Sunday, 25 January 2015

Deciphering an 1840s bodice

Extant clothes are important. They're important for costumers, to see how things went together; but they're also important simply as a document of how people used to live.
Although, being into sewing, I'm particularly interested in how things went together.

Pinterest, on the other hand, is, just as we say about fire in a Czech saying, "a good servant but a bad master". You can find great stuff there, but you always have to be the master and check it out, otherwise you can end up perpetuating a mistake. Where I'm getting with this is, thanks to Pinterest and thanks to at least sometimes actually checking the links, I've found more blogs and museum sites I was unaware of. Some of the best things, it turns out, can be found on Dutch museum sites - like the Regency half robe I posted earlier on this blog.

Or like this super-simple 1840s dress bodice that makes it possible to infer how a basic 1840s bodice goes together, at least in the front (sadly, no back-view).

(It's in the Amsterdam museum, inventory number KA 13119.)

So let's see what I can see:

  • where there are basic seams
  • where there are piped seams and piped hems
  • where the grainlines go
  • and where there are hemming stitches (I forgot to mark the bottom - it's less obvious)

It's particularly interesting to see the piping in the front darts. Sometimes, there would be a separate front pattern piece. This one has just darts, though, and seeing the grainlines, they're probably quite narrow, too. And still piped. This might suggest the piping works sort of as cording, to help the seam lie smoothly?

The description (sadly, the website is built in such a way that I can't link directly to the object, boooo!) says there are three bones / pieces of baleen in the front (presumably at the centre seam and the darts?). Then it says something about "zijbalein" on "both sides", which sadly Google translate does not help me decipher - does it refer to the bones in the darts, to the side seams, or something else? There's a drawstring in the neckline (!) that ties in the back. There's a back closure of eleven hooks and eyes, hidden by a band (placket?). There's evidence of an attached skirt, not in the collection.

And it says this simple style of white dress would be an afternoon dress for a young girl.

What makes this such a fantastic find is the complete lack of any frills. It's almost like a muslin to build on; yet, since it has piping, it's obviously an actual garment.

ETA 28/06/2019: I wonder if it may have been a bodiced petticoat, like this one in the John Bright collection? Still, the piping and boning seems to me like maybe too much trouble to go to for underwear.

I can see the grainlines (at least in the front and the sleeves); thanks to that, I can deduce that the straight of grain lies along the neckline and the front seam is partially bias (= not true bias) and probably shaped. The shoulder seams also lie on bias, while the sleeves seem to be a very simple, straight-cut, almost rectangular shape.

The best part? I didn't even have to wreck my head too much to figure all this out. Making that colour-coded version of the picture above took maybe two minutes, and now I have a much better idea of how a basic 1840s bodice works.


  1. Costuming heaven! The engineering of clothes is I feel one of the most interesting parts! And I hate Pinterest. I mostly get the bad master end of the stick.

    1. Isn't it? It's just so fabulous to see how the pattern pieces work!

      The main trick on Pinterest, I guess, is to find people who pin things conscientiously; with historical costuming, it's for example boards organised by decades...
      I consider the prevailing contemporary advice of "just search Pinterest" very bad; but its good as a tool for a conscientious and more well-informed user. And for me personally, it's basically exactly what I needed, because I'm an incorrigible image hoarder.
      But I similarly hate Tumblr. I already explained that at one of my earlier posts, the way it leads to lazy posting of stuff without any acknowledgement of sources (which reminds me I forgot to mention where this bodice comes from, although I did have it in mind when I started this post)... I try to avoid costuming pictures from Tumblr, because it's usually next to impossible to track them down to the source. Sometimes, though, I still pin it just as a reminder to try and track them down later... And it still annoys me to see some actually good blogs using the Tumblr template, personally because I usually can't interact with them without a Tumblr account, but objectively also because the whole re-posting culture of it leads e.g. to journalists misrepresenting who came up with the original idea (I've seen this happen in Czech media already).

      Whew. That came out ranty again. I guess being in the academic environment has left some deep marks on me!

  2. I love what you've done here! I also like the term "a good servant but a bad master."

    1. Thank you!
      I really like that Czech saying. It sums a lot of things up very clearly.