Looking the Part 1: Undergarments

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 OK, so I have been in the business for a while.  I have been re-enacting even longer –  my first gig was in 1997 if I remember well, and I got into costume making almost straight away. True, I was lucky – my first contact with historical interpretation was  guys from Past Pleasures, and after spending a summer travelling with them, observing knights at work at the Tower of London, or strolling alongside 18th century clad characters during the Pantiles festival at Tunbridge Wells, you do learn a bit.  When the summer ended and I returned  to Poland where I lived at the time, I joined a historical fencing group. When told that for Christmas party I need to have a medieval gown, I had at least some vague idea where to look for sources ( well before the internet era!) and  came up with a dress. It was awful – cotton velvet, lacing at the back, no overgown –  but it was a sensation, mostly because I wore proper headwear- veil, fillet, barbette and wimple.  Every girl wanted it –  and so my adventure with costuming started.   Over the years I studied, researched, learnt ( mostly on mistakes, mostly my own) and learnt more and more, gradually expanding  my range. Now,years later, I have been running my professional costuming and interpretation business for a few good years, turning a hobby and passion into a profession.

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some of my very first outfits… yeah, I know, pretty amusing ( rather horrifyingly so), but we all started somewhere…

 One thing I have learnt over the last 15 years or so is the fact that no matter how perfect the frock, kirtle, habit etc is,  the whole image can be badly marred by  just a few, seemingly secondary factors- namely hairstyle and make up; lack or inappropriate foundation garments;  badly chosen shoes and accessories.  In this post I will discuss the undergarments issues, subsequent posts will deal with the other two.

 Obviously  one has to consider the issue of purpose as well – some people  are professional re-enactors, working for museums, stately homes, castles etc.  For some it is a hobby they indulge in at the weekends; some of you simply like a good dress up party a couple of times a year.  some of you are able to afford original items or best fabrics, some of you are on a very narrow budget – but if in your historical costuming you aim to produce a period correct silhouette, this article is for you.

  There is nothing sadder than  seeing a lovingly stitched dress  hanging shapelessly on the body, worn without  period correct support garments – Victorian bodices worn just on a bra look crumpled and shapeless; bustle skirts without the pad or cage display  all that lovely fabric hanging floppily in disarray,french gowns without panniers, dragging the too long sides on the ground… At the same time it is just as inappropriate to see medieval frocks with bra straps showing or, even worse, worn on corsets; or Tudor gowns  displaying way too much cleavage…  again, if you are not concerned with authentic look, that is all fine – Fantasy, Steampunk or Pirate conventions etc are great places to mix modern and traditional styles and nobody will bat an eyelid. However,  if you do strive to ‘look the part’,  correct undergarment is essential.

  Here’s a quick guide of dos and don’ts  through the time – not an full list, but just a basic point of reference, somewhere to start with.

   All periods: wear a chemise! or a smock, a shift – correct for your period.   They were the garments that would be washed, they protect your  clothes from  sweat etc. Yes,  it may not be visible much – or at all, but it will make a dramatic difference in how you wear your kit.  If it doesn’t show, and you are not a purist, wear cotton instead of linen,  of mixed fibers if you are allergic, just make sure the fabric breathes well – polyester silk chemise will make your kit into a mobile sauna, natural fabric will make wearing a wool kirtle  much cooler in the heat of summer. If any part of the garment is on show –  make sure it at least looks correct.

Pants, knickers etc – up to you,  ladies, most of the events we do not display such items publicly so  up to individual preferences. Do bear in mind however that some period underwear was rather specific  and fit for a purpose – split drawers are not split for nothing – something you will soon discover if you wear modern underwear under a french or cage crinoline….:-)

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Blast…. maybe wearing pants and tights wasn’t such a good idea after all… oh dear….

 Medieval.

1. wear your smock

2. Unless you are Agnes Sorel, posing as a Madonna, do not flash your boobs…. If there is even a glimpse of cleavage, it is a glimpse – but most often even that is covered.  Late medieval ladies sport high breasts – but without any ‘spillage’ visible – high, yes, but also contained…

3. Unless your assets are the perfect perky apple shape, you will need some help to achieve the look.   Well cut and fitted kirtle will go a long way, even on more generously endowed ladies. If more support is necessary, you can bind your breast with straps of linen – it does offer a bit of support and for some looks ( Italian 15 the cent)  it  does provide the perfect means to achieve the silhouette. If you have to, wear a bra, but make sure the straps are not showing, and the contours are not visible – seamless bras, just retaining natural shape are great; push up bras –  very rarely so…  Corsets, especially the modern ones – just don’t even consider the possibility… look awful, artificial, modern – and completely unnecessary

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15th century kirtle over a chemise – no bra. I am 34 F, so can only dream of the high perky assets, but the fit of the kirtle provides enough support to keep things in place, contained and comfortable. The secret is to lace from the bottom up!

