The Spirella Lady

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History ramblings about, well, ladies’ undergarments.

It’s a curious thing. When I was a child, grown-up women wore corsets. Today though, women seem to have an anything-goes policy. So what if you’ve got a huge bum? So what if your belly button shows through your t-shirt nestled in several rolls of fat?

Well, in the 1950s and 1960s, women were more particular or, as my mother would have no doubt put it, they had more pride. One of her best sayings was; ‘pride must abide‘. I think this was when you complained that plucking your eyebrows hurt – but, you know …. ‘pride must abide’.

Hence, getting back to underwear, the Spirella lady.

Spirella, in the sentence above, is a brand name and is therefore assigned a capital initial. It was a pretty furtive sales technique they had, too … home visits, personal fittings…

We weren’t the sort of family that had over-the-breakfast-table conversations. We were more the sort of family who individually grabbed a bowl of cornflakes in the morning and grumpily ignored everyone else. But had we had early morning conversations, I can imagine my mother brightly announcing:

‘Going to Lily’s today with Grace to get measured for a Spirella’. Believe it or not, in the 50s and 60s this made as much sense as ‘text me the jpg and I’ll put it on Twitter’. It not just countries that are separated by a common language – generations are too.

So, mother and Grace (her elder sister) went off to their stepmother’s (Lily’s) house. To meet the Spirella woman.

All three of these ladies were, to be polite, rather large. If ever a trio ever needed corsets, these three did. Lily, let me say, although a stepmother, was related by blood. I know it sounds weird. Mother and Auntie Grace had lost their own mother to liver disease when the girls were still teenagers. Poor old grandad, with kids to bring up and his own laundry needing to be done, had trawled the relative pool and espied a distant cousin called Lily Steer.  He took her as his second wife.

I’m sure this arrangement was more practical than romantic. Lily (as I recall) had a broken nose (think Mike Tindall if you know your rugby players/British royalty), and a distinct weight problem. When I was a child, I thought she had elephantitis. I had no idea what elephantitis was (if indeed it was a real ailment) but I think it helps you get the picture.

Imagine someone whose legs were as wide at the ankle as they were at the very top. There was a crease in her skin where the leg met the foot. I thought it was her stockings but it wasn’t. Truly.

The Spirella lady (now we are back on track) visited her clients’ homes to personally measure them for their fully-bespoke corsets. That thought alone is grim enough. But thinking about what a corset is actually like is even grimmer.

By the sixties, we had things called ‘roll-ons’. Now we call them ‘magic knickers’.  They were large granny-type panties that were elasticated to keep the bulging belly at bay. But not so the corset.

The corset started, at its upper levels., at the bust. (‘Bust’ was the word then, not ‘boobs’, ‘breasts’ or even ‘tits’.) The bust section of the corset was almost a miracle of structural engineering. The boobs were encased in pointy cones, a la Lost in Space. (A contemporary American TV show in which the menfolk went off to fight the aliens whilst the women, complete with pointy boobs, cared for the hydroponic garden. Harumph).

The corset travelled down the body and was designed to control bulges using a mysterious combination of zips and hooks & eyes. (One hooked the hooks into the eyes, then zipped. I’m unhappy that I know this). In some instances, there were also laces. Yes, like your boots.

At crotch level was another hook & eye contraption – this time to release a sort of flap that covered the ladies’ bits – the gusset. (Is that the worst word in the English language? I think so. It should be asterisked – g*****.) This was glossed over in the advertising. Unhooking this flap permitted the wearer to pee or poo without removing the entire garment. Just unhook, then evacuate accordingly. (I told you this was grim).

The corset continued for a couple of inches down the leg and thereupon hung the suspenders to which the wearer attached their stockings. Because the garment was so tight and constricting, the effect on the legs was a sort of muffin top mirror image. All that fat had to go somewhere. Grim and gross.

Right. Now I’m going to tell you the grossest thing of all

I have actually been very restrained in my description of these horrendous devices. The little flap thingy for peeing purposes was gross. The thought of the fat, which had to go somewhere, spilling out at the cleavage or the leg-top, was pretty grim.

But there was one thing about these all-in-one Spirella corsets that defies all definitions of horror. That was….

Mother, Grace and Lily always ordered their Spirella ‘foundation garments’ in black. Why? Because (and I am embarrassed even typing this) ‘it doesn’t show the dirt’. Ewwwwwwwwwww. Sorry, but ewwwwwwwwwwww. I have to repeat, ewwwwwwwwwwww.

How often did they wash these items? How often did they change them? I never saw one hanging on the washing line. Ever. Did they order more than one? (‘One in use and one in the wash’.) That gusset flap…. Sorry again but ewwwwwwwwwwww.

Sometimes, I wonder if they even slept in them -assuming that their bodies weren’t required by their menfolk for conjugal duties but even if they were, there was the dreaded flap…

A quick glimpse at Wikipedia tells me that Spirella corsets were invented by a bloke. Hmm….


Jackie Jackson, also known online as BritFlorida, is a highly experienced designer and writer. British born and now living in the USA, she specialises in lifestyle issues, design and quirky stories. You can see a wide range of articles here, or visit her website Tastes Magazine. See The Writer’s Door for more information.

Author: Jackie Jackson

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