Friday, 15 September 2017

Antique Underwear as Outer Wear - Camisoles, Corset Covers and Chemisettes

I've always been a fan of wearing your undies on the outside. Well, someone else's old undies anyway. And I mean really old antique Victorian and Edwardian underwear. It always appealed to the romantic in me - white broderie anglaise and lace adds a beautifully feminine touch to a contemporary look, and looks fabulous with jeans or leather.

Thanks to the lovely Mary Bordelon for these photos, wearing a corset cover from Louisa Amelia Jane, and showing how to breathe new life into antique clothing - and how! Check out Mary's fabulous style on her blog and YouTube channel.

The Old Story

Before World War 1 women wore a lot of underclothing. Although they didn't wear knickers until the end of the 18th century, there were many other layers of undergarments - chemise, corset, corset cover and petticoat seems to be the minimum. Sometimes an underbodice and several petticoats were worn. Check out this reenactment of how a "lady" was dressed in the 18th century from the National Museums Liverpool for a demonstration of how all those underlayers were worn. Fascinating!


The chemise was the first garment, worn against a woman's skin. It was  a loose fitting garment worn to provide warmth but especially to give protection to the skin from the corset. Sometimes a chemise doubled as a nightgown. Underpants were not worn until the very end of the 18th century.


The corset came next. It's purpose was to give a fashionable shape to the woman's silhouette. The shape of corsets changed as women's fashion changed. Ideals of feminine beauty underwent many changes and is still changing - flattened breasts, upraised breasts, the Edwardian pigeon breast, larger bottoms, leaner or curvier silhouettes.

 Corset Cover 

The corset cover was exactly that, a garment to protect the outer garments from the hardware of the corset and to prevent the corset from being seen. Corset covers were often trimmed with lace, crochet and embroidery, which was sometimes seen at the neckline. Sometimes they had short sleeves. 

H. O'Neill & Co Catalogue, 1890-91

I have had quite a few corset covers in the store - it seems I have a weakness for them - and they have proven very popular. Here are a couple in the Etsy store at the moment:

Corset Cover with Pin Tucks & Peplum

Embroidered Corset Cover

This cutie sold last week


Sometimes an underbodice was also worn. This was very similar to a corset cover, and seems to have been used to improve the line of the outer garment. Sometimes the underbodice had long or short sleeves. It was often cut like a detachable lining to the main bodice but in white.


A chemisette was like a dickey front to add modesty beneath a low neckline. It was basically a lacy front, often with a collar, which was seen above the otherwise revealing neckline. Chemisettes were usually just stitched at the shoulders with the sides left open, then tied with a tape at the bottom. Occasionally the side seams were joined.

This chemisette, with side seams, is listed in the web store:

Netting Chemisette with Red Diamante Buttons


Camisoles were a later fashion and replaced the corset cover as corsets were shed by the young in the 1920s. Typically, they were loose fitting and had narrow straps. Only the fabric has changed in the modern camisoles we know today. The very old ones, usually in cotton, make crisply cool summer tops.

1920s French camisole - In the Etsy store

This 1920s camisole, and I have a few slips/petticoats in the same style, is charming in its simplicity. Pieces will still have beautiful detail and hand finishing - such as the embroidery on this piece. Antique underwear often had embroidered monograms. I think the ladies embroidered them for their "Glory Box", the linens that a woman would work on over years to take into her married life.

Drawers, Bloomers, Pantaloons, Knickers 
Now that's a whole other story for another day. And bras? They were invented around about the time of World War 1 - and that's another story too.
Genuine Vintage v. Reproduction
H & M are doing a great line in reproduction antique blouses, taking in the sleeveless corset cover look. However, there's nothing like a genuine vintage antique piece, if you are lucky enough to find one in your size in wearable condition. An authentic piece will not only have a history and secret, only-to-be-guessed-at life of its own, but will exhibit amazing attention to detail and hand finishing that you will never see today outside of couture. I particularly love the fastenings - teeny tiny little hooks and thread loops, tiny shell, porcelain or linen covered buttons, ties and drawstrings. Lace is often inserted into the fabric, rather than sewn over the top, and all those tiny little tucks! For me, there is no comparison.

Friday, 25 August 2017

Breaking News!

 Got a new store. I've been working on Etsy for the last five years and it seemed time to branch out on my own into the big wide world of cyber space. It will be great to be able to post a whole lot of information as well as having the store, and also convenient to have the blog in the same space. So far, I've posted more detailed sizing and garment care advice. Sizing is probably the major concern people have with buying clothing online, so this should help.

The web store will focus on quality vintage women's clothing and accessories. I will be keeping the Etsy store stocked up too. Vintage menswear and linen items will remain in the Etsy store. And of course Louisa's Needle will continue to stock vintage patterns and trims. For locals, Louisa Amelia Jane has a stall at The Vintage Emporium in Tyabb.

We also have some travel plans for later in the year and along with family commitments, I am going to be one super busy woman.

