Category Archives: Shirts and Blouses

Skirts and Blouses, July 1917

Delineator, July 1917, top of page 51. Butterick patterns.

I’ve been collecting images of women’s blouses from 1917; this particular page shows such a variety of skirts, blouses and hats that it deserves a closer look.

Butterick Blouse-Waist 9203, Delineator, July 1917.

This blouse was also featured in a color illustration in June:

Left, Butterick Blouse-Waist 9203, Delineator, June 1917.

And in a different version in August:

Butterick 9203, as illustrated in August 1917.

The same blouse, trimmed with filet crochet lace. July 1917. in 1917 a blouse could be called a “waist,” a “blouse,” a “blouse-waist,” or a “shirt-waist.”

Butterick 9203 was shown with a relatively simple stitched-down pleat skirt (No. 9276) , but the skirt was enhanced with a checked cotton belt and matching checked border:

Butterick skirt 9276 and bag 10625. July 1917.

Blouse 9203 could be made with a high-necked insert; the blouse has a sailor collar in back. The posture of 1917 is very high-waisted in back — caused by the shape of the corset.

Four “blouse-waists” and one “shirt-waist,” Butterick 9153. July 1917.

I’ve spent hours trying to figure out the difference between a blouse, a blouse-waist, and a shirtwaist. I haven’t found any consistency yet. Sometimes a “blouse” is pulled on over the head, and sometimes a “shirt-waist” has a button front, but — not always. More about that on another day.

Butterick blouse-waist 9280. Delineator, July 1917. The blouse is trimmed with smocking. That interesting belt/pocket is part of the skirt pattern.

Butterick skirt 9281, July 1917.

This view shows blouse 9280 in a single breasted version, with an optional high neck and the popular sailor collar in back. Skirt 9281.

Shirt-waist 9513 and blouse-waist 9116. Butterick’s Delineator magazine, July 1917. No. 9116 has “the new collarless neck.” The hat at right looks very much like a flower pot.

Blouse-waist 9116 with skirt 9290. Women who were not comfortable wearing the relatively new bare necklines could make the blouse with a high collar instead.

Both skirts have interesting details. The medieval-influenced belt at right isn’t included.

Butterick skirt patterns 9266, left; and 9290, right. This was the era of the “barrel” skirt; wide hips were in style.

Shirt-waist 9513 and blouse-waist 9116. Butterick’s Delineator magazine, July 1917.

Another sailor collar.

Not related to these patterns — except for its sailor collar — is this vintage embroidered lace waist.

This vintage “waist,” which literally ends at the waist, reflects the custom of selling dress patterns as separate waist and skirt patterns. This gave the buyer more style options.

Butterick blouse-waist 9289 and a skirt (9286) with a [“paper-bag”] waist that tried to come back into style quite recently. July 1917.

Butterick skirt 9286,from 1917. 100 years later, this paper bag waist was back.

Another high-necked blouse option, sailor collar, and a back view of the skirt with gathers above its waist.

And the “most unusual hat” award goes to….

Summer hat, 1917. She also has “bee-stung” lips, usually associated with the 1920s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under 1900s to 1920s, Makeup & Lipstick, Shirts and Blouses, Vintage patterns, World War I

High Neck or Open Necked Options for Women, 1917

Butterick waists [i.e., blouses] from February 1917, Delineator, p. 51

After 1912, fashion permitted respectable women to expose their necks in the daytime, but not every woman felt comfortable with the change.

Butterick waists [blouses) from August 1917 occasionally included a high-necked one. Delineator, p. 47.

A vintage lingerie blouse (or “waist”), probably late 1890’s. That high collar wouldn’t give much relief from the heat in spite of the blouse’s sheer fabric.

These waist (blouse) patterns from Ladies’ Home Journal, July 1917, all have open necks. In July, a blouse like this must have been wonderfully cool compared to the fashions of the 1890’s.

By 1917, when most blouses had open collars, V-necks, or other necklines that bared the throat and part of the sternum, Butterick patterns often still included an optional high-necked version. That’s my excuse for showing these seven outfits from 1917 in all their colorful glory.

These look like dresses, but they are waist and skirt combinations. Butterick patterns from February 1917. Delineator.

