Saturday, 8 October 2011

Symingtons

An overdue blog post on it!

A couple of  months ago I attended a visit to the Symington Corset collection at Snibston Discovery Centre in Coalville near Leicester. The trip was organised by Cathy Hay of  Foundations Revealed (a wonderful online subscription magazine on the study and creation of corsets and underwear).

(c) Leicestershire County Council Museums Service; Symington Collection

I've been talking about visiting this collection for years and years, and although I could've arranged something to go along myself it took an organised trip to get me moving instead of putting it off and off. The added value of what ends up being pretty much a conference of corsetmakers is hard to pass up. Spending time with people who don't glaze over when you get enthused about the intricacies of corsetry is a rare opportunity and it's good to see friends and make some new ones. Although many of us have communicated via the internet you never really get a proper impression of a person until you meet them face to face.

The collection is marvellous. It was preserved as a record of past styles (and also competitors designs) by the now closed local corset manufacturer, Symingtons. Over the years this archive grew into a sizeable collection which thankfully has been preserved by Leicestershire council.

We arrived at the Snibston Discovery Centre in Coalville to find a large fashion gallery with items from the 18th century to the present, both regular wear and couture, including a substantial underwear display. But  the real candy shop was a room filled with boxes of antique corsets gathered together for us to examine. I didn't count how many, but 40 or so must have been out for us to study as well as samplers of flossing, tools and boning samples. Unlike most museums we were free to handle the corsets, take notes and even pattern from them if we wished. We were all like the proverbial kids in the sweetie shop! Every option I've ever wanted to explore - plunge fronts, diagonal seaming, multiple lacing, heavy cording and much more - were all represented in the array before us.

(c) Leicestershire County Council Museums Service; Symington Collection


(c) Leicestershire County Council Museums Service; Symington Collection




Myths exploded: There is a long-held misconception that a good corset should be a heavy, thick corset. I've been ranting on for years that this is untrue, and I offer a single-layer corset with a fine lining as one of my standard, and most popular styles. However there were corsets in the collection which were of a lighter weight than any modern corset. One in particular intended for tropical wear which was made from a fairly fine cotton. Actually, the variations of designs intended for warmer climates was one of the most interesting themes. Several ventilated corsets were there to see, as well as an example with removable bones. This is something that interests me personally as my great grandmother travelled to South America with her family in the early years of the 20th century and must have been faced with these very issues. Making a personal association makes things much more real I think.

(c) Leicestershire County Council Museums Service; Symington Collection


(c) Leicestershire County Council Museums Service; Symington Collection


All in all it was a fascinating reminder that there are many ways to make a corset and that modern corsetmakers are only scratching the surface of the possibilities. The amount of innovation and imagination shown in these antiques as manufacturers sought to find answers to the problems of everyday corset-wearers is just astounding. We have a long way to go to reach the level of achievement of these designers, and although we can't replicate some of the machines and tools they had then, we can strive to match their creativity.

For anyone in the area or passing through I'd recommend a visit to Snibston Discovery Centre to see the Fashion Gallery. That alone is worth stopping by as the display is very impressive.

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