Winter Underwear, 1880s to 1920s

Detail from and ad for Munsingwear knit undergarments, Delineator,  September, 1927.

Frau Buttonbox asked what women wore under those 1920’s dresses in the winter — and how they protected their dresses from sweat and body oils. I have some ads to share!

Just for vocabulary, in the U.S., a one piece knit suit like this was called a “union suit” (proper name) or “long johns” (common name.)

This wool union suit was recommended by dress-reformer Annie Jenness-Miller in 1888.

In 1880’s England, Dr. Jaeger’s theory that wearing wool next to the skin (instead of plant fibers like linen or cotton) was good for health was championed by dress reformers and George Bernard Shaw.

My uncle Bert (like Garrison Keillor’s “Norwegian Bachelor Farmers”) came from a generation (b. 1899) that believed that a hot bath would “open your pores” to admit disease, so he wore long johns from September to March. My stepmother insisted that he wash them (and himself) from time to time if he wanted to eat dinner with us. Whew!

Women’s union suit from Sears catalog, Fall 1918.
By 1916, skirts were getting shorter, but lace-up boots would have hidden the legs of this underwear. Notice the short sleeves.

Ladies’ shoes from Sears catalog, 1918.

Wool, needed for army uniforms, was hard to get in the U.S. in 1917-1918. Note the overlapping “open” back.

The problem with fashionable clothing is that it is usually the opposite of practical clothing — so women who want to be fashionable usually have to sacrifice some comfort — and common sense.

By the mid-1920s, skirts were reaching the knee, and bare arms were expected with evening dresses and dinner dresses. Nevertheless, many dining rooms (even in mansions) were unheated.

Ad for Forest Mills long underwear, Delineator, November 1925. The union suit on the left could be worn under day dresses. These models look like teens.

Winter clothes for teens and small women, October 1925. Delineator.

Under evening dress, your torso could be warm, but your arms had to be bare.

Combed cotton knit underwear from Sears, 1927 catalog. You could wear a silk or rayon slip over these, under your dress.

Butterick 5755, 5714, 5713, Delineator, January 1925, page 29.

Evening dresses for teens, January 1925.

“It s no longer necessary to shiver through the long winter months in order to be stylishly dressed.”

“Keep your body warm.” Ad for Forest Mills knit underwear, Delineator, November 1925. The ad doesn’t state fiber content, but knits made for a smooth, “no bumps” fit.

“Underwear that will not only absorb perspiration, but will keep your body from being chilled.”

The Forest Mills underwear shown in the photograph is not much different in style from silk underwear (slips, camisole and bloomers) sold by Sears, but knit underwear fit more smoothly.

Silk underwear from Sears catalog, Fall 1927. Silk or rayon bloomers came to just above the knee.

Carter’s, a company that made rayon knit underwear, ran a whole series of ads that showed couture fashions next to pictures of models (in the same poses) wearing Carter’s underwear. I don’t now how warm it was, but it did fit very closely.

Detail of an ad for Carter’s rayon knit underwear, Delineator, November 1926. Premet and Poiret were famous Paris Couturiers. That’s a Poiret model above.

Detail of 1927 ad for Carter’s underwear. The model wears Poiret; at right she poses in her Carter’s underwear.

“Poiret’s black and gold gown” and silk cape, pictured in an ad for Carter’s underwear, November 1927. Poiret was very influential in the 1910’s, but falling out of favor by the late 1920’s.

Detail from an ad for Carter’s knit underwear, November 1927. Smooth, one-piece fit.

Right, back view of a one-piece union suit; left, a camisole “vest” and bloomers. Carter’s rayon knit undergarments, ad from 1926.

Premet’s “Vampire” dress, with Carter’s combination underwear to go under it. April, 1928. That dress would have permitted a much warmer undergarment.

The gold and white brocade hostess gown is by Drecoll; the underwear is Carter’s “vest and bloomer” of rayon knit. Ad from May 1927. The House of Worth also participated in this ad campaign.

