Fellow Fridays: What’s that under there?

September 29, 2017 7:14 pm Published by

UnderWEAR! Hah!

That’s right, I made you say ‘underwear’, but never you worry, because today we’re learning about women’s early 20th century underwear. Nothing says “funderwear” like “underwear” so I hope you all enjoy this week’s Fellow Friday!


Skivvies. Undies. Panties. Drawers. Unmentionables. There are many words for things we wear under our clothes, but underwear today doesn’t have a lot in common with what we wore 100 years ago. When we think about clothing changing over time, we often don’t think about what going on underneath the clothing. So when I found a pair of women’s underclothing in the archives this morning, I knew this would be today’s topic!


Currently, I’m taking a class at Western Michigan University as part of my graduate coursework called Material Culture, which is the study of historical artifacts. Material Culture seeks to learn more about a specific culture through studying found objects; the origin of these objects cover a wide range, from ancient house layouts to extant garments to metal tools to pottery shards, and carefully looking over these objects and thinking about their practical applications can teach us lots about how our ancestors lived. Clothing, or extant garments, are a major facet of the Material Culture field, as they both allow us to get a glimpse of what people used to look like, but they can also teach us how people walked, talked, and even how they went to the bathroom!


Women, historically, wore many more layers than we do today – so it might surprise you that they did not wear one of today’s staple garments, underwear. That’s right, our lady ancestors, by today’s standards, walked around commando. However, it’s not like they wore NOTHING down there, and the photo you see here is what they would have worn.


Artsy photo of the whole garment.

This garment, from the Edwardian period (about 1901-1910), is called a “combination”, because it is a combination between a chemise, (what we would recognize today as a full slip, or a light, unfitted, sleeveless dress) and knickers, which resemble a loose kind of shorts. This combination would have been worn underneath the corset to eliminate chafing from corset-on-skin contact. Today, most corsets we see are worn as lingerie or as a costume piece, and aren’t meant to be worn long term – and if you’ve ever worn a corset for more than an hour without anything underneath it, you’ll know why chemises and undergarments like this one are helpful! As we look at this garment, you might notice something weird- there isn’t a crotch seam. That’s right, this garment is crotch-less! This might seem weird to us today, but it makes sense for ladies wearing 5 or more layers: wearing underwear that needs to be pulled down to use the bathroom when you have 3 or more skirts on is impractical, so the combination was worn!


Photo showing split in crotch of garment- when standing, this does not show.

Photo showing the split in the garment.


The combination is constructed in such a way that when the legs are together, the garment looks like a normal dress. This garment reminds me of a fashion from my middle school days, culottes, which was one of my favorite looks circa 2005. While I originally wanted to include a photo of myself rocking this look as a comparison between modern and historic culottes, unfortunately, I believe all photos of me from that era have been thoroughly destroyed.

Insertion lace on upper thigh detail.

Tiny machine sewn pin tucks on the hem.


This Edwardian piece is technically a type of culottes, because of the wide leg; and in the Victorian era, this type of skirt became popular among women for the purpose of horseback riding. The split down the skirt allowed women to ride horseback with a male saddle instead of having to ride sidesaddle, while still maintaining the fashionable silhouette while standing.


Awkward pre-teen styles and underwear aside, you’ll notice that this garment is also very beautifully decorated. The tiny, ladder-shaped, crocheted stitches are called “hem-stitches”, and were a common way to embellish garments during this era. These lace-like stitches can be created with any loose-woven fabric on any home sewing machine, by sewing a particular decorative stitch. The stitch featured on this piece was done with a double wing needle, and then the horizontal fabric fibers were removed to create the eyelet effect we see today. This is a fairly easy way to create a decorative pattern on a garment, and if you’d like to re-create it, there is a great tutorial on how to make it here!

Ladder-style hemstitching on waist of garment.

Lace front details.

The majority of this particular combination was most likely sewn by machine, as evidenced by the tiny, even stitches. It also features machine sewn lace inserts, and has a delicate lace trim around the whole garment. It’s made of a very light linen material, but is in fabulous shape: a surprising thing for the age and condition of the piece. We are lucky to have had wonderful conservators over the years that have taken excellent care of our textile collection!

Lace trim on shoulder strap.










Look forward to seeing more pieces from our textile collection in the future, as we have both a sizable collection, and an Upton Fellow who really loves historical fashion.

See you next week!