Corsets collection in Lichfield auction covers 150 years of lingerie and foundation wear

THE pivotal role played by a Midlands manufacturer in the development of corsetry is explored in a unique archive coming up for auction.

Dating back to the 19th century, the collection covers 150 years of ladies’ foundation wear from Victorian times to 21st century boudoir lingerie.

An important record of changing fashions, body shapes and the evolution of foundation wear, the archive is also a celebration of Richard Cooper & Co of Ashbourne and Uttoxeter, founded in 1855, and Chil-Tex Ltd.

Founded in Ashbourne in 1971 by former Coopers executive Jim French, Chil-Tex grew to eventually incorporate Coopers, the company which drew the late Mr French from London to Derbyshire in the first place.

The collection – believed to be the only one of its kind in the country – was the focus of an exhibition last summer at Ashbourne Town Hall.

It goes under the hammer at The Lichfield Auction Centre, Wood End Lane, Fradley Park, as Lot 578 on Day One of Richard Winterton Auctioneers’ Antiques & Home Sale on Monday, June 26, starting 9.30am.

The archive covers more than a century of corsets including these examples from the early 1900s. Right: A Court Royal bridal corset by Chil-Tex.
The archive covers more than a century of corsets including these examples from the early 1900s. Right: A Court Royal bridal corset by Chil-Tex.

There are more than a dozen boxes of garments ranging from utilitarian corsets in khaki and grey dating back to 1855 through softening styles and fashion trends to modern bridal wear, including pieces for Chil-Tex brand Court Royal.

There are also rare examples of military underwear made for the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) in the Second World War bearing the broad arrow mark plus civilian underwear with the WW2 Utility label and a 1942 Revised Price List for Utility Corsetry.

There are also corsets for children plus a rare 1950s shop counter display sculpture advertising Excelsior, historical documents, early 20th century advertisements, half-tone sketches, vintage catalogues and other ephemera.

Catalogued as a single lot, the archive is estimated to fetch £400 to £600.

Much of it was rescued from an uncertain fate by Jim French when the company closed in 2004 and was held in storage for 18 years.

Mr French passed away in December 2020, 10 days shy of his 83rd birthday.

His legacy as well as Derbyshire’s proud history in textiles and clothing production was celebrated with the exhibition ‘The Stay Works: The Story Of Coopers and Chil-Tex Limited, 1855-2004’ at Ashbourne Town Hall between September and December last year.

Rare examples of military underwear made for the ATS in WW2 bearing the broad arrow mark and Utility civilian underwear, with a 1942 price list.
Rare examples of military underwear made for the ATS in WW2 bearing the broad arrow mark and Utility civilian underwear, with a 1942 price list.

Now Jim’s wife Sue, who still lives in Ashbourne, has decided it is time to pass on the collection to the next custodian.

“Jim’s wisdom saved the Cooper collection from being destroyed,” said Sue.

“It is a remarkable archive which really demonstrates the evolution of foundation wear.

“Back in Victorian times, if a woman didn’t wear a corset she was considered a loose woman. People also believed that corsets protected them from chest infections and pneumonia.

“Designs changed hugely over the decades, with products evolving into stunning outerwear or seductive underwear – and yet at the same time, we were still making some of the same corsets in 2004 as were designed in the 1960s.”

Paying tribute to her late husband, Sue described him as ‘the biggest influence on my life’.

“Jim was an absolutely amazing tower of strength,” she said.

Jim and Sue French.
Jim and Sue French.

“When he was 13 or 14, he caught TB and had to go into a sanatorium. He left school with no qualifications but re-educated himself through evening classes.

“If he thought he could do it, he would do it. He would say, ‘if you do not make things happen, they won’t happen – things don’t happen by themselves’.

“He lived his life by the Boys Brigade motto, sure and steadfast.

“The number of people who stop me in the street even now and say he was a lovely gentleman.”

