The Interior Belt in Vintage Styles

Janet Arnold’s illustration of the interior of a woman’s dress, circa 1896. From Patterns of Fashion 2. Notice the belt, attached only at the center back seam.

If you are trying to reproduce a vintage garment, you need all the information you can get. Information about how a vintage dress looks on the inside is invaluable, and I don’t know of any source better than the series of Patterns of Fashion books by the late Janet Arnold

… even when you have primary source information, like this photograph.

Fashion Photograph from 1896. Met Museum. We can see from the photo that the skirt at left is probably flat-lined — those tell-tale wrinkles would have been omitted in a drawing.

It’s better than a drawing, but the answer to “how did they do that?” requires inside information.

Cream brocade gown from the House of Worth, 1896. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum.

Museums and books sometimes provide close up photos showing details of construction …

Detail of Worth gown from 1896, showing several rows of cartridge pleating on the sleeve and lace-shaped beading on the brocade bodice. Met Museum.

But to reproduce a vintage garment and have it “behave” properly, we need to know where the seams (and the bones) are, how the garment was lined, where the hidden closures were located, what made those sleeves stand up like that***, etc. Also, sometimes we discover a “trick” that made the garment easier to put on, or made it fit better. For costume purposes, we don’t need to follow the original slavishly (sometimes all those difficult hidden closures are not practical for a costume,) but we can make informed decisions.

One device that I have seen on vintage garments — and used on costumes — is the interior waistband or belt. This turn-of-the-century vintage bodice had one.

Elaborate lace and ribbon trimmed this ToC bodice (with a strangely skimpy skirt.)

Inside, a belt (never meant to be seen) was attached to the seams at center back. It closed at center front, and would be the first thing the wearer fastened when getting dressed.

Interior belt or waistband on a Turn of Century [ToC] bodice.

As Janet Arnold sketched the insides and outsides of museum garments, she drew many bodices that used an interior belt.

Interior waistband or belt, drawn by Janet Arnold.

Notice that the belt is only secured to the center back seams, with characteristic X stitches. It closes with hooks and bars at center front. It anchors the bodice to the wearer’s waist, so the bodice cannot ride up. It also holds the bodice in place while the many concealed hooks, eyes, and tapes are fastened. It takes some of the strain at the tightest spot, so the wearer doesn’t have to exert much pull on the more delicate fabrics to fasten them.

The interior belt works well on corsets.

I have seen and used these belts on the inside of corsets — what a great difference they make!

When you lace your own corset after fastening the front busk, you can’t be sure of getting it the same size every time. (Corsets rarely meet in the back.) Delineator,  April 1914.

First, the interior belt closing gives a constant size for the corset. You can’t accidentally lace it looser by mistake. If your dresses have been made to fit perfectly over your corset, but the corset lacing never actually meets at the waist, there’s always a chance that you will tighten your laces, put on your dress, and find that the dress doesn’t fit properly, because you pulled the laces too tight — or allowed yourself a bit more room than you did at the dress fitting.

Janet Arnold’s illustration of the interior of a woman’s dress, circa 1896. From Patterns of Fashion Vol 2. [***Fun fact: Arnold discovered that those huge leg-o-mutton sleeves were stuffed with paper!]

Secondly, when there is a waist belt inside your corset, the belt contracts your waist to the right size for fastening the front busk. The belt takes the strain (and keeps your corset from falling to the floor), giving you two hands free to hook the busk at the waist. Once the corset is fastened there, hooking it the rest of the way up and down is relatively easy. You may not need to deal with the laces at all.

The interior belt is can be made of a non-stretchable ribbon, like grosgrain.

The belt is also a great help in supporting the weight of the skirt; in many period dresses most of the skirt fullness is at the back, so the skirt of the dress can be quite heavy, and hard to wrestle with when its weight pulls the bodice crooked as you try to deal with dozens of fastenings.

Interior of dress from 1913-14 drawn by Janet Arnold. The skirt is sewn to the bodice only at one side. A row of hooks and bars connects the skirt to the bodice on the other side. (You can see two bars below “CF.” Arnold drew every hook.)

This circa 1913 dress (which combines lace, fur, chiffon and other materials) has an elaborate arrangement of closures, all of which would be hidden when the dress is worn. Notice that the skirt is only sewn to the bodice on its right side. The interior belt holds the bodice in the correct place and helps to support the weight of the skirt, while the left side of the skirt is slowly attached, hook by hook, to the left side of the bodice! [I think this one needed the help of a maid to deal with the skirt back and that big bow.]

