Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Ornate Nineteenth-Century Chemise with Front Flap

A month or two ago, when winter still gripped us hard, for solace I browsed a favorite antique shop that sometimes carries vintage and antique clothing. I hadn't looked about for more than a minute when this garment caught my eye. It was listed as a pinafore, and very reasonably priced.

Right: chemise front

It's hardly a pinafore: to my middling understanding those usually fastened at the back and at this length, were worn by children. This garment is clearly sized for an adult.

It is actually a woman's chemise, but of a variant type because it features a front flap. Until very late in the Edwardian era, fashion historians generally write that chemises were worn, along with drawers, as the undermost garments. The chemise absorbed body oils and perspiration and protected the corset, which was worn over it. Over the corset a woman would often add a corset cover/camisole. This protected the dress and corset from each other and might also keep the corset from view if the main dress or waist (blouse) was at all sheer. At times, I have read that the chemise and corset cover were made in one: the chemise would feature a flap that could be pulled out and over the top of the corset. That that is how this garment is meant to be worn.

Very curious as to what I had, and wanting to share pictures of it with others who love antique clothing, I posted information and questions about it on my beloved Sense and Sensibility board. To my delight, other members enjoyed seeing it, and were curious about it or had information to share about it. The garment description that follows is immeasurably improved by their contributions.


The garment is made of an opaque, tightly woven, mid-weight fabric that hasn't any sheen at all. I thought it to be cotton, then wondered if it might be linen. It's of a plain weave, with occasional very, very small slubs in the thread. The fabric as a whole is the color of high-quality cream from the top of the milk bottle. Not dead white. On the inside of the garment there is a little yellowing , but very little, and there are a few pinpoint rust stains and one or two droplet size stains.

Suzi Clarke, costumier in London (http://www.suziclarke.co.uk/), wrote in a post of the fabric: "It is possible that it was made from "Horrocks's Longcloth", a firm washable cotton made and sold in England by, of course, Horrocks. This was a suitable fabric for underclothes, and was used for, and can be seen in, many still surviving garments."

Carolann Schmitt of the Genteel Arts Academy (http://www.genteelarts.com/) thought it longcloth too, and described the fabric thus: "
a tightly-woven cotton with a smooth "hard" finish. The fabric was produced in England and the US and is very common for this period."

Longcloth has an interesting history, and while my antique sewing manuals and fashion history books mention it with frequency, none of them expound on either its nature or its roots. Finally, here is its story, courtesy Carolann:

The name "longcloth" derives from how it was manufactured. Prior to the industrial revolution, weavers would produce fabric in lengths just sufficient to make a particular garment. Why weave more fabric than you need? It's why so many early 19th century garments (and before) have a "squares and rectangles" cut - virtually no waste. If you look at some of the cutting diagrams for chemises in The Workwoman's Guide (published in 1838) you can see how careful planning uses virtually every inch of fabric.

When commerical textile production is established, it's no longer cost effective to weave short lengths of fabric. A cotton fabric made from tightly-spun fibers woven with a tight weave suitable for undergarments and shirts was one of the first textiles woven in long pieces, hence the name "longcloth". A "piece" of longcloth averaged 62-67 yards; even today, textile production is measured in "pieces" - each averaging 62-65 yards.

One of my primary sources, in an "advice to young wives" article, advises purchasing two full pieces of longcloth when the new wife establishes her household. The first piece will provide enough fabric to make the minimum number of undergarments they should have on hand, including a dozen chemises, 4-6 petticoats, 2-3 underskirts, 2 nightdresses and 2 robes. (Notice they don't mention drawers!). Then, as these garments wear out, they should be replaced with new items cut from the second piece of longcloth. A very practical recommendation.

Right: chemise back

Construction and Measurements

The neckline is wide and shallow, and it is trimmed with a single ruffle edged with tatting. The neckline is shaped by the yoke, which gives the entire garment its shape. The yoke is quite narrow, measuring only an inch wide over each shoulder, and is identical front and back. It is trimmed with a band of broderie anglaise.

The front and back pieces
are lightly gored: they are of trapezoidal shape, in the fashion that goes back centuries. Very similar to the pattern shape Elizabeth Stewart Clark uses in her chemise pattern on her site. The top of each panelis lightly gathered and stroked into place. In spots you can see the tiny gathering stitches.

The sleeves are short, plain pieces, carefully gathered and stroked into the armscyes, and trimmed like the neckline.

This chemise has a gusset inset under each arm; they are surrounded by a double layer of fabric, presumably to take strains. I understand that gussets under the arms were less and less used as the nineteenth century went on.

