Frilly Foundations

Well, it’s Labor Day – time to put away those summer whites.  Here are four fabulous cotton undergarments that were stored away a century ago and never retrieved for use.

100-year-old undergarments

Undergarments from 100 years ago.

These two petticoats belonged to my husband’s grandmother, who was born in 1893.  She gave them to me in 1976, a few years before she died.  Both of them had severe damage, even then, but I loved the tucks and lace and didn’t want to see them get tossed out by someone who didn’t appreciate them.

The one on the right in the picture above is 34 inches in length.  It has a waistband that measures 23 inches, and a hem of 106 inches!  It has 20 quarter-inch tucks at the bottom, and a row of lace.  It was made in four panels, and I was surprised to find out that they are not all exactly the same.  The front panel goes from 5 1/2 inches at the top, to 37 inches at the bottom.  The rear panel is also 37 inches at the hem, but the petticoat tied in the back, so the rear panel had an opening.  At the waist, from the opening to the back side seam is 3 1/2 inches. The two side panels go from 6 1/2 inches at the top down to only 16 inches at the bottom.

The other petticoat has 12 rows of 1/8 inch tucks, a ruffle, and a smaller row of lace at the bottom.  It has much less fabric – maybe this one is later, from a time when fashions were becoming more form-fitting.  The waistband measures 26 inches and the hem is only 66 inches around.  The length is 33 inches.

petticoat detail

On the left, the petticoat that is 106″ around at the hem. On the right, the one that is 66″ around. Close-up of the tucks and lace.

Both petticoats have huge tears and some rodent damage.  They really can’t be repaired.  Maybe one day I will think of something wonderful to make using the rows of tucks.

This bodice belonged to my great-grandmother, who was born in 1888.  I am sure she crocheted the yoke herself. My family always called it a corset cover, but I can’t find any reference to such a garment or a picture of anything similar.  The drawstring casing at the bottom would lead me to date it to the early 1900s, when the “pigeon breast” look was popular.

antique chemise

A cool and comfortable — bodice? chemise? corset cover? What would you call it?

crochet detail

Close-up of the crochet, over a blue shirt to make the detail easier to see.

The drawers were purchased for me by my mother, probably at an estate sale or antique store.  (I may be the textile addict but she is the enabler.)  One of my fabulous costume reference books, Dress and Undress by Elizabeth Ewing, says that the design of drawers like these was the same from the 1860s to about 1915.  These are machine sewn of a very light cotton fabric, so I would guess they are from the latter part of that period.

The waistband measures 34 inches but there’s no elastic, just a casing and a twill tape for a drawstring. Elastic was first used in drawers about 1909, but again according to the book, both kinds of drawers co-existed until World War I.

antique drawers

Antique undergarments – popular until World War I.

One thing that puzzles me is that the tucks are on one side of the material in the legs – I mean “limbs,” of course, pardon me – and the ribbons are on the other side.  Maybe they were meant to be reversible!  They have beautiful French seams so they would be comfortable either way.

detail of decoration

Detail of ribbon and tucks on drawers.

hemstitching detail

Detail of the tucks on the opposite side of the fabric from the ribbon.

My trusty 1915 Textiles book by (the aptly-named) Woolman and McGowan mentions machines to do tucks and hemstitching, but I don’t know when the machines were actually invented.  I know there was machine-made lace sometime in the 1800s, but I can’t narrow it down more than that.  The lace on these pieces is very consistent, which would make me think it’s machine-made.

Well, once again, a simple “look at these cool old things” post has lead me to look up stuff for hours and to notice all kinds of details about textiles I’ve owned for decades.  Since textiles are notoriously fragile, and I live on the mildew/flood/hurricane/wildfire-prone Gulf Coast, I breathe a little easier with each one I document.  I may lose the textile someday but at least some of the information will live on.