If you’re interested in fashion, take a look at the archive of corset makers Richard Cooper and Company (Ashbourne) Ltd. The catalogue for this lovely little collection has just had a major refresh which has improved the descriptions and arrangement to make it much easier to delve into.
Richard Cooper and Company (Ashbourne) Ltd started in the 1850s as ‘stay makers’ (the term ‘corset’ didn’t come into common use until later in the 19th century). The business proved so profitable that in addition to the company’s main site in Ashbourne there were factories in Uttoxeter and Derby, and from the 1950s, Buxton.
Corsets are often thought of as torture devices which squashed women’s internal organs and caused them to be constantly fainting. No doubt a small minority of women did tight-lace their garments to harmful degrees in pursuit of a tiny waist, but for the majority a well-fitted corset was a comfortable and supportive garment. It was an essential item of clothing worn by women of all classes, from working women to the well-to-do; our female ancestors managed to wear corsets whilst pregnant, doing physical labour and playing sports, without any ill effects.
Sadly, we have very little from the early days of the firm and only one Victorian corset pattern survives. This is somewhat unusual as it was drawn in pencil onto some calico, the fabric was sewn into a kind of book, labelled and posted to the Uttoxeter factory. The postmark helpfully dates it to May 1889.
There are a number of pattern books from the 1920s to the 1960s with drawings and specifications of the various designs of girdles, brassieres, corsets, corselettes, wraparounds and suspender belts, mostly sold under the trade name ‘Excelsior’. The collection also includes some lovely marketing material from the 1940s onwards.
Coopers was a major employer in Ashbourne and for anyone interested in the workers, a few staff records survive, including a register of ‘young persons under the age of 18’ employed at the factory between 1895 and 1900.
Sadly, changes in fashion meant that the market for girdles and corsets dwindled towards the end of the 20th century and the factory closed in the 1980s. The archive, however, means that although Richard Cooper and Company may be gone, it is not forgotten. You can browse the full collection on our online catalogue.