Wednesday, November 12, 2008

1890s Shirtwaist? No, 1980s! About the New Edwardian/Victorian Style

In the last post I showed a shirtwaist I made with sleeves patterned after the giant leg 'o mutton sleeves popular circa 1894-1896. The rest of the sewing detailing I took from an original shirtwaist that I thought dated to the very early 1890s.

Having asked on the Sense and Sensibility board about how to copy the garment, several of the more senior members pointed out that several features on the blouse, especially the horizontal bust darts, show that this blouse dates to the New Edwardian fashion in the 1980s and was handsewn by an admirer of that style, which was popularized by makers such as Ralph Lauren and Laura Ashley. Oops! Ah, so while this blouse is vintage, it is not antique. Collecting clothing is such a learning process!

Here below I describe the shirtwaist and then the Sense and Sensibility members discuss it and give a history of the fashion movement that spurred its creation.

Photo: Edwardian renaissance 1980s shirtwaist

Blouse Construction

The shirtwaist is an interesting garment, so I thought it might be helpful to show that shirtwaist so you can see how it is made.

In the first photo we have the shirtwaist front. The garment is made of a a very soft, sheer windowpane checked cotton. It's trimmed with inexpensive eyelet, of the sort still available today, although the eyelet stitching is tighter than that found now.

In front, the bodice section features a bust dart to either side as well as a pair of darts taken from the bottom. One of the bottom darts was sewed in backwards, which makes me feel better as a seamstress.

Photo: shirtwaist interior

As discussed in the last post, the inside of the garment shows it was very simply sewn. While the main seams are french, so the seams won't look messy when the sheer blouse is worn, the armscye seams are left unfinished. The bottom hem, which you cannot see, if just turned up once and sewn.

The collar is finished nicely, though, for all it's so simple, It appears as if the collar was cut with an inside and outside piece, and the lace trim was sandwiched in the seam, with collar pieces right sides together, and stitched, and then the collar pieces turned out, so that the trim raw edge was hidden inside. Clever, eh?

The sleeves are interesting, too. Note the little tucks that are set into the back side...the sleeves are made of one piece, so the tucks would have been set right after each sleeve piece was cut out, and then the sleeve would have been sewn up.

The cuffs are neatly finished, too.

Here is exterior of a cuff.

Here is the interior of that same cuff.

All in all, it's a graceful little garment!

Dating the Blouse, and A History of the New Edwardian/Victorian Movement, by Sense and Sensibility Board Members

The ladies on Sense and Sensibility kindly assented to my reprinting their comments here, as instruction not only in garment dating but also in features of New Edwardian style.

After Emma Ruth pointed out the bust dart issue, I checked in with the S&S folks again. Acacia wrote:

Natalie, have you considered that this might be a 1970's blouse? It's got that "Gunne Sax" look. I may have owned a very similar blouse at one time. Check if the back button holes appear to be machine stitched. Check to see if there were ever any wire supports in the collar (which might indicate an earlier date).

I wrote back, describing the blouse much as I did above. Then Acacia replied:

It certainly sounds like you have some lovely vintage sewing techniques in this blouse. I wouldn’t place too much thought into the use of selvage. Home sewers do what they like.

I can’t offer any more thoughts on this. It may indeed be from an earlier time, but the New-Edwardian fashion trend during the 1960’s-1970’s produced some very pretty garments that would match your blouse. The back neck closure was common enough during this Edwardian revival. A homemade garment could include everything you’ve described. Another extremely popular designer during this period was Laura Ashley. There were lots of sewing patterns available (from the big companies to some of the smaller independent companies) to make these styles. Folkwear Patterns showed up in the 1970’s as well.

It's a lovely little blouse. Thank you for sharing it with us.

Frances Grimble of La Volta Press wrote:

That is definitely a 1980s blouse. It's the Ralph Lauren/Victorian revival look. Some of the commercial ones were quite fancy and expensive, but there were plenty of home-sewing patterns for that style as well. I made one from a Vogue pattern, with a lot of hand sewing, and another one from hand-embroidered vintage dresser covers. I also have several of the fancy commercial ones. It is very pretty; but if you want to make one like it, the easiest thing to do would be to surf eBay for similar patterns from the 1980s.

Then we chatted a little about the learning process, and Frances undertook to explain the style a bit more. It's fascinating, as she describes a revival of period fashions that from which our current love of period fashion has had such help:

Sure, go ahead and quote. I will add, that if you often want to date garments (or accessories or costume jewelry), one thing you need to do is to become familiar with later styles that copied those garments.

