“The Only Garment That Could Kill”: Corsets and the Great British Sewing Bee

Knowing that I have an academic interest in fashion history and a love of mid-twentieth century clothing, a friend of mine recently asked if I had seen a recent 1950s themed episode of the Great British Sewing Bee. Now in its third season, the basic premise of the format is much the same as the Great British Bake Off, where amateurs take on challenges to test their skills whilst competing to be named Britain’s best. In the Sewing Bee, the contestants are called ‘sewers’ – because they are showing off their sewing skills – a word that sounds utterly ridiculous and doesn’t lend itself well to being written down. This was one of the reasons I had so far avoided the show like the plague. However, the lure of a group of people who make clothes at home being asked to construct 50s-style garments on 1950s sewing machines was too great and so I located episode three on iPlayer and pressed play.

Sewing my corset panels together, at Prescott & MackayThe programme is presented by experienced television personality Claudia Winkleman, and the contestants’ work is judged by a pair of screen-friendly experts: May Martin, a sewing teacher from the Women’s Institute Academy with over 40 years experience, and Patrick Grant, who has spent the last 10 years turning around the fortune of Savile Row tailors Norton & Sons. I watched the contestants run up the beautifully simple ‘walk away dress‘ in four hours – so named because you could start it after breakfast and leave the house wearing it at lunch time – and was impressed at how quickly they got to grips with both the old machines and the sheer amount of bias binding that pattern requires.

Viewers also get treated to a bit of background on each contestant and a tiny little bit of fashion history thrown in for good measure. The snippets of information regarding home sewing in the late 40s and early 50s, the shape of the hugely influential New Look, the limited availability of fabric during rationing and how something like a pair of curtains could be repurposed, gave just the right amount of context to the tasks that were being undertaken. However, in the following episode, where the contestants were set tasks specifically designed to test their ability to add shape and structure to clothing, my patience was tested to the limit. After having spent a rather intense weekend learning to construct a made-to-measure corset, complete with spiral steel boning, steel busk and eyelets (see photos), I was startled to discover that the GBSB ‘sewers’ were being given a mere four hours in which to make a corset. However, when I saw that their pattern was pre-prepared, their boning was pre-cut and they didn’t have to insert a busk down the centre front, I should have realised that this wasn’t going to be entirely historically accurate.

Busk and eyelets done. Corset making at Prescott & MackayAfter the surprisingly impressive corsets were assessed and the winner of the challenge was revealed, viewers were then treated to a three minute segment on the history of the corset. I knew straight away that this was not going to offer a balanced view of this controversial garment as Claudia Winkleman’s voice over, in a similar tone to a Daily Mail headline, declared this to be “the only garment in history that could kill”. The first expert view came from fashion historian Rosemary Hawthorne who quite rightly noted the inflexibility both of whalebone and the steel busk. I covered Hawthorne’s book Bras: A Private View (1992) as part of the literature review for my Master’s dissertation and so was a little surprised to see her appear here as I know she has written on bras, knickers, stockings and suspenders, but not on corsets. Although not an academic researcher – she describes herself on her website as an after-dinner speaker, performer and costume historian – Hawthorne clearly has a personal and long-standing connection to the topic of women’s underwear which shows in the depth of her knowledge. The illustrations in her bra book are based on garments from the author’s own collection and the tone of the text is very personal, which is also what comes across in the Great British Sewing Bee. However, Hawthorne’s personal view of the corset shows none of the fondness of her opinions on the bra, as she clearly thinks corsets are something to be frowned upon.

The second expert was sociology lecturer and researcher Dr Kat Jungnickel from Goldsmiths, University of London. Dr Jungnickel has recently undertaken research into cycling, dress and women’s freedom of movement in late nineteenth century Britain and, having studied the rational dress movement, is well placed to discuss issues regarding the limited mobility women experienced while wearing corsets as part of their daily lives. It is clear that women’s breathing would have been limited if wearing a corset while undertaking a physical activity such as cycling, but what is not made apparent here is that more suitable garments would have been extremely difficult to acquire before the Rational Dress Society was formed in 1881. Until these radical women came along and fought for alternatives, corsets and long skirts would have probably been the only option available to the female cyclist.

One almost complete corset, at Prescott & MackayThere is much to be said in favour of including a small introduction to aspects of dress history within a relevant popular television programme. It provides insight into our collective sartorial past, gives context to recent and current fashions, and provides a taster for those who have never studied the topic. However, care needs to be taken by programme makers to ensure that the viewer is presented with a balanced perspective, or at least the most up-to-date opinions on the subject they have chosen. Ideally, they should be providing facts rather than opinion and allowing viewers to make up their own minds, but I realise this approach might not be a prime time ratings winner. In future, I think I shall stick to BBC Four for my televisual fashion history fix.

This article was first published on [In]Tangible, the blog for students and alumni of MA History and Culture of Fashion at London College of Fashion. Main image taken by lipsticklori at Les Arts Decoratifs in 2013. All other images taken by lipsticklori during the Two-Day Beginners Corsetry Course at Prescott and Mackay.