Find of the Month: The Story of a Turn of the Century Woman’s Life in Bodices

July 2014

I actually found this month’s “FOTM” way back in May, but I just now got around to photographing them. I found this set of three Victorian and Edwardian bodices for sale on eBay, and at $16 for the lot, how could anyone (even on a tight budget like mine) resist?

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The woman I bought them from didn’t know much about them except that she got them as a lot together from an estate in northwestern Pennsylvania. The trio span the decades from the 1880s to about 1910.

The oldest bodice of the lot is the small brown one on the left. When I say small, I do mean small: 32 bust, 22 inch waist, and teeny 14 inch shoulders! It’s a young misses’ bodice, however, so the numbers are quite average for a teenage girl in the era. It was likely made for/by the young lady around 1886 or so:

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Young Misses’ Bodice, circa 1886

I can’t be certain of its exact age, but in 1886, “fluffy” pleated fronts like this came into fashion. You can see a similar bodice treatments in this fashion plate from the same year:

Fashion Plate, circa 1886

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The bodice is fairly simple in design. The main body is made of fine wool with a central panel of dotted silk. There is braided trim and little trailing branches of embroidery up the sides (commonly seen on crazy quilts of the era, so perhaps the wearer enjoyed quilting as well). It is missing its collar and two buttons and has many little moth holes, but is otherwise in lovely condition.

The other two bodices/blouses are post-1900. The brightest of the bunch is the eye-catching purple silk stripe blouse (It’s boned inside, so it’s technically a bodice, but the look is that of a blouse):

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Bodice, circa 1901

The colors, styling, and especially the sleeve decoration all point to a date right around 1901. The pouter pigeon front (sort of hidden by my mannequin’s lack of bust) and the bottom-heavy “bishop” sleeves can also be seen in these period fashion plates:

Fashion plate, September 1900

Fashion plate, circa 1901
Yay! Matching purple stripes!

Once again we have lovely dotted silk, this time in lavender and violet with cream stripes. In this case, the seamstress let the fabric do all the talking, cutting it diagonally for the front pieces and leaving it mostly untrimmed. It is missing its collar and most of one cuff, but the other cuff is still intact:

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The final bodice in this lot is a somber black shirtwaist made of very thin, fragile silk:

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Shirtwaist, circa 1908-10

It dates to about 1909, though blouses of this type had been in production for about 20 years between 1895 and 1915. The clues to dating this one are the collar, wide shoulders, and relatively plain, straight sleeves, much like these:

Wool Shirtwaists Ad, circa 1908

This particular blouse was made at home, not at a factory. In fact, it looks very similar to this shirtwaist pattern from Past Patterns:

The pattern is based off of a Butterick pattern from 1909. It has similar sleeves, pleating, and stitching. However, the front pleats on my shirtwaist are separate instead of overlapping, so I’s probably not made from the same pattern, but there were many other patterns available in magazines and mail-order catalogs that a home seamstress could buy, so the pattern this shirtwaist was made from may be out there somewhere still, waiting in a shoebox to be discovered!

Though it may seem rather dull in comparison to its companions, the black shirtwaist does have one standout accent– a fabulous beaded collar:

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This thing weighs more than the rest of the blouse!

The collar is older than the blouse by at least 20 years and is slightly too large to fit properly, indicating that it was probably recycled from an older dress. It brings to mind mourning clothes from the previous century. Though mourning clothes were still around in the Edwardian era, it wasn’t nearly as common as it had been during Victoria’s reign. As you can see in the wool shirtwaist advertisement above, black was a common, fashionable color in its own right. Not every black dress, shirtwaist, or skirt was for mourning purposes! Black has frequently fluctuated in and out of style of its own accord. Still, the measurements of this shirtwaist (38 bust, 30 inch waist) indicate that it was probably worn by a mature woman. She may have carried the customs of her youth in the 19th century with her into the 20th century.

