Fashion Theory: Researching the Liberty NuBack

Back in 2009, I found a (sadly now closed) online store called Pixxi, which sold vintage lingerie. As well as selling online, the owner took appointments to visit her in Brighton and try on the garments before buying. I couldn’t resist. After an enjoyable rummage through her wares, I purchased two pairs of vintage gloves and a beautiful unworn (but without tags) vintage girdle. I had always planned to wear it – perhaps on stage in a burlesque performance – but time passed and it simply sat at the bottom of my wardrobe.

When I started on the MA History and Culture of Fashion course at the London College of Fashion, I was treated to a glimpse of some items in the College archive that are available for students to look at and handle as part of their research. Seeing as my girdle no longer fits, I asked if I could donate it, but the Archivist suggested I use it as part of a piece of research first, before donating the entire project. It wasn’t long before the opportunity to do this arose – last term, we were tasked with using Jules Prown’s method of object analysis to create a narrative and discussion based around an object. I chose my girdle and was quite excited to now have a reason to find out more about it. From my prior knowledge of lingerie styles, I knew that girdles were developed in the 1920s as a replacement for the heavily boned corsets of earlier years. Although the move from corsets to girdles began before World War I, the condition of my garment and the fabrics used in its construction indicate that it perhaps dates from after World War II and so this was where I began my further investigation.

The printed text on the inside of the garment gave me a good starting point for ascertaining an approximate production date. Liberty was a registered trademark of R & W H Symington & Company and NuBack was a feature introduced by Symington in 1932, under licence from the USA. It was the name given to the additional ‘floating’ panel which was used on closed back corset styles to eliminate the problem of the back of the garment ‘riding up’ during wear. Via a book by Christopher Page on the history of the company, I discovered that the NuBack was mostly out of production by the 1960s, although some older styles were still manufactured with this feature as late as 1979. However, this garment does not appear to have been manufactured that late in the production run, as Ivy Leaf’s Tribute to the Corsetiere states on their guide to dating foundation garments that the word REG’D – short for registered trademark – was further shortened to R in 1961.

Knitted elastic, offering firmer control for the fuller figure, was introduced around 1935. Therefore, I deduced that this particular girdle dates from some time between 1935 and 1961. This is confirmed by the fact that Page indicates the ‘tea rose’ colour fabric used – which was introduced by Symington in 1932 and featured across most of their ranges by 1935 – lasted in the production of some styles of undergarments until the early 1960s when white synthetic satin and lace fabrics took over. I had hoped to narrow down the date range further by looking at other details, such as the suspender clips. However, according to Ivy Leaf, although suspenders with a metal pin in the centre of the clip went out in the late 1950s, bulk orders by some manufacturers lead to garments being made with these suspenders well into the 1960s.

Working on my assumption that this girdle dates from some time between 1935 and 1961, I visited the Symington Collection held by the Leicestershire County Council Museum Collections Resource Centre in order to view other examples of corsetry from that era produced by the same manufacturer. The collection comprises over 1300 undergarments produced by R & W H Symington & Company between 1856 and 1980, and contains a great many garments similar to the Liberty LS1711 girdle. As you might imagine, I rather enjoyed my afternoon there even though the visit sadly failed to help me narrow down a date for my garment any further.

As many similar styles were produced for many years by a large manufacturer like Symington, it could be suggested that this makes the garment I have studied both culturally and historically important, as it is more likely to be a typical example of what was worn by a large number of ‘average’ women. Of course, because of the broad date range, it is extremely tricky to suggest which year this typical example may have been most likely to be worn. It could have been purchased as the latest style by a wealthy young woman in 1935 who then tried it on underneath her frocks at home and decided she didn’t like it after all. Or, it could have been purchased in the late 1950s by an older lady who wanted to stockpile a few of the older style girdles before Symington ceased production. Whoever the original owner was, the Liberty LS1711 girdle gives us an intriguing insight into the foundations of mid twentieth century fashion.

UPDATE: I have now donated the girdle and a copy of my essay about it to the LCF Archives.