1870s Accessories, a hat, gilet and purse

While working on my 1870’s day bodice, I knew I wanted some accessories. After all, when wearing your dress outside, you can’t go without a hat! Accessories and hair can really make an outfit.

So right after finishing my bodice, I started on the hat. I looked at a lot of fashion plates for inspiration, and settled on this style. I have to admit that the fact the base hat was visible was a big advantage, as many hats are so decorated you can’t see the base anymore. Not quite so handy when you want to recreate it.

1876 Hat Fashions:

This looked doable though, and I really like the ribbons hanging from the back.

I didn’t use a pattern, so my first step was to cut a cardboard base and tape it together. I took of the top after the first attempt, finding it a little too high to be flattering. The second top was lower and wider, and I used this one to continue. First hat making step was to cut out the hat in buckram and sew it together, as well as sewing wire around the brim for security and shape. This took a while, as I did it all by hand, but it resulted in a finished brim and top.

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Next up was covering. I don’t really know how to do this properly, so my method is probably not the best, but it worked okay. I first cut the shape for the top parts and stitched the crown to the border until it fit the top. I then stitched the fabric down on the ‘seam allowance’ of the top part. Next I covered the brim by stitching the lining to the top fabric together for half of the circle. I pulled the fabric over the base, and stitched the rest in place by hand. I finished by stitching the top and the brim together. I now had a bit of buckram showing on the underside of the brim though, so I covered that up with a bias strip of cotton. It’s not super neat, but it works, and when decorated and worn you can’t see the slightly messy bits.

I decorated the hat with a bit of silk trim I had left over from my skirts, and a very big silk bow at the back. I debated adding black feathers to the side as well, but the ones I have were slightly too big, sticking up straight into the air when wearing the hat. So in the end I left them out.

The second piece of accessory was a false gilet for under my bodice. I got this idea from the 1870-1871 dress in Patterns of Fashion. By making an ‘insert’, you can adapt the bodice to be more fitting for outside wear. I based the pattern on that of my Regency chemise, because I already knew that’d fit me. Don’t know if it’s the correct shape for a Victorian one, but I suspect they wouldn’t have changed too much. It has a slit in the center front which closes with hooks and eyes, and faux buttons just like the bodice. It stays in place with little loops and ribbons at the bottom. I opted for making loops in the back and ribbons in the front, which is a technique I know from some Dutch traditional wear. My regency chemisette has ribbons both front and back, but it is much more difficult to close as you can’t keep one side in place while tying the ribbon on the other side. This method works much better, although I again don’t know if it’s period. When it was done, I decided to finish it off with a big bow. It’s removable, and just clips on in the closure. I do think it really finishes the look!

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The final accessory actually got underway back in January, when I saw this wonderful tatted bag.

Tatted lace handbag with silk lining, American, ca. 1905-15, KSUM 1989.91.1.:

My mother has picked up tatting a while back, so I immediately showed her the bag. Her first reaction was ‘Pretty! Shall I make it for you?’. Of course I wasn’t going to say no to that! She made the reproduction from the picture, but in black thread to match the black details on my bag. The only thing I did was to make a simple silk (lined in cotton) back to go inside the tatted cover. She finished the work early this month, and it might be my favorite part of the entire outfit!

 

1870s Day/dinner Bodice

After I finished my 1870’s ballgown, I started thinking on making a day bodice to go with it. A fair number of existant dresses come with a bodice for day and one for evening. This way you basically have two dresses for different occasions, but only need one skirt! As skirts take up a lot of fabric, they would also have costed quite a lot. Having two bodices means you get more use out of it. For me, making my own dresses, it means I only need to make an extra bodice to open up a whole array of occasions to wear the skirts.

Some existant examples of day/dinner/evening dress combinations.

My design for the bodice was based around a couple of things. First, I knew I wanted a low, square neckline. These are more for dinner, or visiting dresses than for outside walking. However, you can add a gilet or chemisette to fill in the neckline and still wear it outside (as shown in the first existant dress of this post). I like versatility, so wanted to go this route. Because I owned the Truly Victorian 400 pattern, that decided the shape of the front, and I also used the peplum back.