The seams and trim inside and out are exquisitely, precisely, almost invisibly sewn. The tatting, for instance, is made of single threads, and the thread used to whip it to the edge of the neckline and sleeves is so fine that it can hardly be seen. I do not know if I could find thread that fine now. The broderie anglaise trim is similarly fine. The main seams and bottom hem are machine sewn with a lockstitch machine, using similar or the same fine thread. These main seams are flat felled and the stitch count is very high, some 16 stitches to the inch. The ruffles are hand whipped to the neckline, and the reinforcement fabric at the underarm gussets is so finely hand-hemmed that it took awhile to find any stitching.

Measurements were taken on a dress form, but loosely:
  • front and back neckline, shoulder to shoulder: 19 1/2 inches
  • yoke width at shoulder: 1 inch
  • sleeve diameter: 5 1/2 inches
  • front flap width: 12 1/2 inches at top, 7 1/4 inches at bottom
  • front flap length: 7 inches
  • front and back panel width measured at arm gusset bottom, each: 27 inches
  • front and back panel width measured at garment hem: 34 inches
  • garment length, shoulder to hem: 32 inches
Its Date and Context in Fashion History

Much of the posting back and forth today concerned the chemise date. Portions of the posts are included here, and offer not only a date for this garment, but give a sense for how a decision was arrived at.

  • Emma Ruth: You're right, it is a chemise. I would date it to the 1850s or 1860s because of the horizontal band yoke. That was the style of chemise worn while dropped shoulder seams were used on dresses. Once shoulder seams moved up to a more modern position by the early 1870s chemises with straight horizontal yokes could no longer be worn and chemises with shaped yokes came into fashion instead.
  • Elizabeth Stewart Clark: "I'd ditto a mid-century date, due to the shape and "set" of the yoke. How are the seams in the chemise body handled? Is the body gored, or straight panels?"
  • Acacia: "Perhaps more of us will join in here: I've done "surface study" of mid century but certainly not in depth. My first impulse was 1840's. I suspect it's the style of the white work that will help date it. It looks to be entirely hand sewn - is that right? It possibly could go one decade earlier into the 1830's - as you say the wide neckline hints at that, but this style neckline was still worn later - especially for ball gowns, which retained that style of open, wide neck. (After this, I detail its construction as a mix of machine and handsewing.)
  • Suzi Clarke: "If it is machine sewn, it is highly unlikely to have been sewn before the 1850's when sewing machines were first commercially available for domestic sewing. Also, I can't remember the date when lock stitch, as opposed to chain stitch became the regular stitch, but chain stitch was the earlier."
  • Carolann Schmitt: Mid-19th century chemises are one of my "specialties". I have 25+ in my collection.

    I'd date this chemise c.1855-early 1860s.
    - The neckline is starting to transition from the straight band of the early-mid1850s to the deeper shaped yokes c.1860-1865.
    - It still has the square cut sleeves, gussets and reinforcements typical of this period, before the transition to sleeves cut with a bias seam and no gussets.
    - This is the same period when the cut of the body of the chemise transitions from the full width of the fabric with inset triangular gores to add width at the lower edge (look carefully - the seams can be almos invisible!) to a body cut with gored seams. In the mid1860s this cut will transition again to one with some slight shaping at the waist.
    - The fabric does appear to be longcloth - a tightly-woven cotton with a smooth "hard" finish. The fabric was produced in England and the US and is very common for this period. Cotton had pretty much replaced linen for undergarments in the late 1840s-1850s.
    - Chemises from the 1840s are square cut, with a wide 'scoop' neckline, longer and fuller sleeves, and are much longer in length. The length of this one indicates it could have been worn tucked or untucked.
    - The flap protects the inside of the dress from wear and crocking from the corset. It's a characteristic feature of late 1850s chemises. I have two chemises with a flap in the front and the back. You'll also find flaps on nursing chemises - covering the slits in the fabric.
    - The trimming at the neckline - corded tucks, whitework band, tatted edging - is very common. I have two or three chemises with almost identical trim.

    Chemises like this were available ready-made at very affordable prices from merchants across the country in towns and cities of any size.

    It's a lovely piece, Natalie.
Additional Pictures

Side view

Yoke and neckline detail showing tatting, piping, broderie anglaise trim and stroked gathers on sleeves. Note: if you view the large version of this image by clicking on it, please be aware that I used telephoto to approximately twice the actual size: it blurred the image a little but also made the tatting look coarse. In actuality, the tatting threads are fine as sewing thread. Each picot is an eighth of an inch tall. The yoke is but one inch wide at the shoulder, and the ruffle but 3/8 of an inch wide.

Detail showing gusset with reinforcement fabric under arm

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