The corset was an essential part of fashionable dress for most of the nineteenth century. It could not easily be laundered and was generally prevented from becoming soiled, by the layers of clothing worn over it and the chemise worn under it, next to the skin. Early Victorian chemises often had rectagular flaps at the front and back which folded down from the neckline (tying under the arms), and protected the top of the corset. They covered the corset at low dress necklines - avoiding an indelicacy - and protected the dress from wear against the rigid parts of the corset.
Early in the nineteenth century, petticoats were made with bodices and skirts attached. When the fashionable waistline had been worn high, the bodice of the petticoat held up the skirt. One-piece petticoats continued to be worn, even when the waistline descended to its natural level in the 1830s, simply as a matter of convention. However, as skirts widened during the 1840s and 50s, petticoat skirt and bodice separated.
Did early Victorian women wear the flap-fronted chemise with the all-in-one petticoat instead of the petticoat skirt alone? It must have been uncomfortable if they did! But comfort was not a high priority at the time so it is difficult to form any conclusions. Perhaps the flap-fronted chemise was worn with the petticoat skirt only, temporarily dispensing with the bodice.
By the late 1860s and 70s, the chemise was beginning to change, becoming a little slimmer and more decorative. The voluminous, undecorated flap-fronted chemise of the 30s-50s was very old-fashioned, though occasionally 1860s chemises had decorated, bertha-style necklines that overhung the top of the corset.
Petticoat bodices or under-bodices were widely seen in fashion magazines of the 1860s and '70s, indicating their increased importance. White muslin summer and evening dresses were popular during the '60s and for modesty alone, an under-bodice became imperative. One example from 1868 fastened under the arms so that the closure could not be seen through the dress.
Another 1868 under-bodice was made of silk, though cotton was the fabric of most underwear from the second half of the century.
These bodices were perhaps worn less to protect against wear and soiling and more for modesty and the new conventions in dress.
The matters of cleanliness and wear-and-tear could be addressed in other ways. Sylvia's Journal, in 1873, recommended a thin calico loose cover for the corset, which could be removed for laundering and replaced when worn through. Harpers Bazar in 1868 gave a pattern for a fitted linen corset cover (an early instance of this term).
Unlike a conventional under-bodice it was cut like a corset (without armholes and with several gored seams). It fastened both in front over the corset, with button and loops and behind, where it was laced in with it.
The conventional form of the under-bodice was essentially like a sleeveless or short-sleeved dress bodice. If the fashionable dress bodice was short waisted and drop-shouldered, so was the petticoat bodice. If the dress was long-waisted and higher on the shoulder, again, so was the under-bodice. It sufficiently mirrored the fashionable bodice silhouette, for less fashionable women to wear it, with one or two bones on the seams, as an alternative to the corset. This is particularly possible with early Victorian, pre-crinoline fashions as evinced by these 1853 stays from Godey's Lady's Book . This was less possible during the later decades when the corseted figure was so tightly laced and well sculpted that a lightly boned petticoat bodice could not simulate it.
The under-bodice of the 1880s and '90s, like all underclothing of that time, was more decorative, with much embroidery and in particular, lace.
This 1892 engraving shows a looser style, which became known as the camisole.
The fitted version continued to be called the petticoat-bodice. The camisole was cut slightly differently from the fitted alternative. Not only was it gathered and lacking front darts, but often it was also cut straight across the top, with narrow shoulder straps.
The term, corset-cover, is rare in high quality English fashion magazines of the nineteenth century, though French and American magazines and pattern companies quickly adopted this less delicate, but very useful name for both loose and fitted under-bodices. The French, incidentally, called it le cache-corset.
The corset-cover was not generally worn under the corset in the nineteenth century. At this time it did not replace the chemise for this purpose. Chemise and drawers, or a combination garment of both together, were worn under the corset, and the corset cover was worn over it, with a matching, separate petticoat. However, once again, it began to be combined with the petticoat to form an all-in-one petticoat. This time, there was rarely a seam between the bodice and skirt of the petticoat. This princess petticoat arose in the late Victorian era as an alternative to the separate corset cover and petticoat and later, became a staple of Edwardian fashion. It favoured a slim silhouette by dispensing with bulk at the waist.
The corset-cover, in whichever form, was serving a more decorative purpose than it did previously. The late Victorian era had the most sophisticated and highly sculpted corsets of any in history. It is strange that the late Victorian woman did not go to more pains to protect it. But the corset itself had also acquired more decoration and was, very much, a thing of beauty, as well as highly functional. To cover it with a sturdy and somewhat unattractive cover, as e.g. the 1868 Harpers corset-cover, above, would contravene the new ethos of decoration, inherent in late Victorian and Edwardian lingerie. But, as always, the less fashionable, the reformist and the health conscientious woman could disregard some of these niceties.
Knitted under-vests and sturdy corset covers often featured in the burgeoning down-market fashion literature of the end of the century.
The knitted corset flap on the right, c.1890, was designed to cover the back lacings of the corset and to provide warmth across the lacing gap.
The camisole, petticoat-bodice or corset cover continued into the early twentieth century in its very pretty, feminine form to become an essential of the Edwardian woman's wardrobe. Once again, it tried to serve to two purposes, both decorative and functional, and by now, it was sometimes worn under the corset in place of the chemise.
All Edwardian fashionable lingerie was highly decorated with lace and embroidery. The corset-cover was no exception. But the Edwardian corset, unlike its Victorian counterpart, did not support the bust adequately. Furthermore, most women could not easily achieve the favoured monobosom silhouette, by natural means. Some corset-covers served as bust improvers with the addition of ruffles across the front. Stiffened with a little starch, they were relatively comfortable to wear, unlike some of the stuffed or wire-framed alternatives.
Other bust-bodices, such as this example from 1909, were lightly boned in front, to flatten a well-formed bust into one smooth whole.
When the influence of
the designer, Paul Poiret and then, the First World War,
brought to an end, the feminine excesses of Edwardian
fashion, most underwear, and women's clothing in general,
became pared down to recognisably modern proportions.
Fashion could be said to have lost a lot of charm, but
the corset-cover remained in favour for a generation or
more. The camisole style proved to be the most versatile.
Interpreted anew, in chiffons, georgettes, crepe-satins
and eventually artificial silk, it enjoyed continued
success during the 'twenties and 'thirties, survived
another world war into the 'forties and 'fifties and
finally outlived its use in the 1960s. Since then, the
camisole has made a number of minor comebacks, usually as
part of a vintage fashion revival. Often worn as
outerwear now, never again will it be an essential item
of the fashionable woman's underwear - something that can
be said of most of the underclothing of the Victorian and
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