After the doors of Hadley's Ladies' Outfitters in Mill Road closed for the last time in March 2002, Mersea Museum received an unusual donation - fifteen pieces of assorted corsetry, most dating from the 1970s and 80s. They give a fascinating glimpse into the changing style of ladies' foundation garments. Reminiscing about their days behind the counter are Mrs Beryl Brandon, the last owner, and Mrs Jenny Gibbons who worked at Hadley's for thirty five years, "from fifteen to fifty".
Mrs Brandon took over the shop from Mrs Greta Williams, née Hadley, in 1988. "We knew our customers and what they wanted" said Beryl. "They did not worry too much about fashion but liked good quality clothes that would last". She used to tell reps who tried to push anything unlikely to appeal to Mersea tastes "this is an old fashioned ladies' outfitters and haberdashers". Over the years the shop carried a very wide range of clothing as well as undergarments, including at various times shoes, coats and children's wear. "Those were the days when more people shopped locally and did not always go into Colchester" said Jenny. There were also more shops in Mill Road to bring people past the door, including the adjoining Hadley's men's outfitters. You can find many images of the area on the museum's database.
Examining the corsetry, the ladies remembered the popular Excelsior girdles with their bones, zips and firm elastic. One Namsie corset (anyone remember that brand?) has a vicious-looking row of steel hooks down the side which must have made sitting down quite painful. If this was not enough, it has laces to pull you in even tighter. "These girdles made you hold yourself very upright and were good for your posture" according to Jenny. A softer option was the famous Playtex 18 hour panty girdle, one of the best sellers but still a bit of a trial to wear for that length of time by the look of it.
Many customers kept to the same style and would bring the label from the box with the model and size for re-ordering. "When they tried on the new girdle they would sometimes remark that it seemed smaller than the old one" said Jenny, "but more likely they had gained an inch or two". Some customers took their garments home to try on approval, but others used the shop changing cubicle. Jenny remembered a couple (not local so we won't embarrass anyone) who used to come in regularly to look at the corsetry. The man would search out items and take them into the cubicle for his wife. "We never did know what went on behind that curtain".
Of course these foundation garments were not just worn to hold you in but also to hold up your stockings. When tights became popular in the late 1960s and made suspenders redundant (much to many a man's dismay), most younger women never wore a girdle again. Other customers remained faithful to old favourites, however. Among the Hadley's items is a liberty bodice, which readers of a certain age will remember as a sleeveless, button-through garment of thick cotton, which was worn over your vest to keep out the cold. They were not just for children - Beryl remembers that into the 21st century she was still ordering liberty bodices for several very elderly ladies.
In the end, Hadley's went the way of many small shops as people took their custom to Colchester and beyond. But for Beryl Brandon and Jenny Gibbons there are many happy memories of the time when ladies had "one on, one off and one in the wash".
Come and see the Hadley's collection and many other interesting items at the "Promoting Costume and Textiles" open day in the Museum Resource Centre on Saturday 23rd October from 10am - 3pm.
This article was published in the Mersea Island Courier, 22 October 2010