Berlei historic corset

Contributed by: Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences

Corset detail Corset front view Corset back view Berlei Type Indicator, 1930s, front view (P3645-28/4) Berlei Type Indicator, 1930s, back view (P3645-28/4) Corset (1) lace wear, eyelet wear and protrusion of boning Corset (1) loss of decorative feather stitch, wear around busk posts Corset (1) internal discolouration, missing eyelets, wear on busk Berlei Review Jan-Dec 1929 (P3645-10/7) Booklet celebrates Berlei's 50 years (P3645-30/1/110) Berlei advertising 1912-1970 (P3645) archive Berlei Advertisement c. 1930s (P3645-41/2)
  • Australian dress register ID:

  • Owner:

    Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences
  • Owner registration number:

  • Date range:

    1885 - 1890
  • Place of origin:

    Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
  • Gender:

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Object information

Significance statement

This corset is part of the much larger Berlei Collection, which contains underwear and corsetry from 1869 to 1980s. Most of the underwear in the collection was designed and made by Berlei in either Australia or England. This corset predates the company and is thought to have been part of Berlei's own collection of historical undergarments.

The Berlei Collection reflects the changing nature of women's fashion in Australia, and represents the history of a highly successful Australian company and all its achievements; from surviving two World Wars and the Great Depression, to successful expansion overseas.

The company also contributed to the development of standardised clothing sizes with the comprehensive National Census of Women's Measurements, and the promotion of Australian industry during the Depression through their involvement with the Great White Train.

Clever promotion maximised Berlei's sales. Popular afternoon events for women presented the latest styles on models against the most glamorous sets. Berlei also used pseudo 'medical' expertise to convince women that their backaches and sways could be resolved by wearing special, individually tailored, braced corsets. We now know physio and exercise is much more beneficial to correct a woman's posture.

Berlei also manufactured a number of different goods for the Australian Armed Forces during WWII.

Berlei's success can also be attributed to their liberal approach to hiring and promoting women, as well as adapting their products to meet the needs of women in their ever-changing roles during the twentieth century.

Author: Melissa Tito, Lindie Ward, 08/06/2012.


Corset (1885 - 1890)

Overbust corset is tan coloured cotton drill. Center front closure is a metal spoon-busk with five loop and posture closures, and center-back laces with 30 metal eyelets, some of which are missing.

The top of the corset is decorated with machine-made lace, threaded with brown ribbon.

The corset is stiffened with 32 metal bones, with diagonal cording, from bust to hip, between the boning channels on the two front panels either side of the center front busk closure.

The boning channels are decorated with brown and cream feather stitch.

Link to further information about this object

History and Provenance

Do you have any stories or community information associated with this?

In 1910 Frederick Richard Burley purchased E. Glover & Co., a small underwear firm in Market Street, Sydney. With his brother, Arthur, he set up Unique Corset Ltd. in 1912, operating out of premises in Wilmot Street, Sydney, with a staff of 12 people. Despite wartime, staff numbers grew to 60 and they moved to bigger premises in the Commerce Building, Liverpool Street.

On 9 October 1919 Unique Corsets Ltd., became Berlei Ltd a frenchified version of their surname. In 1922 the company moved to 'Berlei House', a new seven-storey office and factory, at 39-47 Regent Street (now part of Curtin University). The 500 staff produced 2500 garments a day. Dr. Grace Boelke was appointed Medical Superintendent ensuring that Berlei garments were 'anatomically correct' and monitoring the workplace.

By 1923 Berlei acquired one of its main competitors, Australian Corsets Ltd., established Berlei New Zealand Ltd. and started specialised training courses for retail corsetieres.

In 1926 Fred Burley initiated a £10,000 national survey of women's statistics collaborating with Professor Henry Chapman and Dr. S. A. Smith from the University of Sydney's Faculty of Medicine. 23 measurements from 6000 women were tabulated and analysed, resulting in the 'five figure type classification scheme': Type H. (Hip); Type S.B. (Sway Back); Type Ab. (Abdomen); Type A. (Average); Type S.B.W (Short Below Waist): and an accompanying 'Figure Type Indicator' device for retailers. Simple measurements of bust, waist and hips would determine which garments were the most appropriate for a woman's shape. This 1926 anthropometric survey ensured Berlei's success in achieving the perfect fit.

Berlei UK Ltd. was founded in 1930, with the head office in Regent Street, London, facilitating exports to Europe, South Africa, the Middle East, the East Indies & South America.

In 1939 war rationing slashed Berlei's fabric allocation but an outcry by women arguing they needed supportive underwear to work heavy machinery, affected a raise in allocation to 60%. Berlei won contracts to supply the Australian and American forces with undergarments, khaki shorts, anti-flash masks, tape for gas masks, and pillow slips.