The two at left use chiffon and other sheer fabrics; 8928 has a low draped neckline filled with skin-toned lace.

Butterick waist patterns 8927 and 8919. From 1917. In January, Butterick evening waist 8901 was very similar to 8927, but was shown without a blouse under it.

Butterick waist 8919 with skirt 8928. Delineator, Feb. 1917. The alternate view shows a high-necked variation without the cowl neckline of the color illustration.

Although I’m focusing on blouses, skirt 8928 was also illustrated (twice) with an evening bodice:

Skirt 8928 with “evening bodice” 8956. Delineator, editorial illustration, Feb. 1917.

Butterick evening coat 8727 shown with a “gown” that is really a blouse (No. 8956) and separate skirt (No. 8928 again.) Delineator, Feb. 1917. [That waist looks shockingly bare to me!]

Butterick waist patterns 8927, 8919, and 8923. February 1917. The designs at left and right have contrast collars and a wrapped “surplice” bodice.

Butterick waist 8927 with skirt 8949. February 1917, Delineator. This one does not offer a high necked version. It is a “jumper model” in the American sense — a sleeveless garment worn over a blouse.

Butterick waist 8923 with skirt 8936. Delineator, February 1917. This blouse waist has a high-necked variation, shown with a dark collar.

A “French lining” fit the body closely and supported draped effects. In this period, as in the 19th century, the closure of the lining did not always line up with the closures on the outer garment, which could be very complex.

These are dresses, not waist and skirt combinations. Delineator, Feb. 1917 page 52. No. 8942 looks like a coat, but it’s a dress.

A closer look at the necklines and the hats. 1917.

Butterick dress pattern 8929, from 1917. It has a tabard (panel) hanging front and back, and unusual “organ-pipe” pleats at the sides of the skirt. “High or open neck could be used.”

Butterick dress pattern 8942, from 1917. The vest front is “equally well adapted to a high or the open throat.” There are at least three sleeve and cuff variations.

Butterick dress 8933, from February 1917, has a surplice (wrapped) bodice. The illustrations show several sleeve variations and a high buttoned neck, worn without the cape collar. [That blue taffeta is beautifully rendered by the illustrator.]

Butterick dress 8947, with skirt and bodice variations, including a high-necked version. 1917. The cross-over belt is very characteristic of 1917. You can see how it ties in the back. “The lower part of the redingote has two different outlines, and it is joined to the long body.”

The hats of 1917 were pretty extreme. [And some were pretty, while some were extreme.]

 

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Filed under 1900s to 1920s, Hairstyles, Shirts and Blouses, Vintage Garments: The Real Thing, World War I

Some (Surprising) Smocked Vintage Garments

This vintage blouse uses hand smocking to control fullness at the shoulders, waist, and sleeves. Probably before 1920’s.

I’ve already shared some 1940’s patterns for smocked blouses, but I keep finding more examples of smocking.

Butterick smocked blouse pattern 4456, Butterick Fashion News flyer, March 1948.

It’s very similar to this pattern from McCall:

McCall smocked blouse pattern 1136 from 1944.

But those forties’ blouses have a peasant influence; they are based on smocked ethnic clothing.

An embroidered ethnic blouse with smocked neckline.

An ethnic peasant blouse with hand-smocked neckline and wrists.

An ethnic flavor was also very popular in the nineteen twenties.

This earlier blouse, however, bares little resemblance to “peasant” styles.

Vintage smocked blouse made of sheer fabric with woven stripes.

The collar covers much of the smocking across the shoulders. So-called “Armistice” blouses are usually short-wasted in back.

I flipped the collar up to show the hand smocking on the back of this blouse. It seems a shame to hide all that work!

I had forgotten about this vintage blouse — it is probably from the “teens.” It uses the stripes woven into the fabric as the grid for smocking, and uses smocking instead of machine-stitched tucks to control the fullness at shoulders, sleeves, and waist.

Detail of smocked shoulder.

The back waist is elegant, although the blouse would look better after ironing. (But smocking makes ironing more difficult.)

The sleeves have a smocked area near the wrist, creating a modest frill.

Smocking in the wrist area. There is a narrow dark stripe in the fabric next to each tightly woven white stripe.

