Lingerie of 1915 and the Questionable Invention of the Brassiere

Lingerie is always one of my favorite parts of pattern catalogs. The Butterick 1915 pattern catalog I recently let go from my collection had some great examples of the lingerie styles of the era, which included chemises, corset covers, brassieres, drawers, slips, and combinations.

The Brassiere of 1915

This catalog was of particular interest, though, for the brassieres. Every now and then there seems to be a mainstream cultural piece gushing about the 1914 invention of the “brassiere” and the supposed liberation from the oppression of corsets it provided, etc. This narrative defines brassiere in an extremely narrow way, ignoring breast bands that go back to Greece and are depicted in 4th century mosaics, medieval finds from Lengburg Castle dating to the 15th century that resemble modern lingerie design, and the many kinds of bust support patented during the 19th century. The Mary Phelps Jacob patent of 1914 is more of a backless bralette, which is a unique design, but far from the first bra available. (To me, it’s another example of the way that we view our historical predecessors as dramatically different from us or somehow more ignorant, confined by uncomfortable corsetry because propriety demanded it, conveniently ignoring our own modern excesses such as plastic surgery.) As long as women have had fabric, I suspect there have been ways we’ve used it to provide breast support while working or engaging in sports.

Brassiere Patent

In the 1915 Butterick catalog, there are many examples of brassieres and bust support in the form of fitted corset covers. (This contradicts the “the brassiere was invented in 1914” narrative as well, since if it had just been invented a few months before, DeBevoise probably wouldn’t have been mass producing the “brassiere” in the spring of 1915.) There is an ad for DeBevoise brassieres that have the monobosom shape of the 1915 silhouette. These would have been made of mostly nonstretch fabric, and patterns for them have always seemed very plain and utilitarian to me, but I think I may have underestimated the possibilities there. Some of the lace and sheer versions are very pretty, and I’m curious enough about what kind of support they could provide that I might have to give making one of these a try.

lingerie of 1915 brassiere ad

There were patterns available from Butterick for similar styles:

The 1915 Corset Silhouette

The brassiere seemed to be gaining momentum as the corset shifted lower to give the straight, thin hipped look that was fashionable then. The brassiere or fitted corset cover would support the bust while the corset gave shaping to the lower torso. There’s a great ad for corsets in the catalog that illustrates the corset style in 1915:

lingerie of 1915 corset ad

I’ve seen discussions of corsetry that describe this garment as oppressive and claiming that this kind of corset made sitting difficult, but it’s clear from surviving garments from the period and patterns for this type of corset that the boning didn’t extend all the way to the bottom of this type of corset. The boning in most examples I’ve seen stops at the high hip, as a typical higher corset’s bones would. This kind of corset often included elastic panels at the hip, too. I doubt moving or sitting in it would be much different than trying to move or sit in a contemporary girdle or Spanx type control garment.

The Corset Covers, Slips and Chemises of 1915

The corset cover is a type of delicate undershirt that if made to fit closely would have provided bust support, but looser styles could be worn with other foundation pieces like corsets or boned brassieres to smooth the silhouette, too. Corset covers typically ended at the waistline or high hip while chemises usually were full body length.
There are several styles for these kinds of garments in the Butterick catalog:

 

Drawers of 1915

Panties or knickers as we currently know them don’t seem to have really been a thing yet as of 1915. The lower body styles featured in this pattern catalog are drawers, and they are for *open* drawers, so they were definitely still being worn in this era. For the most part they seem to still be being worn down to the knee as well.

Combination Undergarments

Judging from the amount of patterns offered for combination undergarments, they seem to have been extremely popular in this era. There are also several envelope chemises, which is the closest thing to the closed crotch kind of undergarment we’re used to today:

lingerie of 1915 butterick 6957 combination 8

The combination combined the corset cover or chemise with open drawers:

This simple garment could be somewhat fitted or looser fit, simple and utilitarian or embellished with embroidery and lace, gathered at the neckline or suspended from shoulder straps, gathered and trimmed at the leg or loose.

I think I need to give these a try, too. In a suitable fabric and with a close fit, these would be basically the same thing as a summery jumpsuit, and they’d have a bit of vintage elegance to them. Maybe when I’m not sleep deprived I’ll give them a go. 🙂

I’ll end this screed with just some advertising gorgeousness for its own sake from another brassiere ad. The illustrations of the time are so beautiful.

Happy Sunday! Have you ever worn or sewn undergarments in the style of this era? I’d love to hear your opinions / experiences / general thoughts on vintage styles being done with contemporary styling.

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Butterick 1915 Fashions (and thoughts on trying to KonMari myself out of being a hoarder).

