Introducing Great Grandmother Joan. Enter her chemises. When she emigrated to the dusty town of Bloemfontein from Glasgow, Scotland in 1905, her concern was that there would be no shops to speak of, let alone those specialising in ladies undergarments! Her second fear was that there would be no dentists. Her response to the former was to stockpile hand made lace underwear (chemises), and for her and my Great Grandfather Thomas to have all their teeth pulled.
I was given two said chemises (never been worn) by a second cousin recently. Them, along with a white damask table cloth – unused and still needing a hem. The lace handmade and still perfectly preserved was surrounded by softest of cream lawn.
It seems trite to reflect on a person and try and understand them based on a table cloth and lace chemises. But then that is the only tangible evidence, other than a few photographs, I have of her life and her legacy, which is now four generations. By all accounts she was a strict Presbyterian, forbidding any activity on a Sunday, barring church and Sunday School. An only child of a Tartan maker, her mother passed when she was very young and she was raised by her stepmother. She married my great grandfather who was a carpenter by trade and had four children, two sons (Arthur and Thomas – my grandfather) and two daughters (Sarah and Margaret). The eldest son Arthur died from rheumatic fever before the family emigrated to Bloemfontein.
I ponder on the courage to come to a country, which only three years previously had been involved in a fierce-some war and whose inhabitants were still licking their wounds as they would for decades to come. Yet came the family did and established a carpentry trade. The oddity of such reflection and the fact that I would have in my possession garments of Victorian propriety and discretion was not lost on my dear friend Ryan – he of www.mylimeboots.co.za fame and we grabbed the opportunity to take some zany photographs one evening. I am told my quirk is hereditary, descendant from my Scottish forebears – which of course delights me. The ability to see the humour and absurdity behind situations has seen me through many a tough situation. The beautiful handwork on my “hand-me-downs” got me delving into the history of undergarment making, which I share with you now. Thanks to http://www.tudorlinks.com/treasury/articles/viewvictunder1.html
A brief history of Victorian undergarments
The Victorian woman wore an extraordinary amount of underwear. The basic items consisted of chemise, drawers, corset and several petticoats. In general, these main garments remained throughout the period, but new ones were added (and taken away, too), including crinolines, bustles, corset covers and combinations.
Underclothing can be separated broadly into two kinds –underlinens and structural garments – not a distinction the Victorians made. Underlinens, such as chemise, drawers, petticoat, corset covers and combinations, protected the valuable corset, dress and outer clothing from the body. They could also provide warmth. Structural underwear, such as corsets, bustles, crinolines and bust-improvers, created the fashionable silhouette.
This protected the corset and dress from the skin and vice versa. The early Victorian chemise was voluminous and made from quite firm, white linen, usually undecorated.
It was often short-sleeved (plain or puffed), calf-length and had a square flap that folded down over the top of the corset. Other early necklines for day wear included round or square, (without flaps and occasionally with triangular bust gussets let in at the front). An alternative for evening and summer dress was low and oval, sometimes gathered into a band that fitted around the edge of the shoulder, over the top of the arms.
By the 1860s the flap-fronted chemise was not widely worn and the evening, low-necked style could be worn during the day also. It was usually made of cotton and often embroidered. Sometimes a moderately low neck band formed a yoke, extending into a front placket opening, giving a modified T-shape.
During the 1870s the dress bodice (called a cuirasse bodice) became very long and tight. The chemise became less voluminous, shorter and often sleeveless. It and with vertical tucks was sometimes shaped to the waist at the side seams under the bust.
By the end of the century, the chemise had become a very simply cut, sleeveless garment with narrow shoulders and a round, square, V or heart-shaped neckline. It was however, very highly decorated with lace and embroidery and made of fine cotton or linen and even silk. The evening chemise worn with sleeveless, decolletee dresses, was cut straight across the top, with separate narrow shoulder straps. This style became increasingly popular during the early twentieth century.
Well there you have it! Finally, I have added a recent pic of me and my two daughters Sarah (left) and Rachel. I think Great Grandma Joan would have been proud!