I believe this is called honeycomb smocking:

McCall smocking pattern 441, from 1936.

Using striped fabric as a base for smocking produces interesting effects; this image from A-Z of Smocking, by Sue Gardner, shows how the stripes become part of the grid:

Striped fabric can be smocked in ways the either preserve the stripe, as here, or turn them into a “solid” color. Both effects are pictured in the book A-Z of Smocking, reviewed below. Image reproduced for purpose of review example only. Do NOT copy.

I found another — to me, unexpected — use of smocking on a black silk apron from an era when most older women were almost perpetually in mourning.

A black silk apron with a smocked bib. It’s shown over an unrelated turn-of-the-century blouse.

Perhaps this apron was worn for nothing more taxing than a little hand sewing — or pouring tea.

About the A-Z of Smocking, by Sue Gardner:

Cover of A-Z of Smocking, 2016 edition, by Sue Gardner.

I was fascinated by the many smocking patterns I found in 1940’s McCall catalogs, so I wanted to learn more about this old technique for fabric modification. If you want to find beautifully illustrated, step-by-step smocking instructions, this book couldn’t be clearer. If you are a beginner with an interest in the history of smocking, this may not be quite what you are looking for.

The text can be this brief because the illustrations are so informative and well organized.  Photo from A-Z of Smocking for purpose of review. Do Not Copy.

There is a whole series of A-Z books from Search Press. It’s my fault that I assumed “A-Z” meant “from beginning to end;” instead, it means that the book is organized in alphabetical order, so a lavishly illustrated section on “Honeycomb” smocking comes before an equally fine section on “Trellis” smocking. And an advanced technique, like smocking with Beads, appears before the basic stitches, because it begins with “B.”

On the other hand, because the book is illustrated with step-by-step photos instead of line drawings, it couldn’t be clearer:

A typical section from A-Z of Smocking will have at least two pages of careful and very clear instructional photos like this for every technique covered. Do Not Copy Image.

It even explained (and illustrated the steps to using) a machine that gathers the fabric for you. But the topics I was looking for — about the history of smocking, why it was used for work clothes, which stitches were stretchable and used for the wrist area, for example, were hard to find.

This is the entire passage about Traditional Smocking. No illustrations. A-Z of Smocking is not a history book. Do Not Copy This Image.

Some of the oldest smocking techniques — sometimes called English smocking from its use on shepherd’s smocks — depend on first gathering the fabric with several rows of identically spaced stitches, and then stabilizing them with the decorative smocking stitches. When I read that, in combination with seeing the many stitching examples, I realized that a smocking grid looks a lot like the grid used for cartridge pleating, which had been used to gather fabric in garments for centuries.

Illustration from the section on cartridge pleating in The Costume Technician’s Handbook, by Rosemary Ingham and Liz Covey. Do Not Copy Image.

If you’ve examined mid-nineteenth century dresses, or made Renaissance costumes, this technique for gathering fabrics evenly and stitching them to armholes, yokes, or waists will be very familiar.

Attaching cartridge pleated fabric — e.g., a skirt — to a waistband. From The Costume Technician’s Handbook. Do Not Copy Image.

https://witness2fashion.files.wordpress.com/2015/07/close-v005-cf-detail-500.jpg?w=500&h=382

Cartridge pleats produce tightly controlled gathers in this 19th century fan-fronted dress.

Typical cartridge pleated skirt, stitched to bodice binding. Inside of dress showing extra fabric at CF. You can also see that the front opening is boned.

Typical cartridge pleated skirt, stitched to bodice binding. Inside of dress showing extra fabric at CF. You can also see that the front opening is boned.

For me, this links two very useful books: The Costume Technician’s Handbook, which I cannot recommend frequently enough (the techniques are not limited to costumes,) and the A-Z of Smocking, which I would eagerly buy if I had a practical (rather than academic) interest in smocking.

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Filed under 1830s -1860s fashions, 1870s to 1900s fashions, 1900s to 1920s, Late Victorian fashions, Resources for Costumers, Shirts and Blouses, Tricks of the Costumer's Trade, Vintage Garments: The Real Thing, Vintage patterns, World War I

Beaded Roses in 1920’s Style

The stylized roses of the 1920’s are lovely, and putting just one on a simple dress can really make it look authentic.