Coming Soon

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Night Life

A while ago now I took a long weekend and ventured down to Winchelsea to Barwon Park Mansion to view the National Trust's Night Life exhibition of formal wear from the 1920s and 1930s. It was certainly well worth the trip and a good excuse for a short break.

The mansion was built by Thomas Austin in 1867 when he learned he was to host the Prince of Wales during the next Royal visit. He was too embarrassed to entertain royalty at his modest homestead, so built the mansion. He died six months after it was completed. Austin is also credited, or rather blamed, for introducing the rabbit to Australia so they had something to hunt besides kangaroos.

Barwon Park Mansion
It provided a fitting setting for the National Trust exhibition. The lighting was necessarily dim to conserve the garments, so please excuse the lack of light in the photos.

The 1920s garments were divine. There were, of course, the elaborately beaded flapper dresses but in some ways I found the other garments more interesting, probably because I've seen so many photos of beaded dresses. This dress is one of my favourites - earlier than 1920s, about 1919 I think. I have discovered a passion for tassels.

Beaded Cocoon Coat

This dress of pearl and silver beads is so heavy that the weight of the beads has torn the fine netting to which they are stitched. These heavily beaded garments are displayed flat in cases to minimise stress to the already stressed pieces. It must have been a challenge to dance the Charleston in some of these dresses. This garment is described as an evening gown but wouldn't it have made a lovely wedding dress!

My other favourite piece in the exhibition is this Assuit shawl. In the wake of Howard Carter's discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922 everything Egyptian was the rage. This fabric, named after the place in Egypt where it was made, combines net fabric with metal strips in an ornate design.

Assuit Shawl

The 1930s moved away from beading and ornamentation. Dresses were longer, and cut on the cross of the fabric (or bias) to cling to the body's curves. There were several beautiful silk florals on display.

 One of the problems I had at the exhibition was not touching the fabrics. These fabrics are so foreign to what we are familiar with these days. When a fabric is described as glazed silk I want to touch it, but I did manage to refrain.

This interesting 1940s cotton lace dress was the youngest dress in the exhibition.

There were many other beautiful and interesting pieces that I just couldn't photograph properly in the dark, such as a fabulous piano shawl, and a cape with an amazing Art Deco lining.

An interesting section of home made garments made a detour, and visitors could  practise doing tambour embroidery in a hoop if the volunteers were there to instruct.

One day I hope to go back just to look at the mansion as much of it could not be seen due to the special exhibition. I was most fascinated by the servants' areas.

And by the nursery.

The doll's house furniture was fascinating, made with such care in amazing detail. I was reminded of Beatrix Potter's book "The Tale of Two Bad Mice".

Little wood burning stove. I put my bag there for perspective.
Tiny little ironing board and spinning wheel.
The Night Life exhibition dates  were extended but it was moved to Rippon Lea mansion in Elsternwick, Melbourne, where it is a bit more accessible to most visitors. It finishes on July 30, so be quick. There are also a series of spin off events, including a fashion parade and ball.

Night Life at Rippon Lea

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

National Trust - I'm Your Fan

A few weeks ago I attended the National Trust vintage clothing sale at Como House in Melbourne. Como is an historic mansion dating back to 1847 and is a popular venue for weddings, functions and exhibitions. Once a year it hosts a vintage clothing sale. Many people donate vintage clothing to the National Trust but it can only keep the best and most significant pieces in its collection. Much of the clothing and accessories are sold off in their annual sale, with the proceeds going to the upkeep of Como.

This was my first time to the sale, and I'll certainly be going back again next year. After walking through  rooms filled with hats, accessories and even patterns and magazines, I entered the ballroom, which was cram packed with racks of clothing. Volunteers were there to help, and they had also soaked, washed and ironed a lot of the clothing as necessary and where possible.

Just one little corner of the ballroom.

It was Sunday afternoon, and everything was half price. So what did I find?

 This was only the beginning. Luckily, I had brought a trolley and a very big bag with me.
Amongst the highlights for me were  the lingerie items. There were beautiful little bras from the 1930s and 40s, many were unworn and still displaying shop tags.

Berlei longline bra, very early 1930s

Never boil your bra. Our grandmas had to slave over the copper, boiling their underwear and linen.

The other little bras also look new, or have seen very little wear.

This little gem is silk. For a very small but busty lady.
And this bra seems impossibly tiny.

Not only bras, ladies, but knickers. I snapped up a few pair of the ever popular French Knickers, or tap pants as our American friends call them. My mother insists that in Australia, in the 1950s, they were called scanties. I was interested to hear the volunteer lady who served me also called them scanties. Mum must be right, as usual.

Unusual and lovely floral print, and silk.
Look at the beautiful insertion work on this pink pair.

And a teddy.

Another find that was exciting for me is this 1930s silk wedding dress.

This gown came complete with a copy of the wedding in which it starred in 1934, and the names of the bride and groom. How lovely to know a bit of the story behind the dress. This dress has gold lame trim at the shoulders and on the delightful Art Deco belt.

I was also delighted to find quite a few men's items. I couldn't help thinking Downton Abbey - tail coat, stiff white waistcoat front and stiff collars. 

And of course, some lovely dresses.

And for some more modern vintage, two Kenzo smocks from about 1980.

My friend Hannah has already bought this one. It looks fabulous on her.

I was so busy sorting out these gems that I didn't even have time to check out the hats, bags, shoes etc.
Items were reasonably priced to sell ASAP. Gems cost a little more, but of course. Some fixer uppers were also found, so we'll see how we go.

Thank you to the National Trust, and also to the wonderful volunteers who helped before, during and after the day. See you there next year. Make sure you say hello.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Snapshot 1947

Today I was delighted to receive this magazine in the post.

The Australian Home Budget magazine for May, 1947. Only one and a half years after the end of the war, Australians, like the British, still had rationing for many of life's necessities, and foremost amongst them, for clothing. This little gem shows a country of women just starting to dare that maybe they can start to think about having nice things again, within reason.

The editorial points out:
"Many of today's B.G.'s [Business Girls] passed from their teens to their twenties during the war years. Many went straight from school uniforms to Service uniforms. All of them moved out into a world of stringent shortages and coupons which denied them the quality clothes of pre-war years.
Clothes are still rationed, but fabrics and style this winter are better.  For the first time in seven years the business-girl has the chance to have some of the lovely clothes for which her heart has yearned. If she plans carefully, and buys with her limited income - and coupons - clothes of basic simplicity which depend on accessories (no coupons) to bring a dash of romance to style , she can be the new girl in our lives - feminine above all - the one who brings a light to someone's eyes." (p.6)

Two months after Christian Dior launched his New Look for women's fashion, the look was taking off. The fitted peplum jacket and straight skirt shown here look forward to the 50s, while the turban to me still looks very 40s. The caption reads "Pull in your belt this winter with a long-torso suit made from uncouponed jersey. Basque peplum swishes above the blade skirt." (p.5)

There is no mention of Dior, but it is certainly his influence which calls for "a renewed avowal of femininity. Lines are subtle and fluent, with willow-wand waistlines, rounded - almost Rubens-rounded - hips, jackets bustled, flared or layered with tucks. Bodices are skin tight and smooth as cream. Shoulders generally remain wide, with odds in favor of the rounded line. Sleeves have become the big issue. Bishop, dolman, and push-up are the key-note of the uncluttered silhouette. Daytime skirts are narrowing as they lengthen and most are blade thin. The classic suit is still the B.G.'s best bet. With long or short jackets, teamed with pin-slim skirts in line with the leg, they are notable for their clean lines and lack of ornate trimming."

And for the evening? A jade and white striped silk dress, or "shirtmaker blouse and graceful velvet skirt". The fashion editor suggests that one "interchange the blouse with a sequined midriff, a lace tunic with exaggerated peplum, or a classic evening sweater." (p.7) I would love to see these!

What can I say? Such fabulous shoes. On Saturday, I went to see the Melbourne Theatre Company's production of "Born Yesterday", set just after the war. The highlight for me was the heroine's final costume, an amazing fur trimmed burgundy velvet coat with matching hat, and especially, the matching  40s platform peep toe shoes! But that's another story.

The editorial insists that "Hats this winter should go everywhere with you from dawn to dusk. They are back on the head and never, never, carried in the hand. Some sweep abruptly off the brow, others up one side. All hug the head. Adjustable padded berets and cloches are the best all-purpose styles for the B.G." The classic beret is for "sauntering through winter". (p.9)

Love the chunky bracelets, and the plastic pansy brooch and earrings. I always love a pansy.

The ads are always delightful in these old magazines and these are no disappointment.

How gorgeous is this ingenue in her conical stitched bra? And of course the modern woman needs comfort and convenience in all personal matters.

And no less interesting than the fashion are the photos from the royal tour of South Africa and Botswana, or Natal and Bechuanaland as they were then. Top is Princess Margaret, bottom is Princess (now Queen) Elizabeth. This was the first time the entire royal family had toured together, and the first time the princesses had been "abroad". (p.39)

Finally, a reminder that times are still difficult and it is not yet time to throw caution to the wind. The "Make do and mend" ethos is still encouraged, and garments with slight damage are not be discarded, but renovated.
The final word goes to Princess Dyes.

Best of all, those old fabrics could be dyed. No rank polyester. New life could be given to silk, cotton, rayon, and wool. And you could perspire on it without making it run! Just as well, because deodorants were not very effective then. Having spent an hour the other day standing over a hot tub dying a silk dress hideously greyed, oxidised and perspired upon, I can relate to this. To see that ugly rag come out of the tub a glorious and unflawed black was the highlight of the week!

Reference: The Australian Home Budget; May 1947; Consolidated Press; Sydney