Sunday, 2 March 2014

Layers of confusion

Although I’ve taken part in a number of the Historical Sew Fortnightly challenges so far, everything I have made has either been dance-related, or relatively recent i.e. from the 1930s onwards. I don’t have any background in sewing truly historical costumes.

What I do know however is that you can make the most beautiful, period-accurate costume imaginable, but unless it is worn over the correct underwear and support garments, it will just look wrong.

Two years ago I took part in the Bridges on the Body 1911 corset sew-along, so I have the support garment, but no underwear to go with it.

My 1911 corset

The current Historical Sew Fortnightly challenge is “Under It All”, so this seemed like a good opportunity to make a start. From what I had read I thought that the items required, although numerous, were quite straightforward. From the skin outwards: chemise, open-leg drawers, corset, corset cover, petticoat. The open-leg drawers, while sounding distinctly odd by modern standards, would have been a necessity when the waistband of your pants/drawers/undies was held firmly in place by a tightly-laced corset.

The chemise and drawers could be replaced by ‘combinations’, a single garment, and the corset cover and petticoat could be replaced by a princess line slip, but the basic idea remained the same.

Then, when I was flicking through Nancy Bradfield’s Costume in Detail, I came across an illustration of 1908 underwear with the quote, “The waist-petticoat with lace insertion, and the open-leg drawers, now at knee-level, go out of use by 1910”.

? Bother.

1908 drawers and petticoat

A later page, also 1907-08, shows a pair of side-fastening knickers, which are described as “now replacing drawers”. Given that the facing page includes an illustration of the new long-line corset which extends well down the thigh, I was more mystified than ever.

A third reference to 1908 underwear shows a highly trimmed pair of open-leg combinations with the description, “This wide, open-leg style remains in use for about 2 more years”.

1908 combinations

It all seems pretty consistent: open-leg drawers were a thing of the past by 1911.

To check this I turned to one of my purchases from Hay on Wye, a 1951 edition of The History of Underclothes by Drs C Willet and Phillis Cunnington.

Love the lace-design cover!

As well as plenty of illustrations and informative text, the later chapters at least include quotes, (often highly entertaining) from periodicals of the time. For example, among gentlemen in 1900, “the striped, coloured or piqué collar almost invariably bespeaks the bounder”.

Quite. But bounders aside, what did the Cunningtons have to say about drawers/knickers?

Adding further to the confusion, a 1911 illustration shows a chemise with loose, below-the-knee drawers worn underneath, while another 1911 illustration shows an especially long-line corset.

Chemise worn over drawers

Very long-line corset

The text states that in the period 1909-18 although the chemise, “lost favour it by no means disappeared”. Meanwhile a quote from “The Lady” magazine in 1909, “The fashion is to replace chemise and skirt-knickers by skin-fitting combinations and silk pantalettes; but it is more amusing than words can describe to observe how frequently the fashion is ignored”, suggests that not everyone was keen to abandon open-leg drawers.

More confused than ever ('skirt-knickers' was an entirely new term) I decided to look at what was actually available to buy at the time, rather than what later commentators thought that women wore.

The National Suit and Cloak Company and Sears provided clothing by mail order right across America. It seems unlikely that their catalogues would feature much in the way of unusual clothing with limited appeal; they would concentrate on what their customers wanted.

My copy of the 1909 National Suit and Cloak Company catalogue, which is an unabridged reproduction, shows a variety of undergarments for sale. There are six different chemises and three princess slips. Corset covers and waist petticoats are both available in 27 different styles, each available in multiple sizes.

Chemises and princess slips

Just some of the many corset covers

And some of the many petticoats

Of the 18 different styles of drawers available, all but one are described as being available as “open or closed”, so clearly at this time there was a demand for both styles.


There are only three pairs of combinations available, so presumably such garments were not particularly popular. Naturally they are “open only” are described as “Combination Drawers and Corset Cover”, so were obviously intended to be worn over the corset.


The 1909 pages of Everyday Fashions 1909 -1920 As Pictured in Sears Catalogues show only corsets, not underwear. However the two pages of underwear from the 1912 catalogue show princess slips in almost equal numbers to underskirts and corset covers. There is only a single chemise, which seems odd as a washable layer under the corset would still be required, regardless of what was worn over it. Of course, this apparent lack of choice in chemises may be due to which pages were selected for the book from the original 1912 catalogue.

The one ‘Combination Suit’ featured is described as ‘corset cover and drawers” so it must have been worn over the corset.

Princess slips, combinations, and a single chemise

Corset covers and waist petticoats

I seem to have hit upon what was a transitional period in underwear; as fashions moved from open-leg drawers worn under the corset to closed-leg drawers or narrower knickers worn over it. After all this, my best guess is that by 1911 most women wore a chemise, a corset, and then drawers and corset cover or combinations, and finally a petticoat. However if anyone out there has more information to confirm or deny this, I'd love to hear from you!


  1. What a wonderful post! Thank you so much for sharing! Your 1911 corset is beautiful!


  2. Thank you Gina! The corset had its moments, but I was really pleased with the end result. All credit must go to Jo of Bridges on the Body; her 1911 Corset Sew-Along instructions were so good and so well illustrated that you couldn't really go wrong.