Shaping up for the future

Shelley Tobin, Costume Curator Shelley Tobin Costume Curator
A Charles Bayer corset

What do advertising, whales, an actress and a German immigrant have in common? It’s the ‘C.B.’ corset, a popular object in the Killerton collection which is currently on display in the exhibition, Branded: fashion, femininity and the right to vote.

Not everybody agreed with the fashion for tight lacing and tiny waists, but there’s no denying it was big business for 19th century corset manufacturers.

" At no period in the history of Dress has the CORSET played so important a part in the estimation of every Lady desirous of Dressing well as in the present"
- C.B. corset advertisement, 1896

Made of sturdy cotton, shaped and boned with strong machine stitching and slivers of whalebone the corset has a steel busk with front fastening clips. Laces secure and shape the corset at the back. Any woman who wished to appear neat and respectable, with a ‘tidy’ youthful figure wore a corset. Although many examples survive in museum collections, this one is a rarity because it remains on its original shop display form, and was never destined to be worn.

The corset would have been steam moulded to ensure a good fit. The broderie anglaise trim and hand-stitched flossing add a decorative element. Flossing, the stitches at the ends of the whalebone casings, was also practical, adding a little strength to the fabric where the boning might eventually wear through.

Detail of 'flossing'
Top of a corset
Detail of 'flossing'

Not surprisingly, at around 128 years old, the corset is now showing signs of deterioration while the display dummy embroidered with patriotic flags and the ‘C.B.’brand name is faded and beginning to disintegrate.

Achieving a 21 inch waist
Corset laces
Achieving a 21 inch waist

To prevent further damage we’re busy fundraising for conservation treatment. Forty years have passed since the house was first open to visitors and the corset displayed at Killerton. The collection left to the National Trust by Paulise de Bush formed the inaugural costume displays in 1978, the corset one of many objects she acquired.

Who was ‘ C.B.’?

German immigrant Charles Bayer was an important corset manufacturer with a head office at 31 London Wall (near the Barbican) in London. Charles established his business in 1869 and by 1900 was one of the leading corset manufacturers in the country. Bayer employed over 4,000 hands in 25 modern, state of the art factories. These thrived at Bath, Bristol, Portsmouth, Gloucester, and London. In coastal cities like Portsmouth, the wives of sailors and dockyard workers provided cheap labour.

A Charles Bayer Corset
Top of a corset stand
A Charles Bayer Corset

Bayer’s Bristol factory advertised in the Western Daily Press for ‘stitchers, boners, corner stoppers and needle hands.  Also young girls to learn for all departments.’  (January, 1901). The ad shows that each part of the process was specialised.

Company advertisements boasted that Bayer’s ‘superfine British corsets for British wearers’ made with the ‘daintiest French fabrics’ were ‘as easy fitting as a perfectly cut kid glove, with a complete absence of pressure upon the respiratory organs.’

" Pressure on any part of the body should be avoided...Tight...stays impede respiration and throw quite unnecessary work on the muscles of the abdomen and small of the back."
- The Girl’s Own Paper, 1896

Bayer’s product prices ranged from 10/6 (£41.00) to three guineas (£246.00). He claimed to have manufactured about three million corsets by 1898, with sales amounting to nine million pounds. Bayer’s ready-made corsets were shipped all over the world.  The ‘C.B.’ brand became instantly recognisable through its marketing, the first use of the ‘C.B.’ trademark was in 1877. Charles invested over £35,000 (£2,736,027.00) on advertising between 1894 and 1899, including copy and illustrations in newspapers and women’s magazines. Sales props, like our shop display corset, were an important part of the firm’s campaign. 

The copy writers must have done the trick.  This successful entrepreneur left a fortune of over £59,000 (£4,612,159.80) when he died in 1930.