I don’t get out much. Really. My life is a stream of “all dressed up with nowhere to go” days, only that’s kind of how I like it. Oh, I might go swing dancing or to a nice tea house, but that’s about the extent of it. Recently, however, I’ve discovered the joy of traveling large distances, like actually (heaven forbid) leaving the state of California, where I was born and raised.
When corsetry how-to site Foundations Revealed announced a field trip to view the legendary Symington collection in Leicester, England, my interest was piqued. However, it wasn’t until Jenni, of Sparklewren bespoke corsetry, said that she was considering teaching a workshop that I thought I might actually finally make it to the UK. By luck, design, or my continually prodding her on Facebook, the workshop was scheduled for the day before the museum field trip. I bought my plane ticket to England and set out to kill three birds with one stone: view the Symington Collection, attend a corsetry workshop, and visit my sister, who’s been living abroad for seven years.
In the end, I certainly crammed more than three events into my two week stay. Below is a travel diary of where I went, what I did, who I met, and what I bought. (Turns out, what I bought was mostly stockings. Mmmm, stockings.) If you’ve never been abroad before, you’ll find a few helpful tips regarding the regional differences in bra sizes, customer service standards, and how to actually pronounce the names of these towns, etc.
Day 2/3 – Edinburgh (Ed•din•bur•rah)
Oh, Edinburgh. Our romance was far too short. You were the most beautiful city I’ve ever been in. I barely noticed your massive looming castle, too amazed by the age and loveliness of every other building overlooking your confusing, vertically-stacked streets. I arrived too late in the evening, eager to find a hostel and a ladies’ room, then see an Amanda Palmer benefit/ninja gig to save the Forest Cafe arthouse and venue.
The next day my quest for a needle and thread (far harder than it should have been) allowed me to see some of the shops and cafes. The find of the day was definitely a small vintage shop at the beginning of the Grassmarket, where I had my first experience with British customer service, which is, in a word: minimal. (By contrast, American customer service might be considered overbearing by a wandering Brit.)
Picture petite little 5’3” me flinging my fingertips at a rack full of vintage girdles above my head, trying to view some sizing information, prices, anything. I’m horrifically shy so brazenly approaching a shopgirl was not an option to be undertaken lightly. No pity was taken in my plight, and I gave up after glimpsing one mildly economically disqualifying price tag. I then returned to the box of vintage stockings and tights, more affordably priced at £2 and up. I left with some 15 denier “Fine Lady” stockings and ’60s “Swinging Super Tops,” £2 and £4 respectively. They cost significantly less than modern-made stockings, and were worth it for the packaging alone.
Day 3 – Newcastle/Durham (Dur•um)
The event of the day was actually to be the Sparklewren workshop, which I’d been eagerly anticipating. As a budding corsetiere, I’ve been making a point to learn from as many are teaching. I think the way of the future is more openness and fewer suspicions between corseting colleagues: we’re all too busy pursuing our own ideas to steal each others’. Fresh innovation has been infiltrating corsetry after a long stagnant period, and the wider variety of designers operating can only serve to attract a broader range of people wearing corsets.
Alison Campbell of Crikey Aphrodite was the only other attendee, so the workshop ended up much more freeform and relaxed than planned. We had a good brainstorming session and discussed construction and patterning techniques. Then the evening devolved into me trying on Sparklewren samples and us all drawing on the chalkboard.
Day 4 – Leicester (Le•ster)
The three of us woke up early to make the long drive to Leicestershire and the Snibston museum, home to the corset collection archived by the Symington corset factory. They’d selected about forty samples, from various eras and makers, for the Foundations Revealed group to examine up-close and hands-on. Additionally, there were many other samples behind glass in their regular fashion exhibit. We were provided with blank notebooks (pencils not included, much to my chagrin). This was a blessing, as my camera had died early on.
Highlights included a very modern looking plunge-neckline piece, ventilated styles, and a corset made out of a tricot knit, as well as their legendary flossing sampler. We all left in a bit of a daze, overwhelmed, very, very inspired, and a bit jealous of the specialty equipment that aided the skilled mass production of period corsets. You can look forward to a particularly fruitful year or two from attending corsetmakers as we process and put into practice the ideas that inspired us. I purchased the book that companioned the collection and a fat stack of postcards, my favorite of which is the Avro Petites ad.
Day 6, 10/11, 13/14 – Chelmsford
Chelmsford, the capital of Essex, is not a particularly famous town, not a tourist destination of any sort, but it does have the advantage in that my older sister lives there and I could stay with her for free. My first find in this sleepy town was a book on the history of “Girlie Magazines.” A later visit to the shop turned up a beautiful book on Marilyn Monroe. As a designer and illustrator, I find I get a lot of inspiration from these sorts of pictoral histories.
The first time I walked past M&S, I was told upon asking that it’s an expensive grocery store. Imagine my puzzlement, then, when I later saw an underwear display in the front window. Apparently it’s more of a department/grocery store and a lot of people buy their underwear at M&S. Not only do they stock a wealth of bras in size 30C (which is what I should wear, except it’s impossible to find in the states), but M&S has a massive selection of retro high waisted panties, which they label as “full briefs.”
The only downside is they are targeted at an older clientelle, so it’s challenging to find any in smaller sizes. Stateside addicts, do be aware that your English size will be two or three sizes larger, and vice versa, of course. I wear a 0/2 here and was a comfortable 6/8 in England. I suspect the vanity sizing trend has not taken them quite so strongly.
And that’s it for the first half of my trip…come back next month for the rest of my UK adventures.