Fred and Arthur returned to Australia in 1947, retiring in 1949 and 1948 respectively. They maintained positions on the Board of Directors until their deaths in 1954 & 1957.

Dunlop Olympic Ltd., acquired Berlei in 1969 and was renamed Pacific Dunlop Ltd. in 1986. Berlei is now part of Pacific Brands.

How does this garment relate to the wider historical context?

Berlei used women intelligently, and in key roles; even in the 1920s and 1930s, a time when women were generally excluded from senior positions, Berlei had many women designers and women on its management team.

Some designers of note were Lady Desolie Hurley (nee Richardson) who developed the Sarong Girdle and handled many licensing agreements, and Mary Craven, who was famous for the extravagant fashion shows she directed and compered all around Australia.

Also of note is Clare Stevenson, who was a senior executive of Berlei when WWII broke out, and became the first Director of the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (W.A.A.A.F.) in 1940. Her success in building up the W.A.A.A.F. has been attributed to her background in retail management and training at Berlei.

In 1923, Fred Burley founded the 'Australian Made Preference League' with the aim of encouraging Australians to support Australian industry. The League went on to organise the Great White Train travelling campaign. The train hosted numerous Australian companies (including Berlei), in fifteen carriages, that travelled across New South Wales twice; once in 1925 and again in 1926.

The Berlei Collection (epitomised in these 3 garments) is indicative of the changing nature of women's foundation garments, which in themselves reflect changes in fashion and wider social attitudes towards female roles and appearance. The clever use of 'medical' advice on women's posture gave credibility and prestige to the range of remedial garments with braces such as corset (2) when in later years exercise was to become the key to women's health and posture.

Where did this information come from?

Interviews were conducted by Lindie Ward with Michael Hurley and Desolie Richardson at the Powerhouse Museum in 1990.

This garment has been exhibited

Australian Museum 'Body Art' 2000.

Powerhouse Museum 'Inspired: design across time' 2008 - 2010.

  1. Place of origin:

    Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

  2. Owned by:

    Berlei Ltd. and gifted to the Powerhouse Museum in 1982.

  3. Made by:

    Corset predates establishment of Berlei Ltd., and was probably acquired by the company to be used as an example of the cut and construction of earlier corsets and possibly for display in their showroom.

Trimmings / Decoration


Corset has brown ribbon threaded through the lace.


Corset has machine made lace around the top.


Corset has decorative feather stitch on the boning channels.

Fibre / Weave

Tan coloured cotton drill.

  1. Natural dye
  2. Synthetic dye


Machine stitched, with machine made lace and hand feather stitch.


No labels



  1. Hand sewn
  2. Machine sewn
  3. Knitted
  4. Other


  1. Bias
  2. Straight


centre-front closure is a five loop-and-post spoon busk, with centre-back lacing

  1. Hook and eye
  2. Lacing
  3. Buttons
  4. Zip
  5. Drawstring

Stiffening / Lining / Padding

Lining is a cream coloured cotton, possibly also drill.

The boning is metal, with a thin coating of white plastic.


Chest 860 mm
Waist 660 mm
Hem circumference 965 mm
Front waist to hem 182 mm
Back neck to hem 340 mm
Back waist to hem 145 mm
Underarm to underarm 345 mm
Convert to inches

Chest measurement is taken from the top hem.

Hem circumference is taken from the bottom hem.

Dress Themes

Part of Berlei's collection of historical undergarments, probably acquired in the 1920s.

Additional material

Articles, publications, diagrams and receipts descriptions

'Berlei Advertisements' 1920s - 1960s AustralianScreen

'Berlei extravaganza' 7/11/1930 The Register News-Pictorial

'Corset revue on living models' 6/11/1930 The Advertiser, South Australia

Other related objects

This corset can be viewed at:

Other Berlei objects:

Berlei Type Indicator chart

Navy issue khaki shorts, made by Berlei, for the Australian Navy.

Also view the large collection of Berlei garments and archive in the Powerhouse collection.

Link to collection online


Outer material and lining are worn and frayed around the posts and loops of the spoon busk.

Some of the decorative feather stitch used on the boning channels is missing.

The decorative lace is frayed and knotted from wear, particularly along the top.

A number of metal eyelets from the center-back lacing are missing, and the holes have subsequently become frayed. The lacing currently used is not original to the garment, but a modern replacement.

The ribbon threaded through the lace at the top of the corset has become detached from its anchoring at the back. The ribbon is also discoloured, particularly at the sides, which correspond with the area that would have been under the wearer's arms.

The lining is discoloured, particularly along the boning.

Some of the boning (particularly at the back, on the outside of the lacing eyelets) have burst through the boning channel at the top of the garment.


  1. Excellent
  2. Good
  3. Fair
  4. Poor


  1. Discolouration
  2. Worn
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