Saturday, April 30, 2011

Historical Underthings: On Shifts & Chemises

So, I mentioned something about Regency costume a while back. Said project is now Officially Underway and the first piece is finished.

When creating an entire historical costume from scratch, one must begin by making the underthings. This is because they are often designed to change the body's shape, and they often (especially for women) consist of a few layers of fabric. The result can be a very different set of measurements from your natural shape. Therefore, it's important to make the undergarments first, then take a new set of measurements while wearing everything that's going to be worn underneath your gown.

In light of this rule, I started with the chemise.

It's made out of 100% cotton lawn, which is a fine, lightweight fabric. It's a very simple shape, long and loose and flaring only slightly at the hem.

It has a simple drawstring fastening at the neckline; I've used thin white ribbon to gather it up.

It has a large gusset under the arm (the diamond-shaped fabric insert) to allow for freedom of movement. The rest of the sleeve is merely a rectangle of fabric.

I gather that the common length for a Regency chemise is about calf-length. I lengthened mine by a few inches.

All of the seams are fully enclosed, which makes it a strong, long-wearing garment. If you imagine how harsh the process of washing was during the nineteenth century, it would need to be!

By way of interest and comparison, here are a couple of other historical shifts and chemises I have in my possession:

I made this chemise a year or so ago to wear underneath a late nineteenth-century aesthetic gown. It's made of medium-weight cotton - heavier and thicker than the cotton lawn. It has fully-shaped sleeves and, instead of a drawstring neckline, it buttons closed. There are long inserts from hem to waist adding space in the skirt area. This one is a bit prettier than my Regency chemise, having some trim around the neckline. I could have trimmed the Regency as well, but I like it plain and simple.

This is an eighteenth-century style shift (the terms change, by the way, from shift to chemise but essentially they refer to the same basic idea: a loose, plain garment worn closest to the skin). This one was made for me. It's made from medium-weight linen and it's the most voluminous of my collection. It has a drawstring neckline, like the Regency, but it has long sleeves (it's quite interesting fitting these under the tight sleeves of my eighteenth-century printed cotton gown!).

The next phase of production is the stays (stays were the forerunners of corsets: designed to cinch in certain parts of the anatomy and accentuate others). Regency clothes had some interesting variations in corsetry-style garments. There are two common styles: long stays, which do look like a sort of halfway point between eighteenth-century stays and nineteenth-century corsets, and short stays.

I'm making short stays. It's an interesting garment because it's probably the closest thing to a brassiere that's seen in costume before the twentieth century. I'm probably going to quilt them rather than bone them. (Notice my grammar's wavering a bit here. It's a single item of clothing most confusingly called 'stays', a plural term. Does one refer to it/them as it or them? Hmmm).

It's going to be a delicate, tricky job so it'll take some time before they're finished. In the meantime, I'm embarking on a range of gypsy/peasant blouses in honour of spring, and planning a post on this sometime soon!

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