This resulted in the base bodice! I flatlined the silk in white cotton first. Then I sewed the main seams and the darts. That’s where it went slightly wrong, because I hadn’t pinned the darts properly. After sewing, it became apparent that the silk had shifted and not all fabric was caught in te darts as should be. So, out came the seam ripper, and I took them out again. To prevent this from happening again, I first basted the darts this time. This fixed the problem. You can see how far off I was in this picture, the old puncture marks are where the first dart was, while the basting is a couple of mm inside the line of where it should be…

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After getting this fixed, I could put in the sleeves and finish all the edges. The center front is finished by folding over the silk to the inside, the top and bottom I finished with bias binding. This was a first for me, before I always turned over the outer fabric to the inside. However, I’ll say that the bias facing is definitely easier, as it goes along the curves way better, so I’ll probably be doing this in the future!

The finished plain bodice:

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And an inside view. All the seams are tacked in place to prevent fraying.

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For trim, I had some lace left I’d used on the over skirt. I was further inspired by this dress:

Wedding dress, English, ca. 1869-70. Two pieces. Blue silk grosgrain with white lace trimming around edge of bodice and cuffs.:

I really love the cuffs, which seem to be fake, made out of trim only. I ended up making my fabric trim slighlty narrower, but it was made using a similar technique. I tried out something new for this trim, so the seams on the end of the fabric wouldn’t show. Don’t know if this is period, but it does give a nice result! It is best used for narrow trim though, as it’ll eat fabric when you make it very wide.

I started cutting strips of fabric, a little over 2x as wide as my eventual trim would need to be. I wanted 3cm wide trim, so I cut 7cm strips.

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I then folded the strip and hemmed the edge with a narrow hem.

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The next step was to iron the strip flat, so that the seam was in the center.

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I then sewed gathers along the top and bottom edge of the strip.

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And the final step is to gather the strip both top and bottom!

This trim still has a raw edge on the back, but as I’d be sewing it to the dress both top and bottom, this didn’t matter overly much. You could, in theory, turn the strip inside out before ironing and gathering. Mine were rather narrow though, so it would’ve been a bit of a pain and so I didn’t bother.

With the trim made, it was time to plan where to put it! I knew I wanted the cuffs and lace and trim around the neckline. Ideally also around the bottom, but I didn’t know if I’d have enough lace for that. I pinned the cuffs and neckline first, to see what was left.

Playing with trim.

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Pinning it all down.

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In the end, I didn’t have enough lace to fully go around the bottom. I did really want it there as well though, if only to visually separate the bodice from the same-colored overskirt. So I ended up cutting the lace in half horizontally, and stitching the fabric trim on top to hide the edge. This makes for slighly more narrow lace at the bottom, but it worked! After pinning down everything, I spent a full day stitching it all down top and bottom. My fingers were rather sore afterwards from stitching through all those layers of densly woven silk. The result is definitely worth it though!

To finish the bodice, I covered some buttons with black silk I had a little of. The bodice closes with hooks and eyes, so the buttons are just there for visual interest. They do really add a nice touch I think!

Finished:

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And some detail shots:

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Let’s hope it stays dry this weekend, because there’s an event I’d love to wear this to. Pictures with the whole day-version of the dress will follow when that happens!

Dress Like Your Grandma

A couple of weeks ago I came across the ‘Dress Like Your Grandma’ challenge, hosted by Mrs. Hughes. The basic idea is to take a picture of your grandmother (or other relative, or general photo if you can’t find any), and to recreate the clothes in that picture.

I really liked the idea, but initially wasn’t sure if it’d fit with my schedule. At that point (first week of March) I still had the bodice for Marije, my medieval kirtle & head gear, the balayeuse for my train, a day bodice for my 1870s dress and a hat & chemisette for with that bodice on my todo list. All to be done before the 1st of May.

By the first of April though, I was running ahead of schedule for all of those things and decided to add the grandma dress to the list!

It also really helped that I had the perfect dress to recreate, and already had the pattern to make it with!

These pictures were taken when my grandmother was about 16 years old, in the 1940’s.

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I also already had this pattern.

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The skirt is quite different, but the top would work.

So I ordered some white cotton with black dots, and on a Sunday beginning of April went to work! I slightly forgot that my goal dress didn’t have a collar, so mine does have one.

On the plus side, it turned out very pretty and neat!