Discovering a trio of bodices together from a single estate with such a clear timeline makes me wonder if they all belonged to a single woman over the course of a lifetime. The way all three are styled reveal a love of simple, unfussy design and, who could forget, the love of polka dot silk! If she were 15 in 1886, she would have been wearing the bright purple blouse right around age 30 and the darker blouse around age 38-40. If only I had an 1890s bodice to complete the decade by decade look at turn of the century clothing! It might just be coincidence that all three were found together, but I treasure the possibility that they belonged to a single woman, mapping her life in fabric and thread as she sewed her way through the changing fashions of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Previous Finds of the Month:

 

January 2014

December 2013

The Three Shoes Every (Penniless) Historical Costumer Needs

For Every Cinderella Without a Fairy Godmother
A.k.a “Shoes for Stepsisters”

It may be impossible for a fashionable woman to have too many shoes, but what if your problem isn’t a lack of closet space, but a lack of funding? As lovely as it is to get a fresh pair of shoes for every new outfit, it’s not always feasible. Historically accurate shoes can be expensive. If you don’t like to tie yourself down to one specific stylistic decade, buying all the necessary historically accurate boots, slippers, and heels can really drain your bank account if you’re not careful. I love historical reproduction shoes, but between needing a new corset, buying sewing supplies, and having the annoying habit of needing food to survive, I don’t really have enough money to buy a new pair every time I change costuming eras. Instead, I have built up a core set of three shoe types that can mutitask across time periods.

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My Three Favorite Costuming Shoes

These shoes may not be historically accurate, but they are historically appropriate. There are only so many ways to shod the human foot, so while materials and decorations may have changed, there are a few basic shoe styles that have cycled through history in different incarnations. We are blessed that modern fashion is so all-encompassing: we have every imaginable shoe type available to us! It’s just a matter of finding the right one for the right price. With a little legwork and luck, you can squeak by in nearly any era with only three pairs of shoes!

I chose the following shoes for their comfort, simplicity, ease of availability, and ability to be worn as everyday modern shoes as well (Huzzah for raiding your own closet for historically appropriate shoes!).

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Low-Heeled Mary Jane or T-Straps
Wear them for: Elizabethan and Stuart (1590-1630), Victorian (1860-1900), and Edwardian (1900+) Costumes

My pair:

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T-Strap Shoes by Angel Steps

My pair takes the Mary Jane style a bit further by being a t-strap, but both styles are workable. This is my favorite pair of shoes! Angel Steps brand is marketed by Amerimark and comes in many different variations and styles. The company, however, can be difficult to work with. You can read more about that adventure and see these shoes in action in “Halloween Thrifting Challenge: Early Stuart Era (1603-1625)

Mary Janes are shoes with a strap over the instep. They were popular in the Elizabethan era, and can be used for mid-Victorian shoes. The heyday of the strappy Mary Jane, however, was definitely the Edwardian era.
There are many variations of the Mary Jane style: wide straps, thin straps, t-straps, or multiple straps over the instep. For the most versatility, though, a single strap or thick t-strap is the easiest to blend into multiple eras. The key to the historical appropriateness, however, is the low heel. Modern women love towering high heels, but historically speaking, “high heels” weren’t very common and usually maxed out around 3 inches. For the most bang for your buck, choose a neutral color like black, white, or brown. These colors will work in all eras and are the most authentic, especially for earlier costumes.

Extant Examples:

Elizabethan/Stuart
Leather Shoe, circa 1600

Elizabethan shoes had a long tongue with straps over them that tied in place. This style of shoe is very hard to find (unless you buy recreations or find the miraculous modern incarnation), but you can modify a pair of modern Mary Janes to mimic the look by wearing a fabric rosette on top. Rosettes were super trendy during the early 1600s and were rather large. Simply slip a rosette onto the strap of your Mary Janes and you’re good to go! Both men and women in this era wore this style of shoe, so if you are a dainty-footed gentleman, take a peek into the ladies’ shoe department. Just remember that women’s shoes run smaller than men’s, so order up about two sizes (an 8 in men’s is about a 10 in women’s). Surprisingly, side buckles existed, but likely just on children’s shoes.

