Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Dressing the Part, Post Two: Undergarments

Ladies undergarments of the mid-19th century might seem overwhelming at first. I know I was overwhelmed - it seemed like so much more than I was used to! But every garment has a purpose and function and without one there is a deficiency in the overall look and behavior of the final outfit. Each piece is necessary to the final look. As Mrs. Clark has said, proper undergarments are the foundation of our mid-19th century wardrobe. They really do give you the proper appearance if made and fitted as they should be.

These are the undergarments I wear for reenactments and living histories. There aren’t *all* the possible undergarments but these are the ones that work best for me and give me the look I want.

Step 1: Chemise and Stockings.
The chemise is the first garment I put on when I am dressing for an 1860’s scenario. The chemise is made of white cotton and is very loosely fitted. Mrs. Clark has a pattern for a free chemise on her website. Mine is a pattern I came up with myself - basically a fitted short yolk with a very wide, shallow neckline and a full gathered body portion. The sleeves are set in with gussets for ease of movement. All seams are felled for a clean finish and for durability. The chemise absorbs your body sweats/oils to keep your dress clean and should be changed daily. I’m also wearing my beautiful mustard-and-black striped stockings. These were made from the Kanniks Korner pattern and were cut from an old cotton knit dress that became too hideous to wear in public. They are saggy in this picture because I’m not wearing my garters and so they kept creeping down. They should be a little higher in the leg but I had to work with the dress I was using and it wasn’t long enough to make the stockings any longer. Chemise and stockings. Really I could almost get by with wearing this in public today as a modern “artistic” outfit, don’t you think? :)

Step 2: Drawers and Corset.
My drawers go on next. They are made from Mrs. Clarks free pattern and feature tucks and cotton lace at the hem. They are a tad long, I think. I must have miscalculated my tucks but I didn’t feel like shortening them once I had the tucks in and the waistband on. They are roomy and have a split seam - the crutch seam is left open, instead of being sewn shut - and are gathered to a fitted waistband. It seems to be a matter of personal preference if you wear your drawers beneath your chemise or if you tuck your chemise into your drawers and wear them on the outside, or even if you wear drawers at all! I prefer to wear mine beneath my chemise as it seems more sanitary, but that’s just me.
The corset goes on next. Mine is newly finished (yay!) and was made from the Laughing Moon Dore Corset pattern. This is a shaped seam corset and is very easy to sew because it does not have gussets. The corset is made from a sturdy herringbone weave white cotton twill with an embroidered pink linen decorative layer on the outside. Bias bone casings are sewn to the inside and the bones were simply slipped in. Since I use this corset to nurse Malachi I used hooks to close the front instead of using a busk. This is more flexible and it is easier to nurse in. The back laces up with handmade eyelets - I cannot get metal eyelets to go in the right way so I just handsew my eyelets. Right now I’m using shoelaces to lace it up but cotton corset laces, available online from corset companies, would be better. The corset supports the bust and provides a consistent shape for the fitted dresses that are worn over them. I do not tight lace and wearing a corset is not uncomfortable as long as it is made to fit you.

After this layer some women wear what they call a “modesty petticoat” which is a shorter, narrower cotton petticoat. It is meant to keep your personal areas from any accidental view if the wind blows your hoopskirt up or if you bend over and it exposes what is underneath. I do not wear a modesty petticoat because my chemise basically serves the same function and I don’t think it is necessary. I’ve been reenacting for over ten years and have never had an accident yet.

Step 3: Cage or Skirt Support
Over the corset you put on your skirt support whether that be a hoopskirt, a cage, or plain or stiffened petticoats. I wear a 7-rung cage from a kit available from Originals-by-Kay. This has a slight back thrust and a modest circumference. It is a good size and style for the 1860’s scenarios and reenactments I attend. I heartily recommend this cage! The only trouble I had with it was the rivets popping out or coming loose but I have replaced most of the tape and rivets that originally came with the kit with plain white cotton strips with little pockets sewn in. It works very well now.

