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.

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