Victorian
Women’s Bar Shoes (Mary Janes), circa 1880-85

Mary Janes were known as “bar” or “strapped” shoes during the 19th century (Mary Jane was a patented shoe name in the 20th century) and were very popular, especially during the 1890s.

Edwardian, Flapper, and Beyond
Bar Shoes (Mary Janes), circa 1919

Once the 20th Century hit, Mary Janes and T-straps were all the rage! Multiple thin straps were especially popular and usually had long, pointy toes, but simple rounded toes were still used for utilitarian working and walking shoes.

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Pointed-Toe Louis Heel
Wear them for: 18th century, Late Victorian (1870-1900), and 20th Century Costumes

My Pair:

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My Sexy Suede Heels!
I found these at the local Thrift Town second hand shop. They were $3 and are really REALLY worn in (they need new heel tips right now). Suede isn’t historically accurate for 18th century shoes, but unless you get really close, it doesn’t really matter. The shape is uncommon, but not unheard of.

The Louis heel is a curvy heel. Technically, a Louis heel has a very specific curve and other variations have other names. However, for the sake of simplicity, I’m going to call all appropriately curvy heels Louis heels because when you’re poor like me, there’s no point squabbling over details, especially since a good curvy heel is so hard to find anyway.
Louis heels are named after King Louis XIV and Louis XV of France. Both loved heels and show off their collections in many of their royal portraits. Many of the heels on Their Majesties’ shoes are blockier than later incarnations. The curvier heels seen on lady’s shoes has also been attributed to Madame Pompadour, King Louis XV’s mistress. Once she started wearing curvy heels, so did every other 18th century lady of fashion!
Heels went out of style during the French Revolution, but were revived in the late Victorian era. The American Bicentennial in 1876 created a rococo revival. 18th century styling, including buckles, can be found on many shoes of the era. The Louis heel stayed fashionable into the 20th century, but other heel styles like the mid-century stiletto pushed it out of the limelight and into obscurity. However, finding a good curvy heel is still possible, especially at second hand shops and online. Pretty much any color or heel height under 4 inches will do, but choose a color and heel height that that you feel comfortable wearing often.

Extant Examples:

18th Century
Latchet Shoes, circa 1760-75
and
Mules, circa 1740

18th Century Louis heeled shoes had latchets–two straps that crossed over the top and were held in place with a buckle. Outside of reproductions, these criss-crossing latchets aren’t available on modern shoes. With a little bit of creativity and some pretty fabric, you can recover shoes to create latchets, but another option that requires no alteration is the mule (backless heels). Mules with pointy toes were very popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s, so there’s usually a good selection available second-hand.

Late Victorian
Rococo Revival Style Pumps, circa 1890

By about 1870, the modern pump was already beginning to be recognizable. Many evening shoes of the era were just like a pair of pumps you would find in your neighborhood shoe shop today. If you find a pair of leather pumps with a curvy Louis heel, you’ve struck Victorian gold!

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Flats
Wear them for: Medieval (5-14th century), Renaissance to Stuart (14th century to 1630), Regency (1790-1832), and Victorian (1832-1860)

My Pair:

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Green Velvet Semi-Flats
My flats aren’t perfectly flat (they have a 1/2 inch heel), but they have a nice high vamp and rounded-point toe that works well with lots of different costumes. Plus, they are comfy. I bought them second-hand for $2 with Regency costuming in mind. You can see them in action (sort of) in “Transforming Edwardian Nightwear into Regency Daywear.”