4.  leg wear – wear period hose and garters, if possible. Still, a glimpse of the leg would be  highly unusual unless you are a field labourer, so if you are not flashing your ankles too much and nobody inspects your hosiery, you will be fine with longer cotton socks in muted colours .  For purists  hose and garters are a must – and they do look sexy!

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armour may not be the best choice…

5.  Layers – do not skip the kirtle if it is hot and you want to wear just a posh gown.  Bare calves visible through the thin silks are not posh…Want to be posh, well, sometimes suffering is involved too…

Tudor, Elizabethan and Stuart

1. Same remarks about cleavage apply…. The boned,stiffened kirtles and later stays were there to smooth the contours of the body, provide the support and contain your assets. A hint of a cleavage is fine, over-spilling boobage is not.  Yes, the stiff bodices and stays  do push things up a bit – but  the gowns, shifts, partlets etc do cover most of it. Well, unless you are a noble Jacobean lady going to a masque or posing for a fashionable  portrait in a court attire – some of them tended to be a tad revealing…. 🙂 like this one..  An excellent article on the masque costumes and the dancers going topless ( well, almost) is here….

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Tudor kirtle with bodice stiffened with reed

During the Restoration it was fashionable to pose for a portrait in your unmentionables – or without them. If you re-enact Nell Gwyn as Venus, that’s fine – but remember that everyday costume did involve a tad more 🙂  The bodices were  more revealing, true, but still on a tasteful side.

3. For late Elizabethan/Stuart wear either stays  or boned bodices. A bra will not do. Modern corset will not give the period shape. if you are on a budget, boned bodice can be the perfect solution.  Stays and bodices were at that stage mostly boned with reed –  and reed is fantastic- it breathes well, it is flexible and adapts to the body – very comfortable. Remember that the reed found in the garments were mostly bundles of thin reeds – not chair cane! nowadays you can obtain either  thing oval reed ( Farthingales used to have them, USA) or  flat/oval reed from Vena Cava Designs – and it doesn’t cost much, the whole bundle is enough for several items!

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reads and busk enclosed in 1660 bodice

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the finished bodice

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early mantua ( 1680-90) worn on boned stays

 4. Skirt supports. If your style calls for a Spanish farthingale, or a french one – wear it, no excuses.  If you are on a budget, you can sometimes get bridal petticoats  that can can be used as a farthingale and are cheap –  not perfect, but better that than nothing. All kind of bumrolls, pads etc here come into play as well – easy to make, they will make a tremendous difference  to your silhouette.

5. Wear your petticoats.  I know, it is yet another layer, but can be made quickly and don’t have to be made in expensive fabrics.  Also, they will cover the shape of the hoops in a farthingale if your kirtle/dress fabrics are not sufficient. It is a good idea  to wear one in low quality fabric petti as well, under the farthingale ( as a second layer on the chemise – this is the garment which will absorb most of the dirt and dust stirred up by the skirts dragging on the ground …

 6. hosiery –  especially with hooped skirts, or shorter late Elizabethan or Jacobean outfits you can get a glimpse, so make sure your hose or stockings look correct. in colder climates nice woolen stockings are a godsend.

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getting ready – and flashing my lovely woolen stockings from Sally Pointer

  Georgian

1.  do use skirt supports  suitable for the style of the gown you are wearing: pocket hoops, panniers,  bum pads of all kind – they make the dress look good, without them, silk or not, they just resemble sad rags. Great  source of inspiration and knowledge can be found on the American Duchess website – Lauren specializes in the period and her tutorials are extremely helpful.  Do not be afraid to experiment with the shape of the support, it is worth it.

2. ditto – petticoats,

3. ditto stays.  More and more styles were available, and although more cleavage was sometimes seen, peaking from under a fishu,  overspill was generally avoided. Do choose stays suitable not only to your style but your body type: half boned stays with some horizontal boning at the breast will create more cleavage and are great for ladies with smaller assets, but may  not be sufficient to contain bigger volume. Fully boned stays  will flatten fuller bosoms and keep the puppies under control. Later styles call for the famous pigeon breast silhouette: shorter, half boned stays are perfect here . 

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with stays that shape the chemise ( here just trying out on a normal top) also has a role in containing things…. half boned stays in silk

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fully boned stays – ultimate control, made comfortable with the use of reed

For stays, it is still ok to use reed – whalebone started to be used too, I believe, but nowadays not available, and not ethical.

