The Ladies' Tea Guild

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Dickens Fair costume tips: Essential Undergarments!

Costumer's Manifesto. 1860 Crinoline, by Karl Kohler.
For men:
Male clothing of the period aimed to make the wearer look respectable, sober, well-groomed, and genteel. The clothes were supposed to fit the figure well, with none of the sloppiness or bagginess that is currently fashionable. Shirts had extra-long tails in front and back, which were always tucked into the trouser waistband and could be wrapped under the body between the legs to provide cleanliness and protection from chafing if no other undergarment was worn. Shirts were made of white linen and were considered part of the undergarments, which is why almost all of the shirt was kept covered by the coat, trousers, waistcoat, and cravat when in public!

Year-round, stockings were wool, cotton or silk (for the wealthy), what we would call "dress socks" these days, long enough to almost reach to the knee, held up with garters. In colder weather (and for the wealthier men), linen drawers could be worn under the shirt; they were about knee-length, and slightly fitted to the leg to minimize bunching under the trousers. For cold weather, knitted wool or flannel "Union Suits" were available, but none of these undergarments really changed the way the man's body looked in his clothes. That was left for the women!

It is fairly easy to approximate Victorian male underclothes for costume purposes. Modern "long johns" or boxers, and a short-sleeved white T-shirt are all you need. I recommend not wearing a tank top or sleeveless undershirt, though, because the neckline and armhole edges tend to show through your shirt if you take your waistcoat and coat off.

For women:
Female clothing of the mid-1800s created a distinctive silhouette, which depended on certain essential undergarments: the corset and petticoats. Women wore ankle to floor-length dresses with full skirts; for everyday wear, the dress bodices had high "jewel" necklines and long sleeves, and were fitted to make the torso appear smooth. A corset was necessary, and respectable middle and lower class women wore them to support and smooth the bust, torso and back. Tight-lacing, like Scarlett O’Hara did to get her 18 inch waist, was impractical for all but the wealthy, and is not necessary when you’re wearing a corset. The full skirt was held out from the hips and feet by multiple underskirts, or a hoop.

When you put together a Victorian costume, avoid just wearing your regular bra instead of a support garment like a corset, as this smooth-torso look is essential to the 19th century female appearance. Corset patterns and ready-made corsets are available, but a Merry Widow undergarment will give the modern woman a similar smooth effect. If you can't find a Merry Widow or bustier undergarment, then a bra with firm support, paired with a torso minimizer garment (one with flexible stays) can provide some of the same smoothness. As for the petticoats, you can sometimes find old wedding dresses in thrift stores, and these gowns often have an attached underskirt of tulle or netting, which can be cut from the wedding dress and worn under your costume skirt to give it some fullness. Sometimes bridal hoop skirts can be found at thrift stores, and these can be worn under your dress and underskirt; try to adjust the hoop size so that your dress skirt lies loosely over it, and avoid the “tightly-stretched” look as much as you can!

"Nineteenth-Century Fashions: a Compendium"
Cathy's Wee Victorian Fashion Page
The Costumer's Manifesto: Corsets (General Information)
The Costumer's Manifesto: Victorian Fashion Links
Elizabeth Stewart Clark's Sewing Academy

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Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
And, while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups
That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each,
So let us welcome peaceful evening in.
-- William Cowper (1731-1800)
"The Winter Evening" (Book Four), _The Task_ (1784)