As to keeping clothes free of perspiration stains and odor, deodorants were available (and ruined the armpits of many a vintage garment….) A solution still used in theatrical costumes, and by those allergic to certain chemicals, is the dress shield.

1910 ad for Kleinert’s dress shields. Delineator.

Ad for OMO dress shields, a rival to Kleinert’s. March 1910, Delineator.

Dress shields were usually safety pinned or basted into place in the armholes of a dress or jacket.

1920 Kleinert’s dress shield ad. You can see that this shield is curved at the top to follow the shape of the bottom of the armhole; it folds over the underarm seam, extending into the dress and into the sleeve.

Costumers sew in snaps so the shields can be changed and washed.  Some women preferred to wear a bra or guimpe-like washable garment which included the shields.

Top of a Kleinert’s dress shield ad, Woman’s Home Companion, March 1937.

The Kleinert’s website (the company is still in business) explains:

“Before The Advent Of Deodorants & Antiperspirants The Dress Shield Was The Way To Protect Your Garments From Sweat & Odor. In 1869 Kleinert’s Invented the Dress & Garment Shield Category Which Is Still In Use Today Protecting Our Clothes & Saving Us From Embarrassing Situations Due To Sweat Stains & Odors. Trust Kleinert’s Quality & History To Keep You Dry Throughout The Day. Choose Below From Our Selection Of Fine Dress Shields.”

The shields come in different shapes for differently cut armholes. Now you can get disposable ones — and in a costume emergency I have cut self-adhesive pantiliners to stick in the underarms of a costume.

Bottom of Kleinert’s dress shield ad from March 1937, WHC.

I’ve mentioned this before: actors sweat, and stage actors have to wear their costume(s) for eight performances per week. It’s not good for a wool suit to be dry-cleaned every week; underwear protects the costume, but a changeable shield under each arm keeps the suit from getting wet at all. Undershirts and shirts, etc., are laundered daily — in fact, Equity actors have duplicates supplied so they don’t ever have to put on a shirt that is still damp from the matinee performance. (Ditto for all other items that touch the skin.)

Full page, full-color Kleinert’s ad, March 1924. Delineator.

Unsexy as a dress shield may be, it’s preferable to ruining a $2000 dress or destroying it by too-frequent dry cleaning. Bonus: you can raise your arms and never show a sweat ring.

Camisole and bloomers from Munsingwear ad, September 1927, Delineator.

P.S. [Edited 1/6/2019] Liza D at BVD sent a photo of the Kleinert’s dress shields she found in a vintage garment (Thanks, Liza!) :

Liza D found these used dress shields in a vintage garment. Those ugly stains would have been on the blouse if the woman who wore it hadn’t used these in the underarms. Click here for Liza’s post about it.


Filed under 1870s to 1900s fashions, 1900s to 1920s, 1910s and WW I era, 1920s, 1920s-1930s, Combinations step-ins chemises teddies, Late Victorian fashions, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture, Panties knickers bloomers drawers step-ins, Tricks of the Costumer's Trade, Underthings, Underthings, Hosiery, Corsets, etc

12 responses to “Winter Underwear, 1880s to 1920s

  1. I have two sets of those cotton one-piece underwear (both with slim straps) and they are incredibly comfy. I wear them in cold weather beneath my corset for dress-up events. Very cozy! The split crotch makes this doable. The long ones also add warmth to my legs (wore it last night beneath a mid-Victorian ensemble, in fact). Pulled the “stockings” (aka knee socks) right over them.

    I’ve got several sets of Kleinert’s dress shields that I’ve removed from antique dresses, bodices, and blouses (very yucky after 100+ years!). The fabric beneath, as you’d expect, is in like-new condition. I wrote a blog post showing them, and what it looks like underneath, if you’d like to see it. I am always so grateful that someone bothered to use them, as they definitely do the trick.

    I use modern (disposable, stick-on) dress shields to protect my vintage and antique clothes from my modern antiperspirant, which can be damaging to textiles.

    • Yes, please! can you send link to your blog post about the dress shields? Sometimes a beautiful vintage dress is perfect except for its rotted underarms — with traces of gunk still on them. Antiperspirants and deodorants do take their toll.