I’ve officially started cleaning out my sewing room / having a full blown not-quite-midlife decluttering crisis and ebay-ing some of my old collected treasures. It’s funny the way my compulsions come full circle given enough time. About five years ago, I was interested in minimalism and simple living and trying to clear out my possessions to have time and space for what mattered most to me. Then I got interested in sewing ephemera and collecting sewing machines, and somehow my sewing room / sanctuary space became overrun with treasures.

Some of this is Asperger’s related, or to put it in non-identity-label terms, my learning style. When I become interested in something, it becomes obsessive, and I learn by immersing myself completely in the subject. I have enjoyed the process immensely, and pattern catalogs and sewing manuals and correspondence courses appeal to so many of my interests – visual art, graphic design, antiques, cultural history, gender history, material culture, crafting – that collecting them has engaged me as little else has.

But now, the cycle of my interests is shifting back to simplicity, and with a new baby and a desire to really move into patternmaking as an action and not just a study, I find that owning all of these delicate historical things is not providing me the same pleasure that hunting and studying it initially did. We don’t have enough room for me to store these things anymore, really. The sheer volume of kids toys we’ve accumulated with one kiddo who shares my hoarder tendencies is unbelievable, so with two, there’s just not room for boxes of books.

And what I want has changed. I want a crafting room or studio space that I can share with my kids without the worry that they might accidentally get ink on some antique irreplaceable thing that I paid a huge amount of money for. (Not to mention life in tornado alley makes a girl a bit nervous about all those 19th century leaflets upstairs when the sirens go off and we all pile in the basement.) I’d rather use the money from selling them to buy fabrics and art materials to engage with. So I’m finding new homes for some of the treasures I’ve accumulated over the years.

I keep reading Marie Kondo and hoping it will stick. There’s a passage in The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up that I keep coming back to:

When you come across something that you cannot part with, think carefully about its true purpose in your life. You’ll be surprised at how many of the things you possess have already fulfilled their role. By acknowledging their contribution and letting them go with gratitude, you will be able to truly put the things you own, and your life, in order. In the end, all that will remain are the things that you really treasure. To truly cherish the things that are important to you, you must first discard those that have outlived their purpose.

Most of the things I’ve collected have served their purpose in my life, in that they’ve provided an education and a great deal of inspiration. I scan and reproduce some of my favorites as a history nerd / design passion project, so have the ability to return to the information they contain. So I think I’m ready to clear out the physical bulk and work toward having space and materials to put what they’ve taught me to use in making new designs, doing my own sketches, writing about what I’ve learned about fashion history.

So, if you are a collector of fashion ephemera, feel free to watch my ebay (here). I have so many things to clear out over the next few months. I’ll try to post about some of the things I send back out into the world as I go through the process, because some of the designs and information in them is really fantastic.

I put up a Butterick catalog from 1915 this weekend that has some fantastic illustrations and unique details in it that I figured I’d share here, just as fashion inspiration. I love the influence of the kimono on this era (and have been very into researching kimono inspired garments lately) that started with Poiret a few years earlier but can still be seen in the girdles and sashes and surplice necklines.

 

Some of these designs and silhouettes seem very dated but even the dated designs have details that could be incorporated to give personality to contemporary designs or simple garments. Others, though, if they were done in contemporary colors and fabrics and with a modern hairstyle, you’d never know they were hundred year old designs. The dress with a deep neckline, a sash and the midsection, and the ruffle detail low on the sleeve and skirt would be gorgeous in a light chiffon outer layer and a satin sash in the same color for subtlety or a bright contrasting one for drama, something like cream chiffon with a scarlet sash and maybe some scarlet ribbon detailing at the neckline.

Fashion magazines always appeal to my inner 15 year old art nerd, too. The way these illustrations are done is both pretty and illustrative in a way some eras aren’t. Personally, I like this better than some of the line drawing qualities of illustration in the 1920s and the harsher femininity sometimes illustrated in the 1930s. It’s interesting, too, because these illustrations seem to depict female faces as they would look with heavy cosmetic applications, though women would probably still have tried to keep their makeup applications looking very natural at this point in history, using maybe just a face powder, light rouge, eyebrow pencil, and a tonic on lashes.

The shift of silhouette from the heavily corseted, tiny waistline of the first decade of the 1900s is fascinating. From what I understand this was probably partly due to the popularity of Titanic era designs by Poiret, Fortuny, and others that were inspired by other cultures with a more natural silhouette, but also due to necessity as World War I changed everyone’s lives so dramatically from 1914 onward, changing the daily activities of women, causing material shortages such that designs had to use less fabric, and so many other changes.

The corsets and undergarments really deserve an in-depth post of their own, so more on that later.

Happy Sunday!