Friday, April 8, 2011

Mother Coop's Corset

A little of this and that...
I wish I had a picture of her, but I don't. She didn't like having her picture taken and would never allow me to snap it - she would say, "Why in the world you wanna a picture of an old black woman?" That was Rena Cooper, my 85-year old neighbor - a tall, painfully thin, sharp-witted woman who sported a fishing hat and sleeveless jacket year around. Over the few years that I had the pleasure of knowing her, she shared with me many of her herbal remedies, gardening secrets, and gave me a lesson or two about marriage (she herself being married 5 times). Once, I asked her which of her husbands she liked best (as if her husbands were an accessory - lol!), "Mr. Curry," she said, flashing a smile. He was husband number three, and as she described it, their relationship was molten. But then she said, "Good marriages, they ain't built on burnin' loins." I suppose not. Her life was not defined by her many marriages, however - Coop (as we called her) was an accomplished seamstress, a compassionate nurse, and well-respected deaconess at a local baptist church. Her life, as she told it to me in bits and pieces, was passionate, tragic, sorrowful, spiritual, and eventually, when I came to know her in the early 1990s, quiet and settled. 

"Mother's" corset, c. 1915
Shortly after I moved to Dayton in the late 1990s, Rena Cooper died. A dear friend of mine, who looked after Coop when I left, had notified me of her passing and told me that she had left me few things. In a heavy cardboard box marked with my name, I found an old green Bernina sewing machine (just the machine, no cabinet, no cord or foot peddle), boxes of vintage and antique buttons, an assortment of hat pins, sewing needles, awls, shoehorns, and host of other odds and ends. But what intrigued me the most was what I found in a folded brown grocery bag near the bottom of the box: a set of labeled corsets spanning a few decades, a lightly boned camisole, a peach satin slip, a pair of ivory satin gloves, and a little note to me that said, "I know you will care for these" - the oldest piece of the group was labeled "Mother's." I cried. Aside from her mother's corset, I cannot say who owned the others - I can only say that they must have been of great sentimental value to Coop, and I am privileged that she untrusted me with their care. Rather than the old paper bag they arrived in, they are now comfortably nestled away in an acid-free garment box lined in acid-free paper. Most of the pieces are in fair condition and they have become wonderful study pieces - I am very fortunate to have authentic garments to thoughtfully consider when designing and constructing my own pieces.   

Lap-seam detail (my reform corset)
A few days ago, I decided to unpack "Mother's" corset and give it a good looking over, paying close attention to the lap-seam work, wanting to emulate this detail in my own corset. I examined the bones (which I thought would be spiral, but are instead strapping) and the busks; and then the fabric - the corset is made from a single layer of heavy pink cotton and bound in the same material. While looking over it, it suddenly struck me that "Mother's" corset is a beautiful example of a working woman's corset. No satin, silk, or leather here; no French or English garment tag, no elegant embroidery - just a practical, breathable, flexible corset - a gem, an uncommon example in a world of antique corsets. It was lower-class women who owned these types of corsets and they wore them to pieces (literately). There seems to be this romantic notion that corsets were these sumptuous pieces of art, constructed of silk brocades and kid leathers, bound in satin, and delicately embroidered. Well, they were - for the wealthy. Most of the historical examples of corsetry which have survived to this day belonged to upper-class women who hired people to run their kitchens and clean their houses. As such, their corsets suffered little wear. For the Rena Cooper's mother, who at the turn of the twentieth century was a single mother and laundress, a corset crafted of fine textiles and satin ribbons would have served her no useful purpose.

It is here where I imagine the reform corset had it's birth - with the working woman, whether her endeavors were in or outside the home. Engaging in living history, as me and my costuming posse like to do from time to time, means more than just "making pretty" - it is means walking in another's shoes, or rather, wearing "Mother's" corset... 

*For more photos of Rena Cooper's garments and construction photos of my reform corset in the making, please view my Dressmaker's Album.

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