With the stays and skirt supports, you will get the fashion plate look spot on!

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boobs up high, bum sticking out in all directions… perfect 🙂

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stays and hoop panniers underneath all that silk brocade…

Regency

1. petticoats, stays, hosiery etc, all apply. Many ladies believe that the high waisted styles mean stays are out and bras are fine – alas, this all to often spoils the effect. If you are lucky and  sport firm high breasts, yep, you won’t need  much. However, if you fall into a curvier category, you will need some help. Remember, if the bouncing continues after the dancing stops, you’s better invest in proper undergarments 😉

 Regency stays are there to hold your assets up and usually separate them ( divide and conquer style 😉 ). The cups come up mid bust level, and the breast are contained within the chemise. They do look very unnatural and high – but once you get the frock on, it all pays up.  The longer stays are comfortable and smooth the body, so the dress flows uninterrupted from the high waist.

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regency stays, riding style ( not finished, couldn’t be bothered with the lacing at the hip at the time…). note the busk separating the breast and seemingly shallow cups. surprisingly comfortable too

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it is the stays underneath that make the style at least remotely elegant for me – the dress simply flows so much better!

Brassieres are also surprisingly effective, though tricky to put on – and  they also seem to be working quite well for bigger bosoms.

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the kyoto brasierre

Victorian and Edwardian

1. Wear all the layers.  If you can skimp on one petticoat without compromising the look, fine, but do wear a proper corset, wear a proper skirt support for your period.   Corded petticoats  and sleeve supports for the romantic era, crinolines, bustle cages, bust improver, bustle pads etc – they were all there for a reason.  If wearing a crinoline, remember the petticoats will help you hide the outline of the hoops – and make sure your bottom hoop is not visible!

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Mid Victorian undergarments – chemise, pantaloons ( long drawers) corset and a cage crinoline

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Petticoat on….

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the dress on crinoline cage and petticoat

18. bustle worn, side view

bustle cage

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and a flounced petticoat

2. When planning an outfit always start with the foundations –  bodice made to fit a modern body will not fit over a corset.  skirt cut without taking the supports into consideration will be too long or too narrow.

Undergarment comparison

3. If you can, get the corset bespoke made ( or make one yourself).  If you will be wearing the clothes for some time, you will need a decent, bespoke corset made to you. In my corset I can move, can dance, can ride, can wear it all day long, working away, and I can breathe without any problems ( my rib cage is not crushed). Modern corsets off the peg may feel great for a short time, but  fail miserably  for longer periods of time. Bespoke is not cheap, but it is well worth saving. having said so, if you find an off the peg  Victorian or Edwardian corset ( not modern overbust though), that fits you well, you are lucky – very lucky, so enjoy, it will be usually less  than half the price of a bespoke one.

July Stock Photoshoot-77

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corset provides the silhouette but remains invisible.

4. Wear corset cover. It is a pretty flimsy thing, bit it protect your nice silk dress from the corset, and also hides the outline of the corset a bit.

5. Wear Edwardian corsets for Edwardian  dresses and Victorian ones for Victorian frocks – don’t mix them, they do produce a very different silhouette and  Victorian corset with Edwardian gown is simply wrong. Modern overbust corsets  are not a good choice – overbust will push your assets a bit too high, creating  a very high bust shelf – not very comfortable and period… Victorian/Edwardian corsets are usually mid bust.

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Edwardian corset

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Edwardian corset, back view

For late Edwardian/ WWI costuming, corsets are still necessary! nowadays you see so many lovely frocks of the period, with the look ruined as women either don’t realize that corsets were still worn at the time – or choose to ignore the fact. Yes, the function of the corset was changing – here they were used not to support the breast so much as to smooth the silhouette, streamline it, so that the narrow style clothing looked good – and as they were not designed to cinch your waist a lot, they are very comfortable to wear too.  Later on this style of corsets changes onto girdle and brassieres are starting to appear:)

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WWI style corset

6.drawers –  up to you, I love mine, and they make going to the toilet a much less daunting prospect!

46. Stocking, drawers, corset and the petticoat, worn on the bustle pad, at trial riding

checking how the Victorian underthings work on a horseback. the worked well…

48. back view - note the unbuttoned petticoat

a bit more ladylike…. 🙂

7. if possible, wear correct style petticoat for your dress. Natural form petticoats can differ from the bustle eras –  1870 petties are different from 1885. Sometimes you can cheat a bit, sometimes  not, so plan your outfit carefully.

8. cleavage – again,  very subtle, if ever.  Flout your curves, but tastefully, tantalizingly hidden in lace and silks .