A wedding dress with a single, large beaded rose at the hip. Butterick 6224 from October 1925. Delineator.

A wedding dress with a single, large beaded rose at the hip. Butterick 6224 from October 1925. Delineator. It would be equally attractive (and authentic) in black or gold beads on black satin, or white beads on pink, silver beads on pale blue, etc.

Butterick dress pattern 7047, beaded using transfer pattern 10472. Delineator, Sept. 1926.

The Robe de Style from 1926 has two spiraling beaded flowers on the skirt, and a band of beading on the cape-like collar. Butterick embroidery transfer 10472, on dress pattern 7047.

I’m not suggesting that you make a dress like this one for your first beading project:

Butterick 6227, October 1925.

Butterick 6227, October 1925.

However, here is the beading pattern that was used. It appeared in Delineator in May of 1925. It is Butterick embroidery design 10340.

Butterick beading transfer 10340 offered the stylized rose in several variations.

Butterick beading transfer 10340 offered the stylized rose in several variations — a single rose, a rose with tendrils, and the large repeating pattern used on wedding dress pattern  No. 6227.

Butterick transfer 10341, May 1925.

Butterick transfer 10340, May 1925. Work it in beads or in French knots.

You can actually count the beads. Putting a rose like the one in the center on the ends of a chiffon sash or the neckline of a dress would not really take very long. For that matter, you could do it in rhinestones on a T-shirt or in studs on the back of a leather jacket!

A photograph of one beaded rose. Delineator.

A photograph of one beaded rose. Delineator. A larger rose would take more beads or bigger beads.

In a smaller scale — or with bigger beads — this rose could also decorate the side of a cloche hat. You can play with designs, like this….

Top, the pattern turned sideways; bottom, used as a applique with two sets of tendrils.

Top, the pattern turned sideways; bottom, used as a applique with two sets of tendrils.

… Moving or combining them, enlarging them as needed. Sometimes an applique was beaded.

Here is another Butterick rose beading pattern:

Embroidery transfer

Embroidery transfer 10378, Delineator, October 1925.

Butterick embroidery transfer pattern 10378, October 1925. Delineator.

Butterick embroidery transfer pattern 10378, October 1925. Delineator. “For dresses, blouses, scarfs, coats, etc.”

It’s easy to envision the large motif embroidered on a pillowcase with a scalloped edge, but it would also be perfect beaded on the hem of a 1920’s chiffon dress, or even on the front and back panels of a wedding gown:

Bridal dresses, April 1925. Butterick patterns 5719 and 5447.

Bridal dresses, April 1925. Butterick patterns 5719 and 5447.

You could work these embroidery patterns in beads or shiny silk embroidery floss on dresses, or in cotton on pillowcases, although French knots do make quite an impression on your cheek!

This circa 1920 blouse it trimmed with shiny silk floss embroidery, appliques of orange fabric, and beading on top of the appliques.

This late teens or early twenties blouse is trimmed with shiny silk floss embroidery, appliques of orange fabric, and beading plus embroidery on top of the appliques. Rows of French knots in apricot and ice blue silk look like beading, but they are not. They’re knots :).

I once beaded just the bust area on a 1950’s cocktail dress for a play — enhancing the existing champagne colored brocade with small pearls and gold sequins and beads. I was amazed by how much a few hours of beading while watching (OK, listening to) TV enhanced the actress’ figure. (A new mother, she was self-conscious about the size of her post-delivery hips. The beading helped to balance her hips by making the top part of the dress more interesting.)

The neckline and hip band on this blouse were trimmed with clear beads.

The yoke and hip band on this vintage blouse were trimmed with pale, translucent beads for a subtle effect.

It’s is also possible to use lace trim and ornament it with just a few beads for sparkle. Look at the impact that made on this satin dress from earlier in the 20th century:

Lace was appliqued to the satin and then enhanced with matching gold-bronze beads.

Lace was applied to the satin and enhanced with matching gold-bronze beads. Lots of impact, but very little hand beading.

