Golden Age of Travel — 1920s underwear

I’m back!

Sorry for the huge lapse, RH fans. First we were prepping, travelling to, and then selling at Gulf Wars in Mississippi. Then we came home to a madhouse of new pattern production. The last of the new patterns rolled off the printers over the weekend and I am once again free to bring you all there is to know about historical clothing. *snerk*

By the way, you can see all the new patterns in the new vintage patterns section here.

Before I went AWOL, we were talking about the ideal 1920s figure.  Today, we’re going to talk about underwear.  But first, some more about…

The Ideal 1920s Figure

Have you ever seen someone modernly wearing 1920s clothing and they just don’t look right.  You wrack your brain to figure out why.  And the usual answer you come up with is:  ”We’re just bigger than they were.”  But that’s not true.  I have been through hundreds of tailor’s books and patterns from the late teens and early 1920s and none of them go below a size 32″ bust.  And that’s considered a “teen” size.  The modern size charts of one of the “Big Three” pattern companies starts adult female sizes at a bust 29.5″!

But let’s look at sizes on early 1920s patterns.  Here’s a chart:

20s bust 20s hip now bust now hip
32 35 32 34
34 37 34 36
36 39 36 38
38 41 38 40
40 43.5 40 42
42 46 42 44
44 48.5 44 46
46 51 46 48
48 53.5 48 50
50 56 N/A N/A

 

That’s a three to six inch difference (depending on bust size) between bust and hip measurements as opposed to a mere two inch difference between bust and hip (regardless of size) nowadays.

So we’re bigger, right?  And you have to be a stick to wear 20s fashions, right?

Wrong!

See what I’m saying?  See what I’m trying to communicate to you here?

Why We Look Wrong in 20s Fashions

Famous actress Tallulah Bankhead age 23 looking like not a waif in 1925

Graphic Representation of the Ideal 1920s Figure

So why do we look so wrong when we wear 1920s fashions? The question we have to ask ourselves is “what is wrong?” Are we trying to look like an Art Deco graphic of the ideal figure (right)? Or are we trying to look like a real person (far right)? Chances are that we have the cartoon image in mind. And darlings, that just isn’t real. Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, not even Louise Brooks or “It Girl” Clara Bow were shaped like that. They all had curves.

But their curves were different. And here’s where we really mess it up.

We wear bras.

Calm down. Calm down. Before you start writing me hate mail because you are a double-D and have needed a bra since you were 11 years old, hear what I’m saying.

We wear modern bras. Modern bras push the bust up and out.  I have seen photos of many beautiful slender women (much more slender than their 1920s counterparts) wearing 20s fashions at events like the Jazz Age Lawn Party on Roosevelt Island in New York.  But they are almost always wearing a modern bra under their dresses.  And it makes them look like they’re hiding two B-52s in their blouse!

Look at Miss Tallulah at right.  Do you see where her bust is?  It is at the level of where our bra straps are today.  She probably isn’t wearing a bra at all.  Bras were not yet a support garment and movies and old photographs of quite famously fashionable people show bustlines that are far lower than “normal” to us today.

So what do you do?

Luckily there is a period solution that won’t leave you braless while not ruining the look of your 1920s clothes.

1920s corset

1920s corset

The 1920s corset

The corset in the 1920s (sometimes also called a “corselette”) was a very different thing from the whaleboned waist-cinchers that came before it. The purpose of the 1920s corset was not to compress the waist or lift the bust, but to flatten the bust and control the hips. More what we’d call a girdle than a corset at all, this is the garment that more zaftig women wore under their garments in the 1920s.

1920s brassieres and bandeaux

1920s brassieres and bandeaux

The 1920s bra and bandeau

There is an alternative to the corset that started to turn the fashion tide in the flapper era. The brassiere was invented in the early 1900s as a way to keep the bust controlled when the underbust (or at least low-bust) corset was introduced in the Edwardian period. Early brassieres were meant as bust enhancers for those who were not well endowed. Their horizontal boning was meant to imitate a large bust, not support one. But by the 1920s, brassieres had become unboned constructions of non-stretchy material designed to hold the bust close to the body. The narrow strips of darted cloth known as bandeaux had the same function.

The bandeau and brassiere could be worn with a girdle-like hip corset (to which they were attached with that hook you see in the cover art) or they could be worn alone with the new “belt” — a wide elastic band almost like a micro-mini skirt that was worn to keep the hips from jiggling.

So that’s the story. We’re not too big. We’re not too curvy. You don’t have to be a stick. You just have to throw out all your pre-conceived and mistaken notions of the 20s figure and wear the right underwear.

And guess what! Reconstructing History now has patterns available for both these 1920s undergarments and much more in our new Vintage Patterns section. Let us outfit you with everything you need to look as period-appropriate as you wanna be.

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