MONICA MAKES SENSE: Corsets weren't exactly 'Belle de Jour!’

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When I was a child growing up on a Council estate in Sheffield, we had a couple of professional people living on the road.

We knew that by the brass plate on the front of their house. One lady was a piano teacher, and one was a ladies corsetiere.

It was unusual as it was rare for women to have a job then, with menfolk all having occupations somehow connected with the steel works or the railways. There were melters, knife smithers, grinders, steel rollers and turners, hammer drivers, gas fitters and forge workers. We only had two neighbours who followed different occupations and those were as a postman and a sales rep.

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The teaching of piano we understood, but the purveyor of ladies’ undergarments was a bit of a mystery to us as children.

An elegant window display of Scandale corsets and suspenders.   (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)An elegant window display of Scandale corsets and suspenders.   (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
An elegant window display of Scandale corsets and suspenders. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Our mother bought her knickers and bras either from the Co-op or from a local shop specialising in ladies’ underwear, where the goods you could buy in the shop were displayed in the shop window on dummies, causing some interest to small boys.

Actually, having undies made to measure certainly denoted a person who might be a bit more up the social scale than my mother was!

It appeared that the garments in question were corsets which every self-respecting woman wore then. It isn’t quite clear why they did, but for women who were born in the early 20th century it seems that it was expected of them.

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Certainly, corsets were seen as a sign of social class or an assumed social class and one of respectability. It was quite common in some big houses to employ kitchen maids, and in order that they might move around freely to fulfil their domestic duties, they started to leave off their restricting corsets. Therefore, being thought of as ‘common’

Corsets were not an attractive garment. The early ones are not to be confused with the ones one might see today in films like’ Belle de Jour’!

The ones my mother wore had suspenders at the bottom edge to fasten a pair of stockings as of course there were no tights in those days. Presumably because there were a pair of suspenders, corsets were referred to as a ‘pair of corsets’ although being one garment.

Sewn into the garment were stays which were thin strips of whalebone. These were quite bendy and quite liable to come out sometimes. They were often much sought after by small boys who used them to make catapults.

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It’s a wonder that the birth rate stayed buoyant in those days as the corset must have been a total turn off where the bedroom was concerned, especially as women would talk about ‘having a good scratch’ when they took it off. What a passion killer!

Sometime in the 1950s the roll on came into fashion. Much less rigid than the corset and made of some sort of rubber material, it was decidedly unglamorous, and you had to wear a suspender belt on top of it to hold up your stockings. Nevertheless, most women started to wear the roll on.

In 1953 panty hose was invented by American Allen Grant. By the mid-1960s when miniskirts were at the height of their popularity courtesy of Mary Quant, almost every woman wore what became known as tights.

In 1970, tights outsold stockings for the first time in history. Tights remained popular right up to the present day, with sales peaking in the 1990s, but have been in decline for some years now as younger women have gone for the bare leg look.

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Recently we have become familiar with the’ Mad Men look’ which has given us a nostalgic glimpse of a time when good foundation garments were all important.

The pointed bra, panty leg roll on and nylon lace bouffant net petticoat were the hidden part of the well-groomed woman of the early 1960s.

Over the years, panties have come up and down, as it were! They have gone from Victorian drawers through to Edwardian Cami Knickers to Directoire Knickers to French Knickers.

Called knickers up to the early 1920s, they then became known as panties and by the 1930s as panty briefs, getting smaller and smaller although it has always been possible to buy the garments popularly known as’ Big Knickers’ and made famous by Bridget Jones. Although they are also called ‘Old Ladies Knickers’, I can’t think of anyone of my age who would want to be seen in them! We may not have the body, but we have our pride!

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Fabrics also changed. Cotton was always most popular as the garments could be boiled, with nylon a close second, but silk undies have always been thought of as most sexy and glamorous if not as practical.

‘’Dynasty’ and ‘Dallas’ gave us the rather sexy ‘teddies’ and today you are absolutely spoilt for choice in panty styles with hi- legs, hipster, throngs, g strings. It’s certainly come a long way from my childhood when we wore the dreaded liberty bodice and knickers with a pocket for your hankie!

However, since 2000 it seems that women have been buying Spanx foundation garments. Described as shapewear in disguise and having names like Bod a Bing and Hide and Sleek, it seems they may be just like the roll- on garments of yesteryear!

But do you need to have a good scratch when you take them off?

To read more columns and opinion pieces and previous articles from Monica Dyson visit the Sheffield Star website at To submit a column for consideration email [email protected]

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