Lifting Skirts and Loosening Ties: What goes under an Edwardian Dress?

April 2, 2013

It takes lots of work (and layers) to look this fabulous!

Lovely Lady wearing the latest French fashions, circa 1905-1906

I am undeniably addicted to eBay, especially when it comes to antique garment shopping! Well, recently, due to temperatures in southern New Mexico hovering around 85°F, I’ve been admiring the lighter side of fashion: Edwardian summer dresses. We’ve all seen those lovely white Edwardian gowns covered in tiny pin-tucks or frilled with lace. Many of them are quite sheer and would be quite scandalous without something underneath! Of course, all the young ladies weren’t running around in see-through gowns. No matter how sheer an extant dress may seem, showing this much skin in public was out of the question:

(image originally from Vintage Textile, but the listing has since been removed)

So, if Edwardian didn’t “flaunt what their mamas gave ’em”  in these unlined sheer dresses, what did they wear?


Lots of pretty, frilly, fluffy, fabulous layers!

H&W Co. Wedding Ensemble Corset, Chemise, and Drawers, circa 1903

Firstly, an Edwardian lady would have donned a camisole or chemise to line her corset (ladies didn’t wear their corsets against bare skin) and a pair of drawers. Edwardians adored lace and pin-tucks and already you can see that obsession begins the moment a lady puts on her underthings! Along with her camisole and drawers (or equally gorgeous slip) comes the classic, long-line Edwardian corset. Since this corset is earlier in the period, it is not tubular like later designs. Instead of trying to mold the body into a stream-lined column, this type of corset–an S-bend or straight front–emphasizes the curve of the back and the bosom, though not as wildly as fashion illustrations may have you believe. Here’s another S-bend corset, an excellent example of how it shapes the body differently than older corsets:

Bon Marché S-Bend Corset, circa 1904

The bend in the back pushes out the rump, which is why Edwardian ladies have little “bustle bottoms” without having to wear an actual bustle. Many Edwardian dresses have extra gathers in the back for this reason. However, if a lady stopped at her corset, it would still show through her dress in a rather unflattering manner. Over the first layers of camisole, drawers, and corset, a well-dressed lady needs even more layers!

H&W Co. Wedding Ensemble Camisole and Petticoat, circa 1903

 Look at all that sumptuous lace! If you ever need an excuse to be frilly, dressing up in a sheer Edwardian gown is the perfect ploy.

To get the right look, another camisole, corset cover, or even a bust improver if she was a little “less than plush” up top added to the popular full, loose-front look, called a pouter pigeon. To fill out the bottom and flare out the skirt, at least one frilly petticoat is necessary, but two or more add extra “rustle.” Yet even with all these pretty pieces, we’re still not done getting dressed!

What’s missing? Why the sheer overdress, of course!

(and all the accessories, but seriously, that’s a whole other post!)

H&W Company Wedding Ensemble, circa 1903

“Large ensembles of bridal attire rarely survive intact, a fact that makes this group of eighteen pieces unusual and special. This set shows what a bride of 1903 considered to be essential garments for her wedding day and night. The set was made and worn by donor’s mother, Iza Bernice Shelton. Miss Shelton married Dr. Abel Wilson Atwood on July 7, 1903 at the home of her parents in Brooklyn.” – The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This is the epitome of the sheer white dress. In this case, it is a wedding dress, but many turn-of-the-century white gowns you see probably weren’t wedding dresses. White was an exceptionally fashionable choice for daywear in the 1900s, especially in summer. All those layers might seem rather excessive in the heat, but bear in mind that many of these fabrics are very light, especially compared to the very heavy fashions of twenty years before in the 1880s. However, to top off your warm-weather Edwardian look, I highly recommend a stylish fan!


3 Responses to “Lifting Skirts and Loosening Ties: What goes under an Edwardian Dress?”

  1. Aimee Sale Says:

    Love, love, love this post!! :-)

  2. Terese Says:

    Lovely images but what are the garters for in the 3rd and 4th pictures?

    • Liz Says:

      To hold up silk stockings. Stockings didn’t hold themselves up very well until the later 20th century. Some corsets have garters built in or clip on garters so you don’t have to wear a bulky belt, but they function equally well. The Metropolitan Museum just didn’t display the garters in action holding up stockings, most likely to avoid stressing/damaging the antique pieces.

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