From a beginner machinist at the age of 16, Sue French spent her whole working life of 52 years in the making of corsets, starting out at Richard Coopers in Uttoxeter and ending as a director in the combined company of Chil-Tex incorporating Coopers of Ashbourne.

Jim French moved up to Ashbourne from London with his first wife Rosemary in 1966 and started working for Richard Cooper as group purchasing controller.

He left in 1971 to set up Chil-Tex Ltd from scratch to satisfy a growing demand for girdles and control corsetry.

Half-tone adverts for early 20th century corsetry.
Half-tone adverts for early 20th century corsetry.

A 1995 commission from Vivienne Westwood saw the company manufacture items including gold thongs, suspender belts, briefs and corsets.

It was also making underwear for Agent Provocateur, Vivienne Westwood, Ann Summers, Victoria’s Secret, Oasis and New Look.

The firm eventually bought out Coopers in 1999, becoming Chil-Tex Ltd incorporating Coopers of Ashbourne, and production moved to a single factory at Moor Farm Road West in Ashbourne.

As the company grew, so love also blossomed between Jim and Sue, now a Chil-Tex director.

“I was with Jim for 30 years and they were the happiest years of my life – he made me very happy and looked after me,” she said.

“We shared the same office, ate together, shared a home, played racquetball together – we never got tired of one another’s company.

“We were one big team and I still feel that we are.”

‘We were one big team and I still feel that we are.’ Jim and Sue French.
Jim and Sue French: “We were one big team and I still feel that we are.”

After the merger, the couple quietly got married and had a weekend away at Hoar Cross Hall.

“We didn’t tell any of the staff yet when we got back on the Tuesday they had done us a wedding reception with flowers and cake,” said Sue.

“What a lovely, lovely thought – it was a lovely surprise and completely unexpected. At the time I struggled to keep the tears away and I still have the flowers from that wedding cake today.

“This very much reflected the atmosphere on the factory floor.”

She added: “It never ceases to amaze me that I worked my way through form being a basic machinist to a director.

“I’ve gained a huge amount of experience, skills and knowledge along the way and proved to myself the adage ‘never give up’.”

Illustrations showing how corsetry designs evolved.
Illustrations showing how corsetry designs evolved.

Jim and Sue made the difficult decision to wind the business down and Chil-Tex closed in 2004.

Following retirement, the father-of-four went on to become a business studies lecturer at Birmingham University.

He was also able to devote more time to his hobbies including fishing and bowls and travel on cruises with Sue.

From the 18th century, Derbyshire was a major county for the production of textiles and clothing.

Starting in 1855, Richard Cooper and Company were important employers and manufacturers in Ashbourne making corsets and women’s foundation wear for nearly 150 years.

The Stay Works building – now the site of a Sainsbury’s supermarket – became a landmark in the town before it was demolished in the late 1990s and production shifted to premises on the Ashbourne Industrial Estate.

A 34.5cm tall shop counter advertising display sculpture for Excelsior, circa 1950. On Sue French’s first day at Ashbourne, the first thing she noticed was this model on the counter in reception.
A 34.5cm tall shop counter advertising display sculpture for Excelsior, circa 1950. On Sue French’s first day at Ashbourne, the first thing she noticed was this model on the counter in reception.

But at its height in 1900 the Ashbourne factory employed around 500 mainly women workers, as well as a large number of outworkers, and was by far the largest employer in the town.

At its peak, Chil-Tex attained a turnover of £2.5 million and employed almost 100 people.

The catalogue for the June 26 auction is online now via our Auction Dates page and viewing in person takes place on Friday, June 23, from 10am-4pm.

Richard Winterton Auctioneers offers free valuations of all types of antiques and collectables at the Fradley Park saleroom.

There are also other pop-up valuation sessions across the area including at Burntwood Library from 2-4.30pm on the last Tuesday in the month and at Burton Market Hall on Wednesdays from 10am-1pm (jewellery on Mondays 10am-1pm; next on July 3).

To book valuations or to discuss house clearances and large collections, telephone 01543 251081 or email office@richardwinterton.co.uk.

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