Detail of Arnold’s drawing of the dress from 1913-14; no closures are visible, as the built-in sash hides the places where the skirt is only hooked to the bodice. The skirt is fur-trimmed.

The use of an interior belt is not restricted to the Victorian era. It remains part of the interior structure on couture when needed. It might be used, for example, to prevent tight jackets’ buttons straining against buttonholes at the waist, or to prevent too much strain on a zipper.

I can’t swear this famous Christian Dior New Look suit’s interior structure uses a belt, specifically, but something is preventing “pull” on the buttons. Click here for a great essay on “New Look” construction techniques.

You can see an interior belt — sewn in, not hanging free — on the waist of this gray dress from Dior’s fall-winter collection of 1955:

This Dior dress from 1955 is lying open on a table, positioned so you can see one end of the interior waistband; it matches the gray of the dress, which is flat-lined with gray organza.

At the place where the dress fits most tightly, the strain is taken by the belt rather than the zipper, which is visible to the right of the belt.

Christian Dior label, “Automne-Hiver 1955.” Charcoal gray dress with matching bolero jacket. Photographed from a private collection. The owner mentioned that this dress was made during Dior’s lifetime.

Digression: [I can’t not show you other pictures of this ensemble, even though I’m straying from my “interior belt” topic!]

You can see the unusual seam lines and darts on the jacket, which also has an interesting vertical buttonhole treatment.

Bolero jacket from Christian Dior, 1955. The matching dress has a full skirt pleated at the waist.

With the bolero jacket unbuttoned, the use of a separate panel to create “buttonholes” can be seen.

No, this buttonhole construction is not as care-free as it may look:

Inside view of Dior buttonhole in the bolero from 1955. The seams on the front of the jacket are not the same as those on the inside, and the buttonhole is reinforced like this.

Here, the interesting seams of the cap sleeve are visible. The back of the dress, with zipper, is visible at right.

Back to the topic of researching the insides of clothes you need to re-create, and the interior belt….

Arnold studied this dress from 1915-16 inside and out. If you were planning to copy it, you might think the outside tells the whole story — bodice and skirt both gathered at the waist.

A circa 1915 dress in a museum collection, drawn and its construction analyzed by Janet Arnold. Note the way a series of tiny tucks curves the sleeve forward.

Text describing the dress mentions that is would have been worn over a corset like this one.

The interior, drawn by Janet Arnold, shows that the scalloped dress in not as simple as it looks.

It has an under bodice, a hidden closure in front, a skirt that is partially attached to the bodice and partially hung from hooks and bars, and an interior belt that is boned and tightly fitted.

Arnold gives you a scale drawing of every part of the dress. This is what the under bodice of net looks like:

Like many vintage dresses which are bloused, this one has an under bodice. See French Linings. The bodice itself has kimono sleeves without armhole seams.

Arnold’s scale drawing of the interior belt on the scalloped dress. “The Petersham is shrunk in at the top to 26 1/2 inches, the bottom edge measures 27 1/2 “

Petersham ribbon looks much like grosgrain, but grosgrain cannot be stretched with steam and pressure. Petersham is often used in hat bands because it can be shaped into a slight curve with a steam iron.

I cannot praise Arnold’s Pattern of Fashion books too highly. Even if you choose not to duplicate her scaled patterns exactly, you will gain insight into period (and couture) construction that is invaluable.

I used to watch 1950s’ movies and wonder how a slender belt with no practical buckle could dig into an actress’s waist to compress it even more than her “merry widow” corset. Here is Elizabeth Taylor in a dress that really squeezes her waist. Janet Leigh’s wedding dress has a belt that might squeeze her that hard — although eventually the hole in the belt would start to tear…. Unless there was an even tighter belt inside those dresses….  “Ya think?”



Filed under 1870s to 1900s fashions, 1900s to 1920s, 1910s and WW I era, 1940s-1950s, A Costumers' Bookshelf, Dresses, Musings, Tricks of the Costumer's Trade, Vintage Couture Designs, Vintage Garments: The Real Thing

17 responses to “The Interior Belt in Vintage Styles

  1. seweverythingblog

    Great post! I’m a sewing nerd and thoroughly enjoyed this post. Thank you!