 Again, American Duchess  is a good source, as is  Historical Sewing – great  tutorials and much more detailed information and advice on 19th century styles, from Regency to Edwardian – do check them up!. Historical sewing also offers online courses – very helpful!

 For corsetry supplies and corset making courses – check Sew Curvy

 Well,  I think that’s about it – just skimming through the centuries, really, but i think i covered the most important points – hope you have enjoyed it, or at least found the information useful!  For more pictures  of garments across the centuries, please visit my page, or my pinterest boards!

 the other post on Looking the part series:

  looking the par – 2 –  Hair and make up

 looking the part3 –  accessories

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20 thoughts on “Looking the Part 1: Undergarments

  1. Excellent and thorough advice! Sometimes I cheat and wear a camisole/tank-top under my corset, and even though it’s then buried under layers of correct underpinnings, I still know it’s there and feel not-quite-right when fully dressed. I HATE making chemises…maybe I should just order one from Etsy and stop beating myself up about it, haha!

    • well it doesn’t show:-) i must admit i hate making shifts, etc – so usually buy Victorian and Edwardian ones at antique textiles markets. they are usually in perfect condition and much cheaper than making them from scratch. and they are very sturdy too – surprisingly so, considering heir age. having said so, am planning a natural form chemise next week as a gentle festive stitching…

  2. Creating the silhouette with the proper undergarments makes a HUGE difference in how the final outfit looks. But cheats happen all the time too. I use a basic petticoat shape for several decades of the 19th century, but I know how they affect the final look.
    I love your note on cleavage. Thank you!!

    • oh couldn’t agree more – cheats happen, the art is to know how to cheat so that it doesn’t show:-) i sometimes use the same chemise for a few things, or just adapt the cuffs for a different style – but since nobody can see it, no damage done. 🙂

  3. Wow, very interesting, I’m also making costumes, or trying for the moment, I need to learn more, and your article is just so helpful ! But I need to learn how to do some stuffs, especially the corset…
    I didn’t know women used to have corset during regency oo how astonishing. I understand now why my dress looks so ugly on me !

  4. Pingback: Looking the Part 2. Make up and Hair | A Damsel in This Dress

  5. Pingback: Looking the Part; 3. Accessorise! | A Damsel in This Dress

  6. When I originally commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a comment iss added I get
    four emails with the same comment. Is there any way you can remove me from that service?
    Cheers!

    • hello there – just checked and it looks like I have no control over who subscribes to the comments _ I also cannot see yours? – but you should be able to uncheck that box – at least that’s the theory 😦

  7. Wonderful, very helpful and so timely, just wondering what stockings/sock arrangement was worn with the Victorian bloomers, we recreate working class life in Shropshire in 1900, I normally go for plain over the knee socks but wanted something fancier for the Spring Wedding we’re doing in May? Off to read up on hairstyles now as I’m playing the bride I need some inspiration, thanks again!

  8. Would it be better to hand sew the chemise, like they were done, ir do you recommend machine sewing since it is tge layer underneath everything for strengthening?

    Also, I’m normally quite busty (even moreso right now due to pregnancy) and corsets are the only things that keep the girls from moving, and modern corsets are uncomfortable after wearing them all day. Still moreso than bras. Would the Victorian corset help with those issues? After I have the baby, of course.

    • chemise – it all depends on what period you are talking about – and what is the purpose of the garment – chemise was there to soak body oils etc and protect the xpensice garments from sweat and stains. if you are not showing it to the b=public, it is up to you how you make it. If you do, I usually have it either handswewn for earlier periods, or long seams on a a machine, finish by hand.
      Corsets – am busty too, and find them more comfortable than a bra . Mid bust corset, made properly ( with fittings etc, to your figure) would support things nicely – but bear in mind my note on daily corset wear and muscle atrophy! ( more on that in this post – https://adamselindisdress.wordpress.com/2014/12/19/corsetted-victorians-and-others-myths-and-reality/

  9. This is marvelous! I’m a historical novelist, so I have to think about what my characters are wearing. You and your clothing are gorgeous–thank you so much for writing this up!

  10. Great article: really useful and with lots of good points. I have just one question, though: when you talk about the distinction between Victorian and Edwardian corsets, are you talking about the difference between spoon busk corsets of the 1890s and straight-front corsets of the 1900s – the ones that gave that famous S-bend shape in fashion plates at least – or about the difference between Victorian corsets and the much longer, lower-cut ones of the 1910s? It seems to be a lot harder to find early Edwardian corsets than almost any other kind of historical corset for sale. I can’t say I mind much; though I’m not desperate to be thrust into such a contorted position and I have no immediate plans for a 1900s look!
    Thanks for the great post. 🙂

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