I’m sure there are plenty of “how to apply beads” videos available. I’m no expert, but what I recommend is:

Use a beading needle. Attach each bead or group of 3 or 4 beads using a backstitch. (Backstitch through the beads.) Do not use a running stitch, or a pull on one bead will pucker your material. Knot off every two or three inches, so a single broken thread won’t dump all your beautiful beading onto the floor. (Don’t cut the thread, just continue after stitching in a knot.)  A free-standing embroidery hoop is useful, so you can work with your more skillful hand underneath and your less skillful hand on top, where you can see what it’s doing. ( Q:  “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” A:  ” Practice.”)

In spite of the blurred photo, you can appreciate the white beading on this pale pink dress.

In spite of the blurred photo, you can appreciate the opaque white and pink beading on this peachy pink vintage dress. The pieces were probably professionally beaded before being assembled into a dress.

 

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Filed under 1900s to 1920s, 1920s, Dresses, Musings, Shirts and Blouses, Tricks of the Costumer's Trade, Vintage Garments: The Real Thing, Vintage patterns, Wedding Clothes

More Sheer Dresses from the Late 1930s

Recently Lynn at American Age Fashion posted photos of some older women wearing sheer day dresses in the 1930‘s and the 1940‘s.

Ashville, Ohio, July 4th 1938. Photo by Ben Shahn, Library of Congress.

Ashville, Ohio, July 4th 1938. Photo by Ben Shahn, Library of Congress.

Like Jennifer (from Holliepoint) in Lynn’s comments section, I was surprised that older women would wear sheer dresses that showed their slips. In the fifties and sixties, just having a slip strap drop off my shoulder and become visible was a mortifying experience for me.  “Intimate apparel” was not supposed to be seen except in intimate situations.

However, I was forgetting that many fashions of the 1900’s and 1910’s were sheer, and that women who had been twenty or thirty at the turn of the century would not think of summer dresses that revealed your lingerie as shockingly new. Au contraire.

Ladies' Blouse-waists, Delineator, July 1917. Most of these are sher; you can see through the sleeves.

Ladies’ blouse/waists, Delineator, July 1917. Most of these are sheer; you can see through the sleeves, and probably through the bodices, in real life.

Early in the century, there was even a long-running fashion for “lingerie dresses” like these; they are made of sheer “handkerchief linen,” or cotton batiste, or lawn and ornamented with inset lace, like the underwear (lingerie) of their day.

Lingerie dresses. Left, early 1900's; right 1910's or early twenties.

Lingerie dresses. Left, early 1900’s; right, 1910’s or early twenties. These were photographed over a black slip to show the lace to advantage. A white slip would have been very visible through these dresses.

Thin cotton fabrics and lace inserts were used to make undergarments and also to make blouses. Butterick patterns from Delineator, 1917.

Thin cotton fabrics and lace inserts were used to make undergarments and also to make blouses. Butterick patterns from Delineator, 1917. The blouse/waist at right is sheer enough to show the model’s embroidered underwear, or a lace underbodice.

This beautiful — and very sheer — blouse was made of two layers of netting:

A blouse/waist so sheer that it is made of two layers of netting. Private collection.

A blouse/waist so sheer that it is made of two layers of netting. Private collection.

Here is its equally beautiful back:

This sheer, embroidered netting blouse has a "sailor collar" in back.

This sheer, embroidered netting blouse has a “sailor collar” in back. Circa 1910’s to 1920’s.

Sheer blouses like the one below are now called “Armistice Blouses,” but it probably dates earlier than 1918, when the Armistice ending World War I was proclaimed.

A sheer vintage blouse, circa WW I, sometimes called an "Armistice Blouse."

A sheer vintage blouse, circa WW I, sometimes called an “Armistice Blouse.”

In this photo, you can easily see the coat hanger through the blouse. Underwear would have been equally visible.

Skin and underwear would have been visible through this sheer cotton. Vintage blouse, private collection.

Skin and underwear would have been visible through this sheer cotton vintage blouse. Private collection.

During the 1910’s, a skirt and matching bodice (called a waist) were often worn instead of a dress. The patterns were sold separately. These surviving waists show that  they were part of see-through fashions:

Purple chiffon waist, probably 1910's.

Purple chