Exhibition Preview: I Love my Liberty Bodice!, Chepstow Museum, until October 6 2013
Can you remember the days when children were bundled up in layer after layer of underclothes, vests and petticoats before being sent to school? If so, Chepstow Museum’s latest exhibition, I Love my Liberty Bodice!, might spark some memories – whether you loved or loathed it!
© Chepstow Museum
The Liberty Bodice was an undergarment for girls and women developed at the end of the 19th century as an alternative to the corset. It was a fleecy knitted vest with rubber buttons, re-enforced cotton tapes and buttons to attach to drawers and stockings.
To some, the name “Liberty Bodice” was ironic. The rubber buttons could become increasingly difficult to do up as they hardened over time, the bands could feel restrictive and attaching the bodice to stockings could leave the wearer feeling as though they had been mummified.
But the Liberty Bodice actually represents a huge change in the way that adults regarded children. Rather than being dressed in the restrictive corsets and crinolines that bound adult women, from about 1880 girls began to have their own kind of clothing.
© Courtesy Chepstow Museum
Until that point, middle and upper class children still wore corded bands from infancy that supposedly helped train their still-growing bodies, and from the age of ten girls began to wear shaped bodices that restricted their movements. As the importance of playing and being active became a more mainstream idea, it became clear that the restrictive clothing children wore prevented them from playing freely.
This dilemma appeared to be solved by Fred Cox, Marketing Director at Symington’s of Market Harborough in 1908. Although the name ‘Liberty Bodice’ appears to have been used before for similar products (particularly for maids, in order to give them greater freedom to complete their work), Symington developed and marketed the undergarment at children.
The Liberty Bodice proved to be a success, and by the 1930s, Symington’s had built an extension at their factory for its production and created some sophisticated marketing campaigns.
At first, Fred Cox’s daughter, Freda, starred as the ‘Liberty Bodice Girl’ and was followed by ‘Libertyland’, a magical world where sweets grew on trees and children played alongside fairy tale characters and woodland animals.
Another campaign in the 1920s and 1930s featured ‘Soccer Sid the Liberty Kid’ and ‘Dashing Dora the Liberty Scorer’, two plaster figures used to promote the bodice in the UK. Visitors to Chepstow Museum can view two surviving figurines, along with original Liberty Bodices, advertising artwork, photographs and packaging.
The Liberty Bodice continued to be manufactured well into the 1960s, branching out to include versions for teenagers and older women. Whether they loved or loathed it, I Love My Liberty Bodice! will stir nostalgic recollections in the minds of many visitors.