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Chemise Archaeology????

Is that not the one of the prettiest piece of undies you have seen in a while? This chemise is part of my Costume People collection and will be on exhibit at the Vintage Fashion Exhibit at the Oshawa Museum in June.

One of the reasons I acquired this particular piece of clothing was to show how women before us, were just as frugal as we are today. Reduce, reuse and recycle is not a new concept.

This item of clothing is called a Chemise. For those of you who are new to the functions of historical clothing. A chemise is a piece of clothing that was worn next to the skin. It is typically made of some type of natural fiber that serves as a base layer to protect the wearer's body from the collected dirt and grime of a typical day. Starting in the Victorian era, most middle-class women would own 5 or 6 chemises. That chemise would be changed 3 or 4 times a week. Ones everyday Edwardian chemise (what my example is) would typically be made of cotton and embellished with a lovely frothy concoction of lace and ruffles.

On the surface, this chemise looks like a typical run of the mill Edwardian chemise. It's pretty, but nothing spectacular.

But…. Look a little closer….

Its amazing what, upon close examination, you can tell about its previous wearers and their lives.

Lets first take a look at the fabric itself. Its made of cotton. The cotton isn't particularly fine, nor is it a cheap weave. It's a good strong, sturdy weave (even after 150 years). When I first acquired the chemise, it had severely yellowed and was scattered with tiny rust spots. The yellowing came from years of incorrect storage, and the rust spots were from something dripping into the fibers while in its storage container. (probably a trunk with rusty bands and hinges) It was interesting to note how the rust spots directly coincided with how the garment was folded and laid in the trunk in relation to the rusty pieces. (no guesswork there…)

As I wanted to use the chemise for one of the Mrs. Passmore talks, I washed it! Not only did I wash it, but I also used a ¼ cup of javex! Gasp! And some vinegar and lavender essence to get rid of the stink of 150 years in storage. I figured if I wrecked the chemise, not a problem. There are tons more of them out there. I was surprised at how well it cleaned up and actually smells nice. (as Mrs Passmore has mentioned a couple times) Most of the rust stains even came out.

Now that the chemise is relatively clean, all these interesting things started to show themselves.

The first thing I noticed, was all the "mends." Our previous owner had shrunk and expanded many times over the years. There were a few nicely done hand repairs around the middle area. Most of the repairs were at the front and sides of the chemise. Hmm….baby coming? I also noticed there was a panel added to both sides so that there was extra room around the waist. I don't think that side panel is original to the chemise as the piece at the armscye has been folded and sewn into place. If that side piece was part of the original construction, I don't think the manufacturer would have done such an "amateurish" addition. The button placket had been moved over a bit too so that there was extra button room. There's also some evidence of pull where her waistline fell. The placket isn't the same fabric as the rest of the chemise, so I would say another placket was added at a later time. There's no evidence of "pulling" on the new placket. Maybe the previous "expansion" destroyed the button holes, necessitating another button placket.


The next thing to look at are the underarms. The underarms have been doubled up and reinforced 2 and 3 times. Holes have been patched, and pieces have been added. All these repairs have been done to fix the damage that had been done by perspiration. Human perspiration is very acidic, and it literally rots natural fibers (especially cotton) in a very short time. Ie, the space of a summer. Remember – antiperspirant deodorant wasn't readily available to Joe Public until the 1940s. Previous to that, there were a few formulations on the market, but not everyone chose to use them. I would imagine the average Edwardian was rather odiferous.


Now, let's look at the back neck. I had initially thought the back neck might have been opened. I've never seen a chemise with a "v" shaped back, so I wondered if the shape had been altered/clipped from a rounded neck to a v shape to make accommodation for a wider back. I got talking with a few friends, and we noticed that the neck back wasn't "split" as much as it was cut that way. The lace that was added as trim matches the lace on the hem. I didn't see any evidence of pulling on the edge of that "v'," so on second thought, I would say it was originally cut that way. Interesting….

Back Neckline

The skirt back…. Now here's a mystery. The original chemise is cut on a princess line until you get to the hip. That makes perfect sense as Edwardian corsets were much longer than Victorian ones. The less bulk of fabric under the corset, the more comfortable the corset is going to be. But… for some reason, someone had opened the back waist seam and inserted a crescent shape of fabric. The addition was done after… the chemise was constructed. The crescent shape wedge is just big enough to accommodate a small bustle. The original construction did not accommodate a bustle – which places the chemise around the beginning of the first world war… but…you very seldom see a bustle post WW1. Kind of backwards chemise history. I still haven't come up with a proper explanation as to why this might be. I might also be missing some subtle nuance in fashion history that I'm not aware of. More reading and searching are needed.

Bustle Wedge

As we move down the skirt, you will notice that it has been lengthened. Not only has it been lengthened, but it also looks like the owner had lengthened it in pieces. It doesn't look like they had enough yardage to add the length in one piece, so they took the fabric off another item, pieced it together and then attached to the hem. Changing the length is very common during this time. As this chemise has been through many changes in fashion (i.e., hems falling and rising), I'm not surprised.

Another way to change skirt lengths would be through the use of tucks. Tucking was a common method to control the amount of lengthwise and around the body fabric bulk. We still use tucks to this day, especially in Boho fashion. This particular skirt has lots of tucks. On first glance, why would the user not just use tucking to increase and decrease the length of her skirt?

In this case, there's a good reason ….

Look at the ruffle on the very bottom. With the advent of mechanization, jobs that were formally very fiddly and time-consuming could be done by machine and then sold by the yard. (Ie ruffling) The fashion of the day required a good amount of ruffling at the hem to support and shape the outside dress. Instead of spending hours making ruffle and then attaching it to the skirt, the maker decided to attach the ruffle to another width that was tucked. Both these "elements" were readily available at the local dry goods store. So, it would be much more efficient to purchase premade ruffles and tucks and then attach to the hem of the skirt. It would be much easier to let out a couple of tucks than to calculate the amount of fabric needed to get x measurement of tucks and x measurement of ruffle so that your chemise is the proper length. Yes, mechanization is a wonderful thing.

Ruffle and Tucking assembly

The last thing I wanted to talk about – its difficult to see on the picture – is starching. The entire chemise would be starched to give it a nice crisp look and feel. Starching is required for two reasons. The first is to provide some body and support for the dress that will be worn over it. Typically one would wear their chemise and one or two frothy petticoats to fill in that nice gently belled shape you see in Edwardian skirts. Starching in the 18 to 1900s was nothing like the simple spray and iron we use in modern times. Every woman had their own recipe for laundry starch… basically boiled corn starch and water. Commercial starch was also readily available, and one did not need to go through the boiling prep process; consequently, it was a little more convenient to use. After your "whites" were washed, they would be dipped and saturated in the starch solution and then hung to dry on the clothesline. After everything was dry, then the lady of the house got out her heavy iron, heated it and pressed the garment till it finished with the consistency of paper. Some petticoats in my collection still have the original starch in them and are still so stiff, they are able to stand on their own. The second reason clothing was starched was to protect the fabric from the day to day wear and tear it is subjected to. Starching could be equated to an insurance policy to protect the fabric, thus giving it a longer life.

So, from a collectors point of view, that was a really interesting exercise in textile archaeology. I do feel its important to mention… I'm not a trained conservator by any stretch. But, as a collector and lover of "old stuff," I have looked at and handled hundreds of antique pieces of clothing over my lifetime. Although a textile conservator education is very important, I also think many years of "hands-on" experience is just as valuable. I love the ideas of discovery these two folks can make working together.

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