Puzzling Costume Questions Answered
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Tidbits : Puzzling Costume Questions Answered


Looking through my old emails, I noticed the same questions about costume being asked repeatedly. The questions I've recieved have been the little mundane things that most books on costume out there seem to ignore. Sometimes it's the everyday things about antique clothing and costuming that are the most puzzling!

1908 dress in 32-44inch bust Q. When looking through old catalogs from the Victorian and Edwardian eras, I noticed that the waist size range given for ladies clothing and corsets seems smaller than the waist sizes of today. Were women really thinner back then or did they just discriminate against larger sized ladies?

A. There is a common misconception around that people have increased their sizes by leaps and bounds over the past 100 years. While I agree that obesity is on the rise due to various modern factors, I do not agree that human figures have changed all that much, if any, over the past century. In a nut shell, the corset is responsible for much of the seemingly smaller sizing. If you look at old catalogs, you see for ladies dresses and bodices, that bust sizes were usually available in sizes 32"- 42/44" bust which roughly equals to the measurements of a modern US ladies size 0/2- 14/16, nothing out of the ordinary there. Larger "Stout" sizes were available at an extra charge, just like today how Plus Size shops often charge more for their items.

1908 corset in sizes 18-30inch waist Q. How do I know what size corset to wear?

A. If you are new to buying and wearing a corset, it's best to speak to the seller or the corset maker with regards to what size would be appropriate. As a rule of thumb, a corset measuring 2-4inches smaller than your normal waist measurement should fit. Personally, although I don't practice waist training and just wear corsets for historical reenacting, I find a corset smaller than the rule better. My normal waist is 34inches but find a 26inch corset (which is 8inches smaller than my natural waist) perfect for allowing ease of lacing for fat or skinny days and generally wear it with a 2-3inches gap at the back (if you can lace a corset fully closed, then it's TOO BIG!). Of course it also depends on your level of experience of wearing a corset, build, weight, figure type (apple, hourglass or pear shaped), etc. Generally, it's easier for a hourglass or a pear shape to wear a smaller corset and get a smaller waist size quicker than a apple shaped lady. However, I would safely say, that a corset with a waist 4-6inches smaller than your natural waist would suffice for most figure types and allow for "growth" and "reductions".
I cannot stress enough that it's important to go with a experienced corset maker or company who will be able to give corset size recommendations based on your individual body type and their particular brand of corset.

Although the question below relates closely to the first question, I've been asked it enough times and feel the answer is interesting enough to list it as a separate question..

1901 shoes in sizes 2 1/2 - 8 inch width= Q. Why are the ladies shoe sizes listed in old catalogs and advertisements so small? Did everyone have small feet?

A. The size range for ladies shoes listed in old period catalogs and ads ranged most often from a size 2-8. While this sizing system is no longer used in North America, it's still going strong here in England! A size 2 listed in an old catalog is a modern US ladies size 4 or a modern English size 2. While an old Victorian shoe listed as a size 8 is a US ladies size 10 and still a UK 8! Occasionally, you will find a smaller ladies shoe size range in old catalogs ranging from size 1- 7. This mostly just means that that particular style ran "largish". Yes, antique shoes do appear to be very narrow but a simple explanation for that is because large looking feet were not the style!
Yes, wider shoes were available and were often worn by working class women and at home where noone could see you, but for special occasions and for fashion victims, you squished your feet into the smallest shoes you could stand. Do not forget as well, that there were no stiff synthetic or cheapo materials back then so although a shoe could be made narrower, the quality of leather and workmanship available during the time, meant that a shoe would stretch and mould to the wearers foot quickly than the cheaply shoes available today. Women had all sized feet but unfortunately, the fashion during the time decreed that women must have dainty looking feet. Interestingly enough, many times when studying old shoes, you can see how the foot spread over the narrow soles.

1901 snap fastener Q. I want to make an authentic outfit to wear to 19th and early 20th century reenacting events. What types of fasteners are appropriate?

A. A simple guide to fastenings...
Lacing: 1800 onwards. Lacing holes on bodices were mostly handworked throughout the 19th and early 20th century. On Regency corsets, lacing holes were handworked or strengthened with ivory grommets. In 1828 brass eyelets began to be used on some stays and on shoes. Victorian corsets generally have metal grommets although some brands such as Kabo, never made their corsets with metal eyelets.
Buttons: 1800 onwards
Hook and eyes: 1800 onwards (although Regency and early Victorian examples I have seen, often had brass hooks and hand worked holes. You don't really start to see metal loops until the 1840's onwards although handworked holes were still used as well)
Metal snaps: Although invented in the early 1890's, they weren't commonly used until the turn of the century by the 1910's they were in full use everywhere!
Metal zippers: They were invented in 1893 but weren't improved or used on clothing until 1913, even then zippers were only really used for luggage or military clothing.
Velcro: NEVER! Although for mid 20th century onwards is ok as it was invented in 1948 and started to be used on clothing items in 1957.


1901 hand driven sowing machine Here are some other items of which I have been asked whether they are authentic to use of not...

Sewing Machines: Invented in 1830, they weren't generally used until 1846 when they were improved and mass marketed. They are appropriate for the second half of the 1840's onwards although the Victorians and Edwardians still used alot of hand sewing.
Rayon: First invented about 1855 as a silk substitute, the process of making it was refined in 1864. Although it was around in the Victorian era, I don't think many people trusted it and therefore not much of it sold (hence the lack of early Rayon items). In 1910 it started to be mass marketed and commercially produced as "Art Silk", it was popular for stockings as well. Art Silk's name was changed to Rayon in 1924.
Safety pins: As a big busomed girl myself, I have been asked many times by other big busomed girls if safety pins are acceptable for period use, espcially for stopping the buttons from gaping on a sligthly small bodice! They were invented in 1849 so they can be used for costume onwards!
Elastic: patented in 1820 by Thomas Hancock as elastic fastenings for gloves, suspenders, shoes and stockings and by the late 1830's Hancock's rubber good where everywhere.

1908 combinations in 32-42inch bust Q. I want to start attending Victorian and Edwardian events in full costume but am baffled by the amount of underwear and clothing that I have to wear. How did the Victorians do it? Help!

A. I must admit as a costume collector and reenactor, I'm also baffled sometimes by the amount of things I have to put on while the most "difficult" clothing item my husband, Gary, has to tackle is his stiff collar and cufflinks! Common sense dictates which order you put things but here is a rough guide but feel free to alter it to suit you:

1) Chemise (to protect your skin from the corset and to protect your expensive corset from sweat and body oils).
2) Stockings
3) Stocking garters if your corset doesn't have any.
4) Shoes
5) Pantaloons (although some people wear theirs over their corset, it's a matter of personal preference).
6) Petticoat (again, you might choose to wear yours over your corset, I do as it doesn't create alot of bulk under the corset).
7) Do your hair/makeup/etc.
8) Corset
9) Now, this step is up to your personal preference if you decide to wear your pantaloons or petticoat over your corset.
10)Put on your bustle or hoop if you are wearing one.
11) Put on your over-hoop or over-bustle petticoat if you have one.
12) Corset cover
13)Put on your outfit's skirt first if your wearing a boned bodice OR if your wearing a shirtwaist, put that on before the skirt so you can tuck it in easily.

All photos are from the collection of L. Hidic