This body is actually closer to an 1880s breakfast-style basque (to be worn in the morning over a skirt) than to an 1890s blouse. Those however usually have princess seams or long front darts rather than the two kinds of darts, and they usually button in front. The sleeves are usually cut in two pieces. These basques are also usually trimmed around the bottom, and often are more highly trimmed in general.

The 1890s style blouses are not as close fitting, and they also do not have the two kinds of darts. Usually they have a front to be worn at least somewhat puffed, with tapes sewn onto the back at the waist to bring round and tie, to keep the puff, and the blouse in general, in place. Usually the part below the waist is so short that, even if you're very short yourself, it's hard to keep the blouse tucked in without not only the ties, but a very tight-waisted skirt on top, and preferably a belt too. Vintage clothing dealers often sew some more fabric onto the bottom.

But the plain body with two kinds of darts, the one-piece sleeve slightly puffed at the shoulder, the sheer material, and in general the features, is absolutely 1980s.

In the 1970s there was a fashion for “Victorian” styled garments, which was to some extent mingled with the also-fashionable “peasant” look. The styles were very loosely derived from historic (and ethnic) models, and cheerfully combined the features of various eras. They included things like empire-waist tunics and long dresses, calf-length cotton skirts with a ruffle at the bottom, and white cotton blouses with nylon lace. Pure cotton fabrics were very fashionable, often of a rather coarse weave and often with little floral prints. Coarse 100% cotton machine-made bobbin lace was trendy and you can still find lots of it for sale on eBay. Popular manufacturers included Gunne Sax and Laura Ashley (neither of which did particularly high-quality construction).

The “Victorian” look gradually became more sophisticated and began to feature higher-quality fabrics and construction. Fashionable garments included blouses in the style you have, usually semi-sheer, cream or white, and decorated with lace in some way; for example a high lace collar and wide cuffs, and/or a sewn-on lace jabot, and/or a lace yoke, or the whole blouse made of lace. Handkerchief linen was widely used for these blouses. Other styles included long, full skirts made of fabrics like velvet, suede, or handkerchief linen; upholstery brocade vests styled more or less like mid-19th-century men’s vests; tailored tweed jackets and long skirts (to wear with the fancy blouses); long khaki cotton front-buttoning “safari” skirts; and fake or real Victorian or Edwardian lingerie worn as outer garments, especially petticoats, camisoles (new ones made of little cotton prints were also popular), and for the more daring, long drawers (worn peeking out from below a petticoat or from the unbuttoned bottom of a safari skirt). Trendy manufacturers included Ralph Lauren and Jessica McClintock (the fancy bridal/evening division of the company that made Gunne Sax). Sewing was regarded primarily as a form of personal expression, and some sewers put a lot of hand sewing and/or embroidery into their creations. Folkwear patterns were especially popular with people who liked the “Victorian” look; but patterns for styles from Ralph Lauren and other nostalgic manufacturers were also widely available in the big pattern catalogs.

Some of the earlier Renaissance and Dickens fair merchandise (it was the same vendors) was very beautiful; some people were doing art and hadn’t figured out they needed to mass produce to make a profit. There were two California designers (one died young soon after hitting the movie-star market, the other is now making astronomically priced couture accessories) who specialized in a kind of Victorian or Edwardian look. They made a very simple style, like a straight camisole, a peasanty empire-waisted dress, or a corset with no boning, and then put umpteen layers of trimming on it. Even more trimming than the real thing; but they were able to make it work. They liked to work in pastels, though the mock-corsets were usually dark.

Some really amazing garments were also sold at the fancy textile art shows. Some were made of hand-woven fabric (alas, the styles of hand-woven garments were usually rather crude) or were knitted, or they were hand-painted silks. I still have an amazing full-length knitted coat with three-dimensional trees worked into it all over, and a tapestry-style knitted sweater with pictures worked in a flat knit.

Suzi Clarke, a costumier in London chimed in:

You take me back to my "best" years!! I still have a drawstring neck full length dress in a Laura Ashley print that I made. I left off the underbust drawstring, and wore a tie belt. It came in extremely handy for a pregnancy dress in that long hot summer of 1977. And I had crushed velvet loon (very loose) pants and fitted jacket , a blouse like Zipzip's, and cotton gingham skirts with ruffles on the hem and a blouse wwith leg o' mutton sleeves. I never stopped wearing long skirts! And there were the Indian muslin tops, and wrap skirts, often in stripes. Oh, lovely memories!!