  2. Maybe we should bring back dress shields!

    • I was astounded by the number of products Kleinert’s still sells. I found disposable dress shields at wardrobesupplies. In winter, when we dress for the cold outdoors and get stuck in an overheated place (stores, subways) still wearing an overcoat — dress shields would be good! Of course, women’s clothing is much more (1) clinging and (2) bare around the arms than it used to be.
      I wish I had known about underarm shields 44 years ago when I gave my husband a dressy suede jacket for Christmas — ruined by sweat-rings when he wore it in summer! I could have basted a pair to the coat lining and covered them with matching fabric…. (Dept. of “Had I but known….”)

      • Both my grandmothers used dress shields, and even my mother still uses them on some of her fancier garments that cannot be washed or dry cleaned all too often. These things are so practical!! But the type that I know doesn’t attach to the bra but rather to the inside of a garment. They are really easy to make too: two crescent-shaped pieces sewn together along the shorter side. You put a popper on each end, and also a matching pair of popper sockets onto the garment armhole seams – and you change the dress shields as required!
        Of course, I would not bother with them for things that we wash often anyway, but for dresses or summer jackets they are ideal.

      • I’m more familiar with the ones that snap (or tiny-gold-safety-pin) to the garment itself. I can see how the ones that one that come as part of a garment would be very useful if your job included reaching over people and putting your armpits in their faces — nurses, hairdressers, etc. Your shirt would always look dry.

  3. Open flaps and split crotch makes perfect sense! A friend of mine lent me a 1927 book on sewing lingerie (by the Women’s Institute), and studying all those patterns for adult oneses and jumpsuits as underwear, I came to the only logical conclusion that women of 1920s never went to the loo… Because you couldn’t, not unless you removed ALL of your clothing every time! 😮

    • As a “motherless girl” I used to look at advertisements for hints on how to wear adult garments — but I soon realized that most magazines wouldn’t show underpants being worn, so figuring out what really went next to the skin was tricky. Underpants or garter belt? I knew the ads that showed a huge bouffant petticoat under the garter belt made no sense…. And I really did wear a panty-girdle to classes in college — which meant peeling it off (and the panties I wore under it) when nature called. I have no idea how Frenchwomen dealt with those “foot on each side of a hole in the floor” Parisian toilets in the era of pantyhose — I found them extremely challenging in the 1970s! (Many things about public bathrooms in Paris were surprising — including the ones with the toilet paper dispenser on the outside of the stall (“I don’t know how many sheets I’m going to need!”) and the one in my hotel which turned on the bathroom light automatically when you locked the door — and turned it off exactly one minute later, leaving most women in the dark as they struggled with their underwear. It’s surprises like that that make travel so educational:)

      • Public toilets in Paris are still the same. As for the light – I met with exactly the same system in various other countries, including the USA. Clearly set up by a man – why wouldn’t you be finished in 60 seconds? 😉

      • And talking about what goes under what: those 1927 Women’s Institute books state that bloomers or pantaloons are worn UNDER the corset, so as to provide a smooth line for the body. The corsets were long – covering the bum and thighs, as you’ve shown a few times, so even if you managed to pull the bloomers off without removing the corset (and probably ripped your bloomers in the process), then how on earth would you put them back on? The answer is of course: don’t use the loo. :-O

      • Thanks. Even unbuttoning the crotch, or maneuvering it into an open position when you had a long corselette over it… not easy! especially if there is tension between the stockings and the suspenders. I notice that several of the “Getting Dressed” videos recommend putting your stockings and shoes on before you get into the corset — because you won’t be able to reach your feet when wearing a long corset. And the toilet was often an outhouse (not roomy) or a chamberpot! Modern bathrooms — a wonderful invention.

  4. Oh, here they are! Thank you for this extensive overview! Especially the ads from Carter’s are eye opening. Dress shields are easy to get here in Germany, but I didn’t fnd them very pleasant to wear. I attached snaps, but they tended to wrinkle and didn’t reliably stay in place. Well, maybe I should give them another try. Thanks again!

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