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I was also really happy with the typical sleeves on this pattern, as I wouldn’t know how to draft those, and they come close to the original.

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Other than that I slightly shortened the bodice of the pattern, and made a ‘belt’ from a strip of fabric. The skirt I completely drafted myself. It’s basically a circle skirt made of 8 panels (to fit it on the fabric), but cut with a very big hole for the waist and then gathered to fit. The bodice part is lined in white cotton to avoid see-through moments. I actually managed to finish the whole dress in a day, which made me pretty happy. It also shows that I’ve definitely gotten quicker at sewing than I was a couple of years ago!

The finished dress on my dress form:

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I didn’t manage to recreate the original pictures, as I didn’t have access to a studio or general ‘blocks’. Instead, I made some images in my parents back yard. In sepia, to fit the theme!

 

Of ballgowns and trains

The early 1870’s fashion absolutely loved its trained gowns. I followed that when designing the train for my own ball gown, I knew I really wanted to have one.

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My train

 

Although practical and train-less dresses do exist they are a lot more difficult to find than their trained counterparts. Small trains were even worn for morning wear, and there’s plenty examples of walking dressed (obviously meant to wear out of the house), still with a small train. And you can be sure those wouldn’t always only be worn on perfectly clean pavements!

Just to avoid those images which might have the label ‘walking dress’ stuck to them without provenance, an example with the text next to the fashion plate. A walking dress for winter, you can be sure that train didn’t keep clean!

Winter walking dress and bag c. 1874:

 

You can imagine that if an informal morning dress has a train, that an evening dress or ball gown would practically always be trained. For a formal event, or attending the opera that’d be fine, but for a ball one needs to be able to dance. In a waltz, that includes being able to step backwards without tripping over your dress.

This train is stunning, but there’s no way I’d be able to waltz in this as it is.

Met Museum

 

So two questions arise: how do you keep your train clean, and how do you avoid stepping on it? Both questions are now rather relevant for me, as I’m wearing my 1870s ballgown to a ball this May, and I definitely want to dance!

The first answer to keeping your train clean, is to add a balayeuse. Or, in English, a dust ruffler. A balayeuse is basically a separate piece of fabric, attached to the underside of the train. It makes sure the train fabric itself doesn’t touch the floor, and it gets dirty instead. The idea is that it’s detachable, either by buttons or just unpicking some stitches, so you can wash the balayeuse without having to wash your train.

This image is from the late 1870’s, but it shows the general idea. A separate panel attaches to the underside of the train. This one seems to have a lace layer ‘on top’ between the balayeuse and the floor.

Tygodnik Mód 1877.: Trains' detachable balayeuse.:

 

Not all balayeuses were totally practical, especially for evening dresses they could be made of layers of lace, peeking out underneath the hem. After all, your ballgown is generally only worn inside, so it wouldn’t get quite as dirty as outside.

So that takes care of the dirt, but what about the dancing?

First thing to keep in mind is that not all evening occasions would be balls, so it wasn’t always necessary for an evening gown to be fit for dancing. However, if it needed to be, the practical solution was to simply bustle up the train!

Now, annoyingly, I couldn’t actually find period images of the same dress (either fashion plate or existant) with either a long train or a bustled up one. I’m pretty sure they did this though, so if anyone has a source I’d love to know!

I rather suspect this dress though, but alas, only one photo I know of exists…

Gown, 1874, Charles Frederick Worth, Medium: purple silk faille and is trimmed with silk lace, silk fringe, and velvet bows:

Worth dress, Kyoto fashion institute

 

Aside from bustling up the whole train, one could also use a ‘loop’ to hold it up while dancing. I found this wonderful image showing the process.

SAGE GREEN BUSTLE EVENING DRESS, 1880s 2-piece silk faille, red velvet panels, ecru embroidered lace trim:

Sold by Augusta Auctions

 

So, back to my own gown! In the end, I decided to make both a balayeuse and a method to bustle up my train. The way I ended up bustling it it still drags just a little bit, so the balayeuse protects the edge on the ground.

The balayeuse I made is rather simple, I just traced the part which was on the ground in white cotton, and then made ruffled strips of pinked fabric to stitch onto it in half circles. Credit for the method goes to Prior Attire, who has a tutorial here.

