretch, and the ceiling started to let out alarming creaking noises. She reverted to her previous method of making me raise both my arms and reach up several times as she tightened the laces, keeping up a continued flow of encouraging remarks, until finally:
"Nearly done." she said.
"Thank Heavens for that." I gasped. She did one final circuit of the waist, with the button-hook; rubbed her hands together, and asked: "How's that?"
"It feels as if I've been run over by a steam roller." I said. I could feel myself starting to lose consciousness. Everything was going becoming fuzzy around the edges, and my finger ends were beginning to tingle, and go numb. I pleaded:
"It's no use; it's too heavy. I'll have to sit down."
I struggled to walk across the room, but found that both my hips had become completely locked. I could not move my legs at all, and had instead to adopt a peculiar rocking motion; swinging both arms wildly in order to gain any forward momentum. I felt like a steel robot, and thought that knights in full metal armour would have had a greater degree of mobility than this.
After a great deal of effort, I succeeded in moving to the chair; turned with difficulty, reached my arms behind me, and tried to sit down. I could not sit down, because there was not an inch of bend anywhere in the garment, and reaching behind myself caused me to lose my balance, and fall backwards on to the chair. It caught me behind the legs, and on my shoulders, and I came within an inch of overbalancing, as the chair lurched and tilted. Dorothy looked at me, lying rigid and helpless against the chair; waving my arms about, and she curled up and burst out laughing!
"For Heaven's sake, give me a hand," I cried.
"Dammit; I'm stuck!"
She grabbed my arms, but was not strong enough to pull me upright, so she stood behind the chair and started pushing and levering at my shoulders. With her help, and by bracing both arms against the chair, I was just able to stand up, but that was all. We really had overdone it, this time!
Moderate waist reduction is enjoyable, and a carefully controlled compression all around the body can be very pleasant, but this crushing confinement was not at all agreeable or practical. Dorothy had to quickly unlace me, and let me rest and recover; but at least it had been a useful experiment, in that it let us compare the endurance of the measuring frame with that of the human frame.
Before she released me, Dorothy quickly ran a tape measure round my waist, and told me that I was now an unbelievable 'Eighteen Inches,' which made my waist exactly the same size as hers! She also added:
"And not a sign of a wrinkle; anywhere!"
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