Flats can be as basic or fancy as the occasion demands. Really, you could pretty much costume every era with flat shoes. There are small nuances for different eras– the Medieval poulaines, Tutor cowmouths, Regency’s knife-sharp pointed toes, and squared Victorian slippers— but a gently rounded toe will get you through almost every era without trouble. Flat shoes can also very easily be made at home if you’re feeling crafty! The only caveat for flats is that they shouldn’t show “toe cleavage” over the top of the vamp. Also, make sure they fit over stockings (stockings can help hide toe cleavage in a pinch as well!). Almost any color or decoration will work depending on your outfit, but a good leather or satin flat in a natural tone will work through more eras. Simple ankle boots made of leather or cloth can work for all of the eras listed above, too! In college, I had a pair of flat Rocket Dog ankle boots that worked well for medieval. It was heart rending when they wore out.

Extant Examples (too many to count, but here are a few):

Medieval
Saxon Shoe, 6th-9th century
and
Child’s Ankle Boot, circa 1350-1400

Besides flat slippers, flat-soled ankle boots were nearly universal. You can make reproductions of Medieval shoes from leather if you plan to do lots of medieval costuming.

Renaissance
Slashed Leather Shoe, circa 1500-1550
and
Slashed (finished with buttonhole edges) Velvet Shoes, circa 1550-1575

Slashed shoes matched the Renaissance trend for slashed sleeves and other garments. Just as a sleeve’s slashes allowed luxurious poufs of fabric to show through, slashed shoes allowed brightly colored stockings to peek out. All those slashes would fill your shoe with pebbles in no time! These slashed shoes were for the rich nobles who did not have to walk or work in the dust often. Lower-class shoes looked much as they had since ancient times.

Regency
Spangled Silk Shoes, circa 1793-98
and
Leather Walking Boots, circa 1795-1815

If you love wearing flats, this is your era! Heels (except the tiniest kitten heels) were out of fashion. Ankle boots were gaining popularity again after being completely out of fashion in the 17th and 18th century and now had front laces. Flat shoes of this era and the Victorian era could be made in leather or cloth by a craftsman or at home. In 1790-1810, pointed shoes were in style. They start transitioning to square toes around 1820.

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Early to Mid Victorian
Cotton and Silk Shoes, circa 1845-60
and
Silk Satin Boots, circa 1830-1850

Shoes during the first half of Queen Victoria’s reign rarely had heels and were generally made with a very noticeable square toe. However, since many women made their shoes at home from patterns out of fashion magazines, middle and lower class shoes, especially for daytime wear, are usually more rounded.

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Going Beyond the 3 Shoes

While these three shoes will let me wiggle by in nearly every fashion from 1590 to now, it is a very limited shoe wardrobe. It’s better to think of these three shoes as three shoe types instead. I’ve collected a few variations of each shoe type for specific outfits, like this pair I plan to use when I finally get my Edwardian dress project off the ground:

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These 1990s Purple Pumps were $4 at Goodwill.
I think I may have a “thing” for suede shoes…

These pumps are a variation of the first type of shoe in this list–the Low-Heel Mary Jane–with a bit of the second type–Pointed-Toe Louis Heels–mixed in for a good dose of Edwardian spice! As soon as you learn to recognize the major characteristics of historical footwear, you won’t feel as overwhelmed when you’re digging through shelf after shelf of shoes because you’ll be able to instantly judge whether the shape is historically appropriate or not. After that, all the little nuances like materials, decoration, and color fall into place easily!

The Pragmatic Costumer Photograph Archive

Tintypes & Cards From My Collection

Antique photographs are one of the handiest historical costuming tools in existence besides extant pieces and paintings. I have an ever-growing collection of antique photographs, some of which display unusual fashion choices or examples of more common historical trends (like double bracelets or beading patterns). One of the internet’s best qualities is that it contains so much amazing historical information. I’m working on creating a digital archive of my historical photographs on Facebook so other history lovers can enjoy them, too!