  2. FreyjasOdyssey

    This is another fabulous article. Do you have any illustrations, or a link to illustrations, of the corset waist belt? I put a waist stay in my corsets, which I know is a bit different, it’s for internal structural strength, but I have never seen a corset with a waist belt.
    I have to agree about the Janet Arnold books, they are my costuming bibles, and I agree that for theatrical costuming, the hidden fastenings (if there are many) are potential disasters for dressers, especially when a quick change is needed in the wings, as I have discovered. Lol. Best to keep the basic shape of the gown so you aren’t compromising on external accuracy , but keep the fastening relatively simple.
    With many thanks for all your work its greatly appreciated, your blog is just brilliant.

    • I have a memory (not necessarily accurate) of a Past Patterns corset I made which included a belt. I definitely remember making the belt of inch wide grosgrain (just one layer with ends folded under) secured (since accuracy wasn’t important) with a big, flat
      “pants” hook and bar in front. The belt was only loosely sewn to the corset at one (or two adjacent) back seams.

      • I worked for Past Patterns for years and sewed many a custom corset for customers, and the only waist “belt” was the one that indicated where the waist was on the corset and was sewn in for strength. These were the Victorian corsets.

      • Thanks for helping my memory deficit! It’s entirely possible that adding the waist belt was suggested by another person in the [theatrical] costume shop. All my experiences using Past Patterns have been good ones, so they sprang to mind. In the theatre, making things simpler for actors and dressers outweighs historical accuracy. (E.g., as a designer, I may not love seeing a zipper down the back of a dress, but I do realize that actors appreciate having time to use the restroom during intermission 🙂 )

  3. Great post and applicable to any sewer making 50’s or 60’s wiggle dresses. Thank you!

    • Yes, the wiggle dress as seen in movies is an extreme, of course. (Which is why I wondered how it worked.) The department store dresses I owned during the 50s always had a band of tape reinforcing the waist seam. (And they were fully lined — just ordinary dresses from Macy’s!) But if you want to pull your dress’s decorative belt ridiculously tight, a “squeezer” on the inside is a good idea.

  4. Ow! Ouch! Beautifully made and designed but what a nightmare to wear. How did women manage to smile while wearing these things? Very interesting details, I had no idea ….
    bonnie in provence

    • I don’t know how any woman wears high heels that offer no arch support. (Sometimes I can see the soles of their feet arching higher than the sides of the shoe! Not even touching the inside except at the ball of the foot and the heel.) I did read about women who get their doctors to anesthetize their feet before a big society event! You’d think that would lead to a lot of falling over, but apparently some women can get used to anything in the name of Fashion.

      • OK, worst time ever would be strapped into the victorian dress while wearing high heels. Anesthetize my whole body, please. Brain first.
        bonnie in provence

      • What is torture for one can be a blessing for another. We are all built differently. I wear a steel boned corset all day every day for pain relief. Without it, my back is in agony, but strapped in, I’m pain free. The same with shoes. I have knee arthritis because I’ve been wearing “healthy” trainers and similar sports shoes most of my life – but it turns out that I need high heels instead, and without arch support, so that my foot and my knee joint could take a natural position. Ever seen how animals walk? Just watch their back legs – they are walking on their toes. And although I’m not a cat 😉, my knees and ankles are all wrong for a human anatomy.
        This is all just to say that one style does not feel the same to everyone. 🙂

      • Opera star Joan Sutherland had all her costumes made by the Barbara Matera shop, because Matera knew how to build in a special corset for Sutherland’s back problems. You’re absolutely right about all of us having special needs — After three agonizing months with plantar fasciitis, I am obsessed with arch support. Haven’t worn fashion shoes in 20 years — I love those rigid plastic arch supports in my “no-pronation” clodhoppers! I’m glad you’ve found “work arounds” that help you, too.

      • That’s the thing – the “work-arounds” are out there. It’s important not to get stuck on stereotypes though (like: trainers are good for everyone! – nope). I feel we often discard an idea (not just in fashion) just because it is “generally believed” to be bad. But who is this general that ordered such a belief? I bet I outrank him. 😉

      • I also had plantar fasciatis, although long after I stopped wearing any form of high heels. I have a very high arch and never supported it, so it finally gave up. Not due to high heels, but due to standing 12 hours a day while managing the rehab of a 22 unit apartment building. it took a year to get back to any form of normal, and is fine now but I either wear shoes with good arch support or use my hard plastic orthotics. I know people who wear corset type support garments for their back, but can’t imagine wearing such a thing unless it was medically necessary!!

      • I’m glad you have solved it. Fasciitis is agony. When I started teaching high school (and standing all day long), I wore size 7.5 shoes (American sizing.). A year later I wore 8.5 and have worked my way up to 9.5 now. In 1967, I didn’t realize my feet were getting longer because my arches were falling! 🙂

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