Gloved up, the curator carefully removes the layers of rustling white tissue paper from two mid 18th C. corsets in the conservation room of the Fashion and Textile Gallery of The Bowes Museum.
Revealed are the two opposites of women’s underwear:
The first, bowed and embroidered, is held by whalebones in white kid; as it is removed from its conservation home I think of Marie Antoinette, Madame de Pompadour, these ornamental tiny women held from morning to night on painful display. I have been sent a colour photocopy of it, so I am familiar with it to an extent; I am not prepared, however, for the beauty of the pale blue grey floral brocade edged, with palest pink. It is delicate, feminine, a pampered object of desire.
Conservator’s notes on CST. 133 say: ‘Condition: Well worn, generally good and clean. Has been darned’. I look for and find signs of wear, mends, patches and darns. No patches but plenty of the others. Under the arms and across the chest mainly.
The mending has been done carefully with sympathetically matched silk thread. The curator takes particular care not to touch the two now brownish pink ribbons that attach the straps to the bodice front. They hang like broken butterflies wings. The curator lays this precious object on white tissue and we turn our attention to the other corset.
This one opens up to at least a metre wide, of coarse brown twilled cotton trimmed with blue wool braid and shows no shape of the big boned strong peasant woman who once wore it. To give rib crushing hourglass shape was not the intent of this garment.
Conservators’ notes on Cst.2.976 say :’ Poor, very well worn , numerous holes revealing inner layers , lining very soiled, particularly at front edge. Modern amateur repairs very obvious, using cream flannel and stitching in grey cotton’.
I have been told it was purchased from an auction in Whitby in 1989, provenance otherwise unknown. It is apparently very unusual to find such a worn and destroyed garment kept for over 250 years in doubtful conditions. What story does/could this corset tell? I imagine a rough skinned peasant woman tying this ugliness around her in a vain attempt to combat the bitter north east winters. It is worn and reworn, patched and repatched, darned and mended. The greasy sheep’s wool stuffing is bursting out and has been caught by desperate mends in any old colour.
As I sit there for 3 days drawing, painting, recording these disparate objects I begin at last to form some preliminary ideas for my exhibition in the Fashion and Textile Gallery of The Bowes Museum in early 2013.
By Artist Diana Winkfield