The Family Corsetry Business
At University in London in the early 1980s, I would often pop in to see my great-aunts who were corsetieres on the Edgware Road. Their party piece was to eye up a customer as she walked into the shop and know, just by looking at her, the most suitable size and shaped bra for her. Measuring the customer merely confirmed their prediction.
There are many women who remember – sometimes with a shudder, sometimes fondly – being taken by their own mothers to be measured up for undergarments. Those who had lived in the Jewish East End often recall M. Yanovsky on Whitechapel Road.
This corsetry shop was opened by Myer Yanovsky and his wife Sarah in 1890, in the midst of the great Jewish immigration. Born in 1852 in Kovno, Myer gave his occupation in the 1911 census as a ‘truss maker’ but he obviously developed his needle skills – like so many Jewish immigrants – once he was in London. When he died in 1920, the corsetieres at 79 Whitechapel Road was run by one of his daughters Rebecca, whom I knew as ‘Auntie Becky’. Her own daughters Sybil and Gwendoline took over the Whitechapel shop which remained open until the late 1970s. A foot-operated Singer sewing machine, salvaged from the shop, had pride of place in my childhood home in the suburbs.
Sybil and Gwendoline presided over another family shop ‘Jeanne Appleby’ which Becky’s sister Jeannie had opened at 41 Edgware Road in the West End (very posh) when she had married. Here the clientele was not predominantly Jewish. This shop finally closed in the 1980s and the family donated two corsets from around 1900 to the Victoria and Albert Museum (pictured here) where they were featured in an exhibition on the history of underwear called ‘undressed’ in 2015.
In the late 1950s my aunt Leatrice opened ‘The Bra Bar’ in Hornsey Road and, south of the river, another family member Sylvia Moraney had a ladies’ wear shop on the Walworth Road.
The Yanovskys’ shops have all gone now, as has Franks in Golders Green and Leibergs in Temple Fortune, North West London, which younger women will remember, and which reflected the Jewish community’s move to the suburbs. But the Jewish involvement in the corsetry business remains with Rigby and Peller who are still, very much, in business,co-founded in 1939 by Gita Peller, a Hungarian Jewish refugee.
Hidden Treasures: Celebrating the documents, photos and artefacts in British archives that tell the story of Jews in Britain