Sunday, November 25, 2012

The rad ladies of Berlei: part 1

Australian lingerie label Berlei has its origins in a small made-to-measure Sydney corset company purchased by brothers Fred and Arthur Burley. Arthur came up with the idea of a Frenchified version of their surname to capitalise on the glamour of continental lingerie, and the company was renamed Berlei Limited in 1919 and incorporated in 1920.

The company grew into a transnational empire with branch offices in Melbourne, Brisbane,  Auckland, Adelaide and Perth. The Burleys believed strongly in scientific fitting principles. They ran annual training seminars for corsetry fitters, and between 1923 and 1926 they employed as Berlei's medical director Dr Grace Fairley Boelke. 

I'm not sure if she was fairly bulky, but she was intellectually brilliant; in 1893 she was one of Sydney Medical School's first two female graduates. In her youth she was also a total babe, with dark hair and striking blue eyes. But her early career suffered due to prejudice against female doctors, and anti-German sentiment during WWI, since she had married a German-born fellow medical graduate, Paul Wilhelm Rudolph Boelke.

Boelke was active in women's suffrage organisations, and in public health policy. She believed alcoholism was a social equity and mental health issue, not a moral failing. In 1919 she presented a research paper on the history and effects of alcohol consumption, noting that French soldiers in Gallipoli were "well supplied with the light wines of their country" and suffered less from dysentery than the British. In 1924 she went to the United States to study the effects of its prohibition of alcohol. As the press reported, she came back "a rabid anti-prohibitionist", determined "to save her country from such a curse"!

Yet I was dispirited to discover that in 1928, Boelke was widely reported as saying the White Australia policy didn't go far enough! She insisted, "Australia will be swamped by the East if she doesn't speedily accept a complete European civilisation." At this time she was living in London, and hopefully not mixing with Oswald Mosley, Diana Mitford and the other British fascists.

Her job at Berlei was partly an OH&S role – she was responsible for the health and welfare of Berlei's 600 (mainly female) employees. On her 1924 US tour she also visited eight factories to observe their workplace safety practices.

But she was also a public face for the pseudo-medical claims the Burleys made for their products. Part of her job was to ensure Berlei's corsets were "anatomically correct". I suspect that she just took their money and said, "Oh, yes, very correct."

In a 1924 lecture on "The Philosophy of Clothes", Boelke said: "If women become slaves to fashion, then it should not be at the cost of health. Men are such 'timid animals', however, that they refuse to see the hygienic value of dressing for their comfort, and stick to high, stiff collars, wearing suits that hold dust and germs."

What a fascinating reversal of the widespread belief that in the past, women were the ones suffering in their stiff, formal clothes!

In the company's trade journal, Berlei Review, the brothers urged willowy flappers to "corset for the future" in order to prevent irreparable damage to "muscles and vital organs", or "excessive figure development in the middle years". This use of corsetry to train, rather than constrain, the female body would have been familiar to women whose mothers and grandmothers had encouraged them to cultivate their figures by corseting early and often.

However, by the 1920s corsets were already past their heyday. Since at least the 1890s, a growing cultural shift encouraged people to sculpt their bodies from the inside, via diet and exercise, rather than from outside by squeezing them with corsetry.

It was a tricky time for Berlei, whose 1920s marketing did reflect the prevailing cultural worship of youthful, sporty silhouettes. Its products had dainty, diminutive product names such as "Corselette" corsets and "Berlette" bras. The implied athleticism of its wrap-on "Dance Girdle" was continued in the annual touring musical revues Berlei staged in theatres and department stores to promote its merchandise; the 1924 revue was titled Youth Triumphant.

In charge of these spectacles was another rad lady: Mary Craven. Her father owned an undergarment factory, which Mary managed before joining Unique Corsets – the company that would become Berlei – in 1915, as a designer.

As part of Berlei's corporate strategy, Mary was regularly sent overseas on study tours to learn the most up-to-date industry trends. She then returned to art-direct and compere the annual revues, which were probably much like today's runway shows in the visually spectacular way they presented clothes, but at the time were absolutely novel.

In 1929, when the revue was titled Lady, Be Beautiful, the Advertiser reported excitedly that: "In Brisbane women held up the traffic in their anxiety to get into the theatre to view this unique corset parade." The Sydney Morning Herald described that show as follows:
The stage setting was attractive and beautiful. The four acts Happiness, Hope, Health, and Triumph symbolised youth, the possibilities of attaining a beautiful figure for the maturer woman; corsetry after surgical treatment; and the importance of correct foundation garments to successful dressing. Each act was supported by a ballet and orchestra. Miss Mary Craven spoke briefly on the features of each model as it was shown.
Interviewed by the Brisbane Courier in 1925, Craven said, "Only the woman who has a perfect digestion, never eats a scrap more food than she actually requires, and takes any amount of exercise can afford to discard corsets, and their absence mars the effect of even the best cut and most garçon-like gown. There was a period, after the war, when there was a craze for no corsets, but the well-dressed woman of to-day realises that they are a necessity."


thewaysheworetime said...

Mosley wasn't yet a Fascist in 1928, he was still in his try-before-you-buy politics phase and still associated with the Fabians.

Mel said...

Dunno whether that's encouraging or crestfalling!

thewaysheworetime said...

A little from column a, a little from column b.
He certainly got around politically before becoming, well, seriously odd. Curiously, the only thing that got around more than his politics was his penis.