Wednesday, 1 June 2011

My Passion for 19th Century Underpinnings

Where to begin? My love of under-things (although not stays or corsets, which I do love, but just not quite as much as other underpinnings), foundation garments and foundation articles, or underwear, has taken me quite by surprise.

My love of historical fashion first started around the age of 13 or 14. In 1991 I sat transfixed in front of the television watching 'The House of Eliott' series, set in a 1920s fashion house.  Two years after that, my family travelled up to York for our annual summer holiday, and we visited York Castle Museum. All I can remember of the displays there is drooling over the Costume section.

                                                             York Castle Museum

These two experiences are fond memories to me now, and I recall with affection the feelings that historical dress conjured up inside me- and I am thankful to say that I still feel this way about the subject. But back then it was the wide and sparkling dresses of the French middle to late 18th century, and the voluptuous shapes of the Victorian era that held my imagination captive. I was intrigued by the under garments and articles that were used to create the forms of dress, but only in respect of how the silhouette was created; I didn't see them as beautiful works of art like I did the dresses and outer-wear.


In 1994, I made my first item of pseudo historical dress- the idea is taken from one of my most favourite films of all time (I know, I have the WORST taste in films!!) 'The Slipper and the Rose.' I even have the preliminary sketch that I made based on Cinderella's 'pauper' dress, and a photo of myself wearing the ensemble (see left and below).

I made this without a pattern, just draping the fabric over the body form, and I got there in the end. Is it wonderful? No. But my enthusiasm and persistence paid off, and at least I had something to wear for the Christmas 'Do' at the Nursing Home where I worked on the weekends. I was so pleased with myself that I had created this all on my own. Sewing the dress, doing the research for it, and working with the fabric, left me head over heels in love with historical fashion.



I think that it is only as I have become a mature adult, that I have been able to appreciate the beauty of underpinnings.  Perhaps as a teenager, my head was too easily turned by sumptuous silks and rich velvets in bright, bold colours.

This is in opposition to how I view underpinnings now; I feel that they are either beautiful in their simplicity and craftsmanship (the hours those ladies spent adding decorations such as tucks, embroidery and lace, which would often only be seen by them, or perhaps one or two other people, never ceases to astound me), or fascinating; when I contemplate how uncomfortable those women must have been, living in cages, crinolines and mountains of hot, stuffy, layers, I don't know how they managed!

I have a few original underpinnings from the Victorian era- just drawers and a corset cover. I also have an 1840s nightdress. It took my breath away the first time I sat down and looked at every seam, stitch and hand sewn button hole. It must have taken hundreds of hours to complete. The stitches are so tiny, and the work so precise.

The other thing I like about underpinnings is discovering new items that I haven't come across before, such as strapped Regency and Romantic petticoats (will have to keep those for another post), or a late Victorian 'The Scott' Hip Pad, which one of my lovely Etsy customers asked me to make for her a while back.

Underpinnings of 1893

Some items still retain a slight air of mystery, and there is often ambiguity surrounding their use; drawers and pantalettes of the Regency period being a case in point. And as so many underpinnings, like the dresses, were recycled and altered for subsequent generations, many pieces have either been lost for good, or have had so many adjustments, that it can be difficult pin pointing what part came from which era.

I also think that under-things have a similar personality to myself; unassuming, happy to remain in the background, and are many-layered. :)

And now, thanks to my Etsy shop, I am able to make these items day in, day out! I sell Regency and Romantic era underpinnings and nightwear at the moment. I really enjoy working with the plain white cotton and linen fabrics, and seeing how I can add and embellish the pieces with lace, tucks or little details such as threaded Dorset buttons.

Oh dear, this post was originally going to explain why I love under-things, and it has turned into a trip down memory lane. Oh well, that part has not been entirely unpleasant!!  (Apart from seeing myself with lovely, light brown hair- sadly the majority is now grey, covered up of course with henna!)

All the gorgeous, frivolous, pretty underpinnings, which are the foundation of 19th century fashions, will, I am sure, continue to mesmerise and fascinate me.

with love,
Naomi