Nancy wrote:

Yup, this whole thread is making me a little nostalgic, too. I was in high school and college through most of the '70's, and Gunne Sax and Laura Ashley were highly coveted. I still kick myself for letting my mother get rid of a floor length peach-colored gauze Gunne Sax formal I had when I was 20....

Frances wrote back:

What I remember is the 1980s more than the 70s. I used to go into work at publishing houses dressed in Edwardian clothes and be told by management how high-fashion my style was. Which management liked, because editors had to "meet with the public," which basically boiled down to authors--meaning a lot of editors preferred to wear jeans.

Re the blouse, one other point. I used to collect Victorian and Edwardian "whites," and I still have over a hundred white antique blouses. One thing I've never seen is a sheer batiste or lawn in cream or ecru. Embroidered net, yes. Lace, yes. (One Edwardian fashion for the pouch-fronted blouses was to sew strips of coarse bobbin lace together to create a fabric, then cut the blouse out of it, using two or three straight strips of lace sewn together to make the collar and cuffs.) Cream Irish crochet, yes. Opaque medium-weight linens in ecru, yes.

Sheer cream or ecru cottons and linens: No. They were used a lot in the 1980s, and I personally prefer them to bright whites, but the Victorians and Edwardians did not like them much for blouses. I'm not saying they never used them for anything, but they seemed to like the boil-it-then-blue-it look.

Thank you, Sense and Sensibility members for this trip back to one of the chief roots of our love of period dressing.

A note: I only have the online names that the other members have given; otherwise I'd give them more formal mention.


Amy Ballard said...

What a pretty garment!
I'm enjoying your blog, which I stumbled upon in my research for a novel set in 1909. My protagonist sews, probably because I've been sewing a lot lately. A friend from church has helped me tackle some new skills on my sewing machine and I'm really having fun with it. I wonder if you've ever used a vintage sewing machine? I'm looking for someone who can offer some first-hand experience as to what it's like compared to using a modern machine. Keep up the beautiful work!

Sarah Jane said...

Thank you so much for sharing this shirtwaist! I have the PP 1894 Bell skirt pattern and have been looking for inspiration for a shirt to go with it. This one is very pretty, and simple. *sigh* to find lovely sheer cotton like that in fabric stores nowadays!

ZipZipInkspot said...

Dear Amy,

Thank you so much for your kind comment about my blog and the shirtwaist post! Would love to hear more about your novel and will look up your blog...

As for sewing with antique machines, I most certainly do. I sew on a circa 1911 Willcox and Gibbs chainstitch machine as well as a Singer handcrank of about the same date. I also have a 1920s Singer treadle that belonged to my inlaws' parents, and an 1880s English treadle, rather rare, decorated with mother of pearl and set in an ornate table, which was quite common. Then I have several loose treadle "heads" that await restoration and use. Antique machines can be wonderful to sew on and I have forgotten how to use bobbin machines :}

You can see pictures of some of the machines in the very earliest posts on this blog.

Very best,

Natalie in Kentucky

ZipZipInkspot said...

Good day, Sarah,

Hoping you're well this week. Yes, I love the simplicity of the shirtwaist, too.

You know, you might consider Googling for vintage fabric. I saw some sheer windowpage fabric some time back. Prices are falling, so it seems, so you might have a chance at something special.

You could also check Denver fabrics for lawn...they seem to be having a big sale and earlier this year they had some pretty lawns, although none of them featured woven patterns, more's the pity.

Very best, and I'll be thinking of you these next days, as the anticipated arrival gets ready to arrive.

Very best,

Natalie in Kentucky

widgeon said...

I dropped in from the S&S board. I feel bizarrely rude leaving a comment, but since you plan to make a pattern from it I thought I'd say something just as a heads up. (I collect these sort of blouses and sewing references.)

I don't think your blouse is an antique, though I think it certainly is vintage. I say this partially because they didn't begin using horizontal darts until sometime in the 1920s, but mostly the general shape, the interior finish and the sleeve placement. The eyelet is also not the style or quality used around the turn of the century. Etc.

Happy dressmaking! :)
--Emma Ruth

ZipZipInkspot said...

Dear Emma Ruth,

Good evening! Don't worry, you're not being rude at all :} On the board you've always been so helpful and kind.

I wondered about the horizontal darts too but did not know that they hadn't come in yet.

When do you think the blouse was made, then? I've not seen the little sleeve tucks in later blouses...the design doesn't really easily suit other decades through midcentury, and it's certainly not sixties or after, given the fabric, the thread used, the construction of the details, and so on.

Any advice appreciated,

Natalie in Kentucky