Turning Coats and Staring at the Seams
The interiors of antique garments are somewhat of a mystery, yet the hidden innards of a piece are the secret behind its good looks. For the majority of the population (including me, often times), antique garment construction is an alien science. Museums and auction houses take many beautiful pictures of the outside of garments, but there is nary a shot of the lining. No matter how enchanting the outside, the real magic is found on the inside.
I own a tiny, personal collection of antique and vintage garments dating from the mid-19th century to mid-20th century. They’ve opened up a whole new world to explore when it comes to understanding shape, fabric, and sewing techniques. I am by no means an expert on sewing, but being able to examine the inner workings of a dress is an enormous help in understanding the hows and whys of historical silhouettes.
Take, for instance, my HOLY COW IT’S RED 1890’s bodice:
Red Silk Bodice, circa 1890-95
Bust: 34.5 inches
Waist: 24.5 inches
I am not a professional photographer, so I cannot produce the quality of photos I would like to. I use a camera from 2001 that (somewhat) survived a catastrophic dip in the kitty’s water dish. My house is very dark with one mint-green room that receives about 3 hours of sunlight bright enough to take decent photos, but at the expense of color quality. This is especially true of reds. So, please pardon any funky hue variations! When I say this bodice is red, I mean it is RED. So red that the color overwhelmed the sensors in my poor camera which freaked out and kept photographing the silk as pure magenta. Here’s the best picture of the brilliant scarlet I could manage:
Depending on your monitor, this bodice should appear red enough to make a rose jealous.
Somewhere along the way, someone robbed the bodice’s high collar and bustline of its ribbon. Later, an enterprising individual glued some thin poly-ribbon over the empty spots to make up for it. I’m working on replacing the missing/gluey ribbon with some matching black silk moire ribbon, but I am having great difficulty finding ribbon not only in the right style and size, but in the right price range.
Anyway, onwards! This bodice is lovely from the outside, but if we turn it inside out, the inside is arguably just as beautiful! Here are some shots of the inner workings:
Inside out: the front of the 1890s Bodice
The whole piece is lined in brown glazed cotton (as many Victorian pieces are). Notice how much seam allowance the piece has, particularly on the sleeve, and that the front panels of the bodice are one piece and carefully shaped with darts. The fan-shaped “pleats” visible from the front outside are actually decorative. They are not shaping the fit of the garment, just providing additional emphasis to highlight the waist.
Inside right -front of the 1890s Bodice
Notice the boning channels running vertically up the front. Victorian ladies wanted to be as streamlined as possible on top, so not only did they add steel to their corsets, they added support bones directly into their bodices as well. Bodice bones are not cinchers. They don’t serve to reduce the waist, but rather help support the fabric and make sure the bodice stays smooth and in place (they keep the bodice from shifting or “riding up”). The edges of the casings are pinked (have a zig-zag edge that helps keep the fabric from unraveling), some more finely than others. They are handstiched onto the bodice.
Another of this bodice’s wonderful features is the alternating pattern of the hooks and eyes. Instead of putting all your hooks on one side and all the eyes on the other, alternating them makes the closure strong and secure, so they can’t all pop open at once! I highly recommend doing this alternating style if you are an active reenactor or for theater if you do not have to quick-change costumes often: keep those wardrobe malfunctions at bay!
Inside the collar of the 1890s Bodice
Notice where the collar used to have 1/2 inch bands of moire (watered) silk ribbon. I’m trying to find replacements for them. The collar does not have bones, but is stiffened with a layer of horsehair canvas under the red silk, so it fits smoothly and comfortably without bunching up. If you’ve ever been frustrated by a limp or wrinkly collar, it probably just needs a layer of canvas, cardstock, or a few small bones (cable ties work wonders) to help prop it up. Any of those three methods are historically accurate, even if plastic is not!
Inside Out: The back of the 1890s Bodice
Notice that the sleeves are not ballooned on the inside. The puff is an application to the outside of the otherwise fitted sleeves. Again, you can see that the fanning detail at the back is not functional shaping, but decoration to help make the waist look even daintier.
Steel Boning in the 1890s Bodice
One of the casings in the back has come undone, revealing the thin steel bone inside. Since bodice boning doesn’t have to put up with the strain that corset boning does, it is usually thin and springy. You want bodice bones to be as lithe as possible so you don’t add too much thickness to the body or weigh down delicate fabrics. They should lie smoothly against your shape, making them invisible from the outside. As evidence of the lightness of the steel bones, this bodice only weighs 7.3 ounces even with 12 flat steels!
The back shoulder seam of the 1890s Bodice
This bodice is sewn together with a mix of hand sewing and machine stitching. Here on the sleeves, you can see the back machine stitching following the hand-basting. Most of the major seams are machine sewn, while the boning channels and trims are tacked down with hand sewing.
Hand stitching on the Sleeves
If you have ever doubted the historical delicacy of your handsewing skills, do not fear. Almost every Victorian dress I have examined has been impeccably sewn at the major seams and finishes, but the trims? Well, just look at those stitches wandering willy-nilly over the inside of this bodice’s sleeve! Since the trims don’t have to hold anything together or deal with any extreme strain, the stitches to hold them down only have to be invisible from the outside. Uneven stitch lengths? Pfffft!
Also: Notice how all the seams are (or were once) ironed open. Ironing your seam allowances flat like that instantly improves the way the garment sits. It’s like magic!
For more information on the actual sewing techniques and practical applications for Historical costuming, I highly recommend visiting
Historical Sewing: 19th Century Costuming by Jennifer Rosbrugh
Her blog is full of Victorian sewing techniques, pattern advice, fitting tips, and historical fashion in general.
I have a few more Inside Outs planed for the future, including the 1870s and an early Edwardian dinner dress, so check back in the near future!
More Inside Out Posts