Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Victorian/Edwardian Combination Chemise & Drawers: How to turn an op-shop find into historical underwear

It's definitely not the sexiest underwear you'll ever see, but the combination chemise and drawers were an everyday staple for the late Victorian and Edwardian woman. The layers of underwear worn during this period was staggering (not to mention hot, especially in climates like Australia) and consisted of the chemise and drawers, over which was placed the corset, then the corset cover. Stockings and then a further layer consisting of a petticoat was added before the actual dress.  So its not surprising that the combination chemise and drawers came about in the 1870s to alleviate some of this bulk.

The Ugly Duckling aka. the Op Shop Nightie

When I was shopping with my cousin we decided to have a look in an op-shop in Coogee (thrift store for anyone in the USA) and among the racks I found this hideous monstrosity.

Classic granny nightie

However I did see some potential in it and for only $10 it had everything I needed to make a set of combination Victorian/Edwardian underwear.

The Inspiration

Before I went about transforming the nightie into something a little less hideous I wanted to do my research and try to make it as historically accurate as I could, which I knew I could do, even though I was making it from a pre-existing and commercially available modern garment.

Most underwear during history was made from linen, which is made from the flax tree, as it was quite light and cool to wear and long lasting. Unfortunately linen is not as readily available now, and most are a cotton blend. This nightie is 100% cotton, however that's not a problem because by the end of the nineteenth century cotton became a common material used in undergarments. So in terms of fabric, this is a historically accurate base to use.

In terms of the look and shape of the garment I looked at extant garments and fashion catalogues and plates from the time. First there is this extant garment (1890-1900) from the MET in New York made of linen, silk and lace:

Then I found this from a Macy's catalogue from 1911 advertising combination chemise and corset cover (chemise):

There are also these early Edwardian photographs:

The biggest inspiration for the project came from this extant example owned by Carolyn over at Lady Carolyn's blog which can be found here

There is also this very similar set:

And this vintage set that was listed on etsy:


As with all drawers from this period, combination or single, the crotch was left open. Yes that's right, drawers contained an open or half open crotch which explains why drawers were so baggy - otherwise one would have a very breezy and exposed backside! In a combination undergarment the open crotch was really necessary, as anyone who has ever worn a playsuit or jumpsuit would know, otherwise you would have to get completely undressed to go to the toilet. And with all those layers the last thing you'd want to do is spend half an hour undressing just to relieve yourself.

Finally there was this Edwardian sketch that I found somewhere, in which you can clearly see sets of combination underwear on the two ladies who are standing.

The Transformation

The first thing I did  was to cut off the sleeves of the nightie and lower the neckline. The next thing I had to do was to get rid of some of the volume on the chemise section of the nightie. I did this by bringing in the seams at the sides and creating darts on the front and back with the material.

The next step was to create the legs. First, I cut off the frilly bit of material at the bottom of the nightie. I then cut the skirt in half and then hemmed the material. I made the split in the front of the nightie longer than in the back as I wanted to add some buttons to the front like the LadyCarolyn garment above. After doing that I ended up with this:

Using the frilly bit of material that I had cut off previously I added this to the bottom of each of the legs. When doing this I created an open channel in the seam where the two bits of material meet. I then cut holes into this (which I hand sewed around) so I could later add ribbon to create a decorative weave effect.

According to Tudorlinks, "Though perhaps meant to be a fashionable innovation, the combination garment was hijacked, as it were, by the dress reform movement, who wanted to reduce the number and weight of clothing worn by women as a rule. A reformed version, sometimes called a combination divided skirt (still a chemise and drawers combined) had long, wide legs that were intended to replace the petticoat too. It is not surprising that highly fashionable ladies did not really take to this garment until the Edwardian era."

This 'reformed version' that had long wide legs was the version that was more common in the Edwardian period and in the extant Edwardian examples that I have based mine on, whilst Victorian examples were more tapered around the knees.


I want to be able to use this combination set with Victorian and Edwardian garments, so with the finished product I've tried to hit two birds with one stone. To do this I used satin ribbon to allow the drawers to be adjusted, bringing it in around the knee for a more Victorian look or leaving it loose for a more voluminous Edwardian one.

Finally to finish off the combination, I added some decorative trim from the discarded sleeves to the arm holes. I then used bias tape around the waist to create a channel to put ribbon in so the garment can be pulled in and taper around the waist.

The Swan aka. the Finished Garment!

After adding the final touches of ribbon, here is the finished combination chemise/drawers.



So if you need some historical undergarments, keep an eye out in your local op-shop for a granny nightie!

Before... After...

1 comment:

  1. cool. That one with the blue band at the waist and lace at the bottom looks like something I would wear in the summer as it is, or maybe a little shorter. really pretty!