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!

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

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