Step 4: Petticoats
Over the cage/hoop/skirt support you wear petticoats to give further volume and softness to your skirts. In this picture I’m just wearing one petticoat but ideally I should have at least two. You can get by with just one but I really prefer the look of having at least two. These petticoats can be plain or fancied up with lace or white work or tucks.

These are all the undergarments I wear. Some ladies wear corset covers but I have not found a need to have one. As long as the lining of your dress is sufficient to keep your corset lines from showing through then I don’t really think a corset cover is necessary.

Seasonal undergarments can include flannel and quilted petticoats for warmth and flannel drawers.

Now, if David will be so willing and kind to take pictures when he gets home from work I will do a final post on the dress. I never got any decent pictures of my most recent cotton gown (The dark blue print) so if David is willing then I will try to get those up tonight!



  1. Very nice post! I love the corset. You definately fit the part. You look as though you stepped out of a daguerreotype.

  2. Dear Sarah-

    Thank you for all of your sweet words in your recent comments on my blog. I was unsure at first whether or not to share what had happened, but I am glad now that I did. The support of people who have experienced this kind of loss themselves is very comforting.

    I'm enjoying seeing how you get your CW look. I don't know much at all about that period. I'm impressed with your wardrobe.

    I didn't get to comment on some of your posts about your new home, but I waned to say I'm so happy for you all. Your house looks so lovely. I love the colours you chose to paint. Sage green, cream, and almond are some of my favourites for paint. Your red dining room turned out looking very nice with the table and chairs you put in it.


  3. haven't read your blog for awhile and I'm loving getting all caught up! Your new house looks wonderful! And I love the new CW posts, undergarments have always been my favorite part of historical dress. :) I was wondering, do you tie up your stockings with ribbons or have elastic garters?
    Can't wait to see the new dress! :)

  4. What fun! Everything looks so lovely! I've always, always wanted to try this era of clothing. I am wondering if you ever wear these clothing items for everyday, and how they "work" with the day to day mothering of young children? Is nursing difficult? I imagine hoops skirts would be a bit tricky in a car, yes? Sorry for all of the questions! I'd just hate to go to all the work of making a chemise-out "outfit" or two, and then never have anywhere to wear them!!

  5. Ooh, everything looks so period and perfect!! Love the pink corset!

  6. Thanks! :)I love historical undies too (Lauren, I Covet your 1790's things!)

    For garters I actually use cotton knit rounds - they are actually hair scrunchy type things but are just a short tube of cotton jersey. They work the absolute best of anything I've tried. Ribbons or cotton or linen tapes just come loose and fall down over the course of the day - so annoying! I have a pair of knit garters on my to-do list though and they are from a period source so will be more accurate.

    I do sometimes wear my dresses in modern life, Tilly, but not all the undergarments with them. When I was pregnant with Malachi last year I often wore one of my dresses since it fit well and had a high enough waist to go over my baby bump. I just wore it with a modern bra and a petticoat. The dresses really arent' restricting when chasing children and cooking and cleaning but a corset sometimes is. . .so I usually don't wear it if I'm dressing 1860's just for modern fun.

    I hear little boys getting into canning jars! Oh dear!

  7. Designer Undergarments Enhance Your Figure

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  8. Hello,

    You may wish to see my blog entries on the stage of dress for this period. I have quoted some period sources and period images.








  9. I am very happy your wear an overpetticoat! It is something that is sadly overlooked and it makes a world of difference in the look of the dress over the cage hoop.

    This was a very informative post. It's inspiring me to make my own historical costume blog! :-)

  10. This is wonderful! Unfortunately when I clicked the links for the free sewing patterns it wouldn't work so could you please send me them?

  11. What about an is important when wearing a hoop and the proper split cut drawers. You do not want to show anything off!


Thank you for your lovely thoughts!