Costuming of the Late 1890’s and Early 1900’s
by Donna Winters
Carol’s family has told her the story of her great-aunt who died at age 36 just after the turn of the century. She had been a concert pianist and wore corsets and elaborate gowns regularly. Not knowing what had caused her death, her husband, a doctor, performed an autopsy. He reported that not one of her organs was in its proper place. Already, fashion had taken its toll.
I’d like to tell you some of the drawbacks of wearing a corset aside from those already mentioned. The first time I ever wore my corset, I realized how impossible it is to take a deep (full) breath. You literally cannot expand your lungs enough to do it. No wonder Victorian women fainted! Besides not being able to take a deep breath, the circulation of blood to the brain was being hampered by the tightness of the undergarment. As for eating while in the corset, this is not as uncomfortable as one might assume, but a Victorian woman would certainly never be capable of over-indulging while corseted. I find that I can eat small amounts slowly. I also learned that it is not a good idea to drink anything fast, because liquid is severely hampered en route to your stomach.
I discovered another almost humorous aspect of the corset the first time I took mine off. It’s like opening the dam. You quickly realize that you need a toilet, and you need it fast! I learned to do the unhooking in the bathroom. Another aftereffect of removing the corset is the itchiness from heat rash that sometimes develops. And if your chemise or camisole has a seam, you’ll find it deeply impressed into your flesh.
The petticoat goes on over the combination garment or drawers and closes with hooks and eyes. You may notice that my petticoat has no lace trim on the flounces. The pattern called for over 40 yards of lace and ribbon trim, but as I mentioned earlier, I was more concerned with the outward appearance. I elected to leave the trim off because it would have doubled the cost of the petticoat and I would have been the only one to see it.
I wear a corset cover made from a Victorian pattern. Inside the corset cover I have added Victorian bust enhancers. Unlike today’s approach to the perfect figure, the Victorian bust enhancers required no surgery, could not leak, contained no dangerous chemicals, were easily removed and 100 percent safe…because they were cotton ruffles! Being thin busted as I am, I have sewn two rows of ruffles into each side of my corset cover. I learned about these from the woman who developed the historic pattern for my Practical Promenade suit. She conducted an historic sewing workshop which I attended soon after I had my costume made.
My outerwear is either a wool Practical Promenade suit (for fall and winter) or a white blouse and dark skirt (for spring and summer). The wool suit has a small check pattern that includes burgundy, beige, and black as the main colors and is a very close match to the original suit from which the pattern was created. The jacket includes an attached burgundy front which makes it appear that it is a blouse and jacket, but instead it is all one piece. The front closes with sixteen hooks and eyes and the jacket has its own set of steel stays to shape the waist. Another feature of the jacket that I particularly like is a stayband. This is a narrow cotton belt sewn inside the waist of the jacket. It fastens in front with hook and eye. At the back, the stayband has two hooks that connect with two eyes sewn to the outside of the waistband of the skirt and prevents the two pieces from ever separating. The stayband is a truly great way to stay “perfectly put together” as someone once told me.
My white blouse is a Battenberg lace blouse created from an authentic pattern, and the skirt I wear with it was created from the skirt pattern of the Practical Promenade suit. This white blouse-dark skirt outfit was considered the “uniform” of the late 1890’s-early 1900’s. I have another blouse made of ecru cotton and lace that I sometimes wear. The ecru blouse appears to be sewn from an authentic historic pattern and is extremely feminine and beautifully made. I wish I knew more about it, such as the exact era of the pattern and the person who made it, but I have no information on it since I found it at a thrift shop. It was truly the buy of my life because I bought it on a day when the shop was selling a bagful of clothes for $3, and I had seven other items in my bag along with that blouse!
Also among my accessories are a lace jabot, and an enamel pin that I use to attach it to the neckline of my suit. These were furnished to me by ladies who really knew historic fashion in detail. The enamel pin was hand-painted by a dear friend, now deceased, to coordinate with the colors in my suit. I am especially grateful to have these two items, because they are the perfect finishing touch.
I hope you’ve learned some of the firsthand details that no one else has told you about wearing a corset and that you’ve had a laugh or two. Feel free to contact me with any unanswered questions and I’ll do my best to provide an answer.
PO Box 85
Garden MI 49835