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THE 19TH CENTURY VICTORIAN UNDERWEAR REFRESH: THE CHEMISES

I have an admission to make: this spring I spent several weeks slaving over a mass production of -just- underwear.

Those couple of months were nothing but a blur of cottons, laces, and pleats as I plowed through some seriously monotonous tasking while I rebooted a whole bunch of our team wardrobe pieces with some new underlayers. Some of them were badly needed, some of them are for new projects, but all of them were underwear. That’s right, I spent nearly 3 months working on the stuff you will never see that goes UNDER the gowns.

Because that’s the important stuff.

I am tired of this and itching to get back to making big froofy gowns for photoshoots, but this extra effort was long overdue and necessary. Support and structure beneath your fashionable layers are what sets your outfit apart in degrees of awesomeness. I try not to skimp on the hidden layers beneath a gown because without that unseen stuff a dress will look like a flop. Once upon a time I wasn’t so finicky about it, but I’ve learned from my past mistakes.
Sometimes, I feel like I spend more time working on the underwear of an ensemble than I might spend on the finished product, and personally I feel like it is worth the effort.

And that’s why I’ve been working so much these last couple seasons on upgrading the underlayers for my team. As we progress with our projects and events, I try to keep working to improve our wardrobe collection as we go. So far in 2017 I’ve completed a whopping FOURTEEN Cotton Chemises, SIX Petticoats, and TWO new Bustles as a start to our underwear overhaul.

And as part of my crusade to make sure everyone wears fancy underwear with their costumes, I’ll start by talking about the chemises.

 

It was winter outside, but it’s hard to take a picture of so many chemises at once indoors.

THE CHEMISES

These have been on my to-do list for ages but have been put off for far too long. One thing I’ve learned from experience and that I tend to frequently harp upon is DON’T WEAR YOUR CORSET AGAINST YOUR SKIN. I know it’s a common thing to just wear a corset as a top nowadays but it’s certainly not something I condone with my team. Wear something between your skin and your corset.

Firstly, you’ll be more comfortable. Coutil can rub and irritate the skin for some of us, causing chaffing or rashes or just general discomfort. Putting a barrier between you and the coutil/canvas can help prevent that. Try to go for natural fibers like cotton or linen because those will breathe, whick away sweat, and generally feel more comfortable. I don’t recommend silk because I find it has insulating properties that I don’t want beneath my corset and they aren’t as washable. Polyesters tend to get sticky or uncomfortable because they don’t breathe as well.  This is the exact reason why I went with cotton and high percentage cotton blends to make all of these. I want the girls on my team to look pretty, but I also want them to be comfortable and happy at the same time.

Previously, and you can see this in lots of our dressing pictures, we used camisoles and fitted tank tops as our skin layers, and that worked okay for us, but it was time to treat the girls to something special.

 

Don’t have a chemise handy? A modern camisole isn’t a perfect substitution, but it will work in a pinch!

And that’s the next reason for the chemises, the feeling of putting on all the layers has an almost emotional quality to it. While these chemises offer very little to the shaping of the final gown product, they do often offer the wearers a feeling of transformation as they experience the transition from modern clothing to a layered historical outfit. It’s something that really sets apart the act of wearing historical clothing and being transported to the 19th Century vs simply wearing a Halloween costume. In a way, we go through the extra effort of these additional layers to further the experience of living a bit of history. For us, it’s not just about looking fancy for tea, we want to feel fancy and elegant too – and the chemise is the first step in a ritual of dress that transforms you into the historical impression that you’re trying to convey.

 

Part of the magic of Neo-Victorianism is playing dress up. It helps when you’re dressing up in a swanky hotel.

And thirdly, the chemises help keep the corsets and other layers clean. The chemise through its many forms in history has served a VERY important purpose in clothing through the ages: CLEANLINESS. The chemises is not just a fancy nightgown, it’s your first line of defence against getting your clothes icky. For a lot of historical clothing, especially the more costly and fancy pieces, laundering was hard, or even impossible. Even today a lot of our gowns are unwashable or strictly dry clean only. Throwing expensive silk with beading into the washing machine would make me a very unhappy camper. Many fancy top layers in historical costume were simply not meant to be washed the way we wash our clothes now, but that doesn’t mean that people went around looking/smelling filthy all the time either.

Pretty and Functional

 

Chemises acted as a barrier between your body and your more precious layers of clothing. Even if you bathe every day and think that you’re a clean person, your body is still shedding skin, sweat, and oils that can imbed in your clothes and begin to stink/stain/soil them. Since you often can’t throw your corset or over layers into the washing machine you should strive to protect them from needless cleaning.

 

It’s a very simple piece to add to your 19th Century Wardrobe and it has an instant impact on your comfort and form

 

These cotton chemises that I made are perfect for that. Being made out of cotton, I can throw these guys into the wash after every wearing as needed in order to get rid of that body crud without worrying so much about the outer layers.

And that’s also why I made FOURTEEN of them at once. I don’t have fourteen different people wearing these, I made multiples for each of the girls on our team so they have at least one to wear and one to swap out. We plan on starting traveling more for costumed adventures to historical locations and in the absence of laundry facilities I wanted to make sure that the girls wouldn’t feel stuck wearing sweaty or icky underlayers after a day in the hot summer sun. They also work wonderfully as nightgowns as well.

HOW TO MAKE YOUR OWN

I have to be honest, the only reason this project took me so long to finish is because I decided to make fourteen of them at once. .  I don’t recommend that approach, it got boring and tedious very quickly, but now that they’re done I’m hoping I won’t have to make any more for a good long time. Aside from that, these are AMAZINGLY SIMPLE TO MAKE. If you’re looking for a starter project to dip your toe into 19th Century costuming, this would be a good one. I could have made them fancier and spent more time on adding instertion lace and using more delicate fabrics, but honestly these ones are purposefully utilitarian, because I imagine this summer they’re going to get a lot of wear and washing, so we wanted something pretty and comfortable – but still tough enough for our travels.

 

 

First up: I used Truly Victorian’s Chemise pattern: TV102 – Chemise and Drawers. The pattern itself comes with a chemise taken from an authentic pattern from 1885 and it’s wonderfully simplistic in its design and puts together so easily. The ribbon drawstring collars make it wonderfully adjustable at the necklines, the optional button closures at the shoulders make it great for wearing with off the shoulder gowns, and it’s really, REALLY cute when completed.

It requires cotton or linen, lace for trimming and insertion lace to make the drawstring neckline. You could finish one of these in a day easily.

 I haven’t made the drawers pattern up yet, but I’ve heard lots of good things about it too.

I hope you found this helpful in improving your historical costume plans. I’ll be following up with two more articles on the petticoats and bustles in the near future.

Thanks for reading!