Market Place, Ashbourne (1900/1910) by Valentine and Sons Ltd, Dundee and LondonDerbyshire Record Office
For 125 years, the picturesque Georgian market town of Ashbourne in Derbyshire was the home of corset makers Richard Cooper & Company.
Photograph portrait of Richard Cooper (1855/1865) by UnknownDerbyshire Record Office
Richard Cooper was originally a farmer. In the 1850s he went into partnership with Charles Smith, a draper's assistant who set up a 'stay works' in Ashbourne. 'Stays' later evolved into corsets.
Aerial photograph of the Richard Cooper corset factory in Ashbourne, Derbyshire (1950/1955) by Aero Pictorial LtdDerbyshire Record Office
The firm began in a cottage but by 1864 it had grown successful enough to establish a factory in the centre of Ashbourne, known as 'Cooper's Mill'. By 1898 the company had 500 employees.
Corset pattern (1889) by Richard Cooper and Company (Ashbourne) LtdDerbyshire Record Office
Sadly, few records of the first 50 years of the business survive. This is the only Victorian corset pattern in the company's archive and dates to 1889.
Cabinet portrait of William Hill Cooper (1885/1895) by UnknownDerbyshire Record Office
After Smith's death in 1877, Richard Cooper took over the business. The company continued to thrive under the management of his son, William Hill Cooper, who took over after Richard Cooper's death in 1885.
Brand labels for corsets (1910) by Richard Cooper and Company (Ashbourne) LtdDerbyshire Record Office
Women bought their corsets from local drapers shops, and in the firm's early days, Richard Cooper & Company appear to have made corsets which could be sold by drapers under various brand names.
Brand labels for corsets (1920/1930) by Richard Cooper and Company (Ashbourne) LtdDerbyshire Record Office
The company also had its own brand name, 'Excelsior'. This would be the brand with which Coopers would become most well known.
Designs for brassieres (1934) by Richard Cooper and Company (Ashbourne) LtdDerbyshire Record Office
Although known as corset makers, Coopers' products changed with fashion. In the early 20th Century brassieres were invented. Coopers began to make brassieres and girdles, also sold under the Excelsior brand name.
Inside pages of leaflet for Excelsior girdles and suspender belts (1950/1959) by Richard Cooper and Company (Ashbourne) LtdDerbyshire Record Office
Foundation garments to support and improve the figure were worn by teenagers and women in the mid-20th Century. The company's marketing emphasized their comfort when moving and exercising.
Excelsior show card (1950/1959) by Richard Cooper and Company (Ashbourne) LtdDerbyshire Record Office
The Excelsior range was marketed as being affordable on all budgets, with the slogan 'A slender figure on a slender purse'.
Delivery van bearing Excelsior corsetry branding (1954) by UnknownDerbyshire Record Office
As the firm grew, it established additional factories in Derby and Uttoxeter. In the 1950s it expanded into Buxton, and had a fleet of 'Excelsior' delivery vans.
Pages from an illustrated brochure for Excelsior Corsetry (1960/1965) by Richard Cooper and Company (Ashbourne) LtdDerbyshire Record Office
Whilst offering a wide variety of corsets, corselettes, wraparounds, girdles and brassieres, in the 1960s the firm still produced traditional 19th Century style corsets.
Pages from a leaflet for Excelsior brand corsetry (1964/1968) by Richard Cooper and Company (Ashbourne) LtdDerbyshire Record Office
1960s and 1970s fashions favoured a more natural figure. Despite Coopers attempts to appeal to a younger audience, corsetry declined in popularity, and by the 1980s the company was struggling.
The company closed in the 1980s. The Ashbourne factory was demolished to make way for a supermarket, bringing to an end 125 years of corset making in the town.
Text and images: Derbyshire Record Office
Excelsior advertisement film clip: Huntley Film Archives