Click here to visit the album

Shoes! History of the Heel from 1500-1910

The Cinderella Dilemma

Beginning in Roman times, but bursting into popularity in the 16th and 17th centuries, platform “chopine” shoes were what the fashionable girls, especially in Spain, were wearing. These heavy chopines were made from stacking layers of cork or cotton and stitching them together with a fine silk, leather, or velvet cover. At the height of their popularity, they totted at an amazing 40cm (20 inches) or more! When they were taller than 14 or so centimeters, chopines were almost impossible to walk in and required canes or escorts to help the noblewoman walk. The horror stories of pregnant women falling and laws banning brides from falsifying their height at weddings led to a decrease in the chopine’s popularity. By the 1600s, wooden heels began to replace the chopin. Both men and women snapped up these new heels and the elevated shoe would remain popular for both sexes until the late 19th century.

 

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1700-1800

18th Century Shoes were all about romance and opulence. Ladies’ shoes were delicate affairs made from silk and brocade. These whisper-thin slippers couldn’t survive much outdoor walking, so most came with matching “pattens,” which were an extra sturdy sole that tied onto the bottom of the shoe. Heeled shoes were all the rage, but since they were carved from wood and not very sturdy, most heels were between 1cm and 6cm high, though some overtly sexy fetish shoes with enormous heels have been found. The heel wasn’t located right under the heel, as most are today. They were waisted (or wasted) heels, called Louis heels after the French king, placed closer to the instep. Almost all footwear sported a trendy pointed toe and a myriad of gorgeous, ornate buckles. One of the most famous shoes from the 18th century is a delicate pink mule flying through the air in the paintings of Watteau and Fragonard.

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1800-1820

Regency shoes (as discussed in this post as well) also had pointed toes, but instead of high heels, they were flatter, with only the smallest heel on walking boots to elevate the pedestrian out of the mud. Slippers were still the favored shoe and were fashioned of silk or cotton, often elaborately printed.

 

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1820-1860

Early Victorian or Romantic shoes were still low-heeled, but all those delicate slippers wore out too easily to be economical and comfortable, so boots began to come into fashion for both men and women. Early Victorian boots were made like Regency walking boots, but in finer fabrics. Button-up boots became popular and the addition of a flexible gusset allowed for easier wearing.  Square toes replaced pointed as the preferred shape. By the American Civil War in the 1860s, heels were beginning to rise. Instead of placing the heel close to the insole, however, these new heels were located at the very back of the shoe (Dancing pumps, however, retained the inset waisted heel until the invention of the steel heel support in the 20th century) . Ironically, as shoes became more practical, ladies wished to have their feet look as thin as possible, a trend that began with Madame Pompadour in the 18th Century and would continue into the 20th Century. Some women would tape their feet smaller or even sacrifice a toe to fit into narrow boots. Narrow, tight shoes became as ridiculed as over-tightened corsets as the 19th century wore on.

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1860-1890

In the 1880s, high-top laced boots became popular and remained so through the 1910s. Queen Victoria’s mourning for her husband created a fashion trend toward darker colors, but by the Gay Nineties, all manner of boots were made, some still study, practical leather for public walking, but many in bright silk brocades and embroidered with patterns, fluffed with ribbons, and decorated with beads. A slightly rounded-point toe and highly-fitted silhouette marks the late Victorian shoe, creating a dainty, lady-like look with a slight edge so popular with Neo-Victorian fashionistas today. Beginning in the 1870s, shoes gained a heavily sexuality of their own. A woman flashing her ankle from beneath her heavy skirts was as taboo as flashing her breasts. Super high heels became all the rage in the underground, tottering to massive heights in the fetish community, just as they do today.

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1890-1920

The much-overlooked Edwardian shoe saw the lowering of the boot-tops back down to the ankle, and pumps became common for everyday. The Edwardians loved dainty, airy decoration as opposed to the heavy Victorian style which had reigned for nearly a century. Sturdier mass-production methods allowed heels to become slimmer. Since less fabric was needed to hold the shoe together, Mary-Jane styles with low-cut vamps and thin straps allowed patterned stockings to peep through. As the Edwardian period came to a close, skirts became less voluminous, so matching your shoes to your dress became a necessity.

All of the pictures in this article are linked to to sites detailing each section, so feel free to click and explore!

For more information about choosing the right shoes for your period costume, visit Recreating Shoes from 1500-1910