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It attaches to the train with buttons. The button holes are on the balayeuse, the buttons on the underside on the train. (Obviously, as otherwise there’d be holes in my train).

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To bustle up the train I played around with the fabric a bit. In the end, I attached two small strips with button holes to the sides of the train. These attach to a button at the sides of my overskirt. Since my train is attached to the overskirt in the first place, this is a good way to pull up the sides. For the center I sewed a strip of cotton tape to the middle with button holes. I then sewed buttons to the train, spaced wider than the holes in the strip. This way the train bustles up evenly in the center.

The proper look:

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And because I love inside-out views, one of the train. Left two are bustled up, right is let down. That weird ‘swag’ on the side is hidden by the overskirt when worn right.

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Getting an (almost) historical look the easier way – or: how to cheat to most effect

A question which seems to pop-up a lot with historical costuming is ‘Where do I begin?’. The proper answer to this question is to 1. pick a time period, and 2. start with the underwear. There’s a good article at Historical Sewing about this topic.

But what if you’re not sure if it’s worth all that effort, or if you’re a slow sewer, or a bit scared of having to make a corset? Sewing undergarments can take quite some time and effort, my Edwardian outfit has 7 different pieces in the undergarments. I know that when I started, I didn’t want to have to spend months creating items before I could finally start on a dress. After all, if I’d loose interest half-way it’d be for nothing (nowhere to wear them without outer garments after all). And I’m not a particularly quick seamstress, nor do I have a lot of time.

So what if you’d want to take a first step into historical costuming, but you don’t want to first build a wardrobe of undergarments? Should you just not start at all? There are some people who might say so, but I’d personally say: just go for it your own way. There are some ways to still get close to a historical silhouette, without getting all the layers correct. Of course, having proper underwear will always be better, but a first try doesn’t need to be perfect, and it just might get you excited about doing more! For my own very first historical dress, I cheated and went right into dress-making, skipping underwear. The result wasn’t perfect, and I don’t think I’ll wear that dress again now my standards have risen, but it did get me excited. It gave me the confidence to continue and try to make the next one better. Sometimes, that’s more important than getting it 100% right the first time.

foto van Marije de Vries.

My first regency dress, worn on top of modern undergarments. There’s many things I’d do different now, but this dress did get me started, and excited to continue to learn and get better!

 

So how do you go about still having a reasonably correct silhouette without all the correct underwear? Firstly, by carefully picking a period and style which could work for your body type. Unfortunately, some body types will work better than others, and for some people some undergarments will always be necessary. But there’s a lot of history to choose from! A second option is to still create some undergarments, but only the most crucial ones. Some are more defining to the silhouette than others, and for some you can limit the difference by picking the correct materials for your outer outfit. Finally, there’s always the option to buy some parts of the outfit. Especially for beginning seamstresses this might be an option for corsets. In the rest of this post, I’ll try to give some tips on what to look out for, and where you can cheat a little without looking absolutely wrong. Again a slight disclaimer: you’ll always look better with all the correct undergarments! These are tips to get you closer to correct silhouette while cheating a little, but there’s nothing that’ll beat the real thing. If it’s okay for you to don’t be 100% right if that means you get to save time/money: read on.

 

1. Pick the correct period/style for your body shape, and you might be able to avoid underwear entirely.

The easiest style if one wishes to avoid foundation garments is to go medieval. There are certain periods in history where the cut of your kirtle (under-dress) basically provided all the support needed. Because most over-dresses still show the kirtle (for example in the sleeves), you’d need to make one anyway. The trick, however, is to cut the kirtle so that it follows your shape and supports the bust.

a woman wearing a green tunic, with a sleeveless reddish surcote layered over it:

A kirtle and overdress. You won’t need anything below the green kirtle to get the right shape.

 

For anything between, say 1550 and the end of the 18th century, the torso-shape is quite specific. This is usually achieved with stays, or boned under-bodices with a petticoat. For the 17th century, one can get away with heavily boning the bodice, but skirt supports/petticoats are always necessary in this period. Not such a great era to start if you want to avoid underwear!

My favorite Queen of them all was Queen Elizabeth 1 - The later years of Elizabeth's reign are sometimes referred to as a Golden Age.:

One of the most extreme examples; but can you imagine this without the underwear? I’d be incredibly sad…

 

For my first costume, I went with a regency dress. Regency is a relatively forgiving silhouette, as you don’t necessarily need any hoops/petticoats etc. to support the skirt. A petticoat will help with the flow of your skirt, but is not crucial. The bust-line of Regency is very high though. Because I’m pretty small up top, this works for my body type. If your larger, a very good push-up bra might get you into the right direction, but it will work less well.

 

L'Art de vivre au temps de Josephine.:

Slinky dresses means petticoats are not essential. Do keep in mind that the chest is meant to be pushed up and to the sides. Easier to cheat if you’re smaller chested.

 

From the late 1820s to the 1840s, skirts become fuller and petticoats are again an absolute necessity. From the 1850s to the 1880s, this turns into crinolines and bustles, which usually need an additional petticoat as well. Corsets are worn throughout this period, but if you’re petite you might be able to get away with only boning the bodice. There’s no getting around the big skirts though. Nothing looks as sad as a bustle-skirt worn without proper support. The only exception is a very brief span around 1880, where the bustle nearly disappears, often called the natural form period. Ladies did still wear slight bum-pads, and petticoats do a lot to help the shape, but with the correct fabric/pattern you might be able to do without. Do try to pick patterns/shapes suitable for this period though, if you get a pattern meant for a later/earlier period your skirt will look very sad!

Revue de la Mode 1881:

Around 1880 the bustle nearly disappeared for a bit, for this skirt shape you might be able to get away not using any support. The only way to get the bodice shape like this is to be petite & bone the bodice. Otherwise a corset is necessary.

 

Although I needed a lot of help to get a proper Edwardian shape, this is already more forgiving than the previous era’s. The key to a proper Edwardian silhouette is that the bust is at it’s natural point (which, by the way, is lower than it’d be with a modern bra on!), and there’s a strong hourglass shape. If you have a natural hourglass shape, this might work for you! Go without a bra, or wear one with the straps very long so it’s low, lower than you’d normally be comfortable with. To control the mid-section, a high-waisted skirt might help, as these are boned. Be careful though not to put too much stress on the closure though. A lot of loose blouses were worn, so these disguise a lot! Try to avoid slinky evening dresses if you’re skimping on underwear, those won’t work without a proper corset. If you’re the straight and slim type, Edwardian is not the best choice. I personally need quite a bit of help achieving the curvy look.

1898-1908 Women's day wear: The trumpet shape skirts and shirtwaist were popular in the early 1900s.. This shows women's change in society. (Denny P.):

A loose blouse can disguise the lack of a corset. If you’re smaller chested like me though, you’ll need a little help filling up the blouse, and it’s not as suitable.

 

The 1910s  saw a distinct change from the Edwardian silhouette. From hourglass, the ideal went to straight and flat. Although corsets and petticoats were still worn in the 1910s, you might be able to skip these if you have a slimmer shape.

Ladies Home Journal (March, 1913):

Straighter shapes for 1913

 

From the 1920s we get into underwear which is more like what we wear today. Because that’s also generally where we go from historical to vintage, I’ll not go into those.

So, a summary of what period is most forgiving for what body shape. Where can you get away with leaving out all underwear?

  • Small bust (everyone): Regency
  • Small bust & petite: Natural form 1880 (do bone the bodice & pick the right skirt shapes!) or 1910’s (again: bone the bodice!)
  • Hourglass (bigger hip/breast size, smaller waist size): Edwardian. Don’t wear a modern bra, and wearing a high skirt with boning can help with the waist definition.
  • Everyone: Medieval

If you don’t want to go Medieval, but don’t fit into the other categories, don’t despair! You might not get away with leaving out underwear entirely, but for some periods you still might be able to take some shortcuts. This brings us to options 2 & 3:

2. Skip some undergarments

Some types of undergarments are more important than others. In general, chemises, drawers and corset-covers don’t add hugely to the silhouette, so could be skipped. So:

  • First tip: skip on chemises, drawers and corset covers. Wear a slip-dress or tank top instead. Not as nice as a linen/cotton base layer, but it won’t show in the silhouette.

 

Chemise Date: early 1870s Culture: American or European:

A chemise keeps your corset clean, but a tank top can go a long way too. Cotton/linen is always nicer than polyester though!

 

The rest is a bit more complicated, and depends both on the period and the fabric of your outfit. So let’s go over corsets, skirt-support and petticoats.

Corsets were worn continually from about 1700 to the 1910’s. Before that, heavily boned bodices or under-dresses took the support role. In the 18th century, stays (as corsets were called) functioned to give the body a conical shape. There’s no real getting around this, I wouldn’t recommend wearing an 18th century dress without stays. A rounded bust-line is very wrong for this period.

The Chocolate Pot - Pastels - Jean-Etienne Liotard - c. 1745:

The straight front, as seen from the side, is very 18th century. You’ll need stays to get the conical shape.

 

For Regency, the bust-line becomes higher, pushed up and separated. A good bra can provide some of the lift-effect, but tends to squish everything together which is not ideal. It’s a lot less noticeable though, especially if you have a smaller chest you might get away with not wearing stays.

Lady with coral necklace, French, 1820:

Lift and separate. You’ll not be able to get it this extreme without proper stays, but if you’re more petite the lift is possible with a bra.

 

After a brief transitional period, Victorian corsets with an hourglass shape came into play around 1830-1840. These can make a big difference in shape, and are most important for smoothing out the surface and keeping the bust in place. (No, it’s not necessarily a small waist!). If you’re petite with a small chest, if might be possible to skip the corset, provided you take care to bone your bodice well. This way, the bodice provides the smoothing and structural effect. (Be careful of the weight of your skirts if you do this, normally a corset supports the weight. Without a corset, the waistband of your skirt could cut into your hips depending on the weight).

Faces of the Victorian Era                                                                                                                                                      More:

Contrary to popular belief, the corset is more important as a base to smooth out the figure than as a waist-reducer. If you’re petite, you can approach this shape by heavily boning the bodice. Otherwise, you’ll need a corset. (See how there’s no clear underbust line? That’s what you’re going for)

 

In the Edwardian period, corsets change to leave the bust mostly in the natural place. For slinky dresses you’ll need a corset, but for loose blouses you might get away without. In the 1910s we’re back to a straight figure. This might work if you’re petite and bone the bodice.

Ha!! And this is just her UNDERWEAR! Edwardian lady in underwear, corset with attached garters.:

See how low the bust is here? If you have an hourglass shape and wear a loose blouse you can get a similar effect without a corset.

 

So, in summary, when could you skimp on a corset/stays without looking absolutely wrong? (Focused on 1700-1910, as that’s when they were worn)

  • 18th century: Always wear stays, no way around it.
  • Regency: Wearing a good bra can go a long way. It won’t give you a perfect silhouette, but if you’re smaller chested it can work.
  • Victorian: If you’re petite you might get away with only heavily boning your bodice and wearing a push-up bra. I won’t recommend this for anyone above a B cup, or those who prefer some tummy control. Do be careful of heavy skirts though, as they might dig into your hips/waist without a corset.
  • Edwardian: If you don’t need too much tummy control you could go without corset. It’s best to choose a blouse/skirt option as they’re loose fitted trough the bust, evening dresses will look bad without a corset. 
  • 1910s: If you’re petite and bone the bodice you can get away without a corset. Corsets were generally underbust anyway, but the goal is to get the midsection as flat as possible.

So, onto skirt supports & petticoats!

Nearly all periods from the 1500’s to the 1920’s see some type of skirt support. These make sure the skirts hold the correct shape. They’re also absolutely essential to getting the correct silhouette. For 1500-1800 this is usually a wide skirt with extra width from the hips (depending on the period). In the 18th century, there’s also a period where panniers were worn to widen the hips. But even without those, hip-pads and bun-pads and extra petticoats were worn throughout the period to support the skirt. These can’t be skipped.

Journal des Luxus, February 1792. And just FYI, I'm officially calling dibs on this one!:

Approaching the end of the 18th century, skirts have never been slimmer than this. But see how big her but still looks? That shape can only be achieved with a little help.

 

Regency is more forgiving, as it only occasionally saw a small bum-pad. Most dresses will work without anything underneath.

Muslin Dresses about 1800 Hamburg Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe:

Unless your fabric is sheer like these, you won’t need a petticoat, the shape is correct without one.

 

From the 1820’s to the 1840’s, structured petticoats are again necessary. After this, there’s the era of crinolines and bustles. Needless to say, any dress from the 1850’s to 1880’s absolutely needs support in some form.

ANTIQUE-ROYALS:

Imagine a dress like this without hoops, it’d be very sad, and dragging on the floor…

 

The only slight exception is 1880, around which the bustle had shrunk to nearly nothing. This ‘natural form’ period can deal with only a slight bum-pad, no extra steel contraptions needed. From the 1890’s on, only petticoats were worn.

Paquin evening dress ca. 1895  From the Kunstgewerbemuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin via Europeana Fashion Fripperies and Fobs:

Dresses like these only had minimal skirt supports, but definitely need a couple of petticoats to keep it in shape.

 

Petticoats were also worn almost always, and are often necessary to make the skirt fuller. Aside from regency and the 1910s, I can’t think of any period after 1500 where you can forgo with a petticoat. If you really don’t want to make one, you can, however, closely consider your outer fabric. If your outer fabric is stiffer and thicker, it will need a petticoat less. Basically, because it will stand out on itself more. Very thick wool you might get away with. Thin cotton, not so much. If you’re wearing a hoop and skirt without a petticoat, always check very well if the hoops aren’t visible! I’ve seen a lot of outfits with great potential ruined by hoop-lines showing through, so be careful.

So, in summary, when could you skimp on skirt supports without looking absolutely wrong?

  • Anything between 1500 and 1800: You’ll need some skirt support. If you’re doing lower class and you have wide hips in ratio to your waist you might be able to wear a thick woolen skirt without petticoat. That’s the only exception I can think of however, and it’d need to be heavily pleated to the waistband to stand out.
  • Regency: you can get away without a petticoat unless your fabric is sheer or super-thin. Now they liked those fabrics in this era, so you’d need to go to the slightly thicker cottons or stiffer silks.
  • 1820-1845: No crinoline cages in this era, just petticoats, which are essential for the shape. No cheating here, alas.
  • 1850-1890: The era of crinolines and bustles (Except for the short natural form period, I’ll go into that below). You’ll always need something to support your skirt, be it crinoline or bustle depending on the period, you won’t be able to do without. If your dress fabric is very thick (think heavy wool/velvet), you might be able to forgo a petticoat. Be careful though, if crinoline hoops/bustle bones show through the fabric you really need a petticoat (or 2, depending on your fabric). Bones showing through can ruin the look.
  • 1880, Natural form: A brief era without big bustles. In the slimmest years you could get away without any skirt support. Only if you’re not wearing a train though, those do need support of a petticoat!
  • 1890’s & Edwardian: If your skirt fabric is heavy (say; heavier wool) you might get away without a petticoat. Flounces at the bottom can help to have your skirt stand out. Lighter fabrics (ie cotton) will need a petticoat though. My own Edwardian skirt was light weight wool and looked loads better with a petticoat.
  • 1910s: Very slim skirt silhouette means a petticoat is not essential!

If you want do do an era for which you’ll really need a corset, but are afraid to make one, there’s still option nr. 3:

3. Buy foundation pieces

This especially holds for corsets, as they’re generally the most difficult and time-consuming piece of underwear to make. This doesn’t mean they’re impossible though! There’s a lot of good patterns out there, so no need to be scared. If you do want to buy one, it’s important to do your research well. Corsets are very form-fitting, so they need to fit you really well. A good fitting corset can be tight, but should not be uncomfortable and definitely not painful! So check the sizing well. I personally cannot get away with an off-the-rack corset, because I have a large hip-spring. There’s a big difference between my waist size and hip size, and as a result nearly all pre-made corsets are too small in the hips for my waist, and shift upwards. Because all bodies are different, a lot of people cannot find a corset with fits them well off-the-rack. In that case, there are a lot of corsetiers who make custom corsets, but this will, of course, show in the price. Also check how suitable your corset if for the period you’re aiming for. Most modern corsets are reasonably similar to Victorian corsets in shape, but there are differences. Most notably, most Victorian corsets are mid-bust instead of high-bust. A high bustline can show underneath a dress. And obviously, if you’re aiming for 18th century, don’t wear a Victorian corset underneath, look for stays instead.

Clermont State Historic Site: Is it Really Necessary? Of Corset is!:

Nice infographic on corset shapes, by Clermont State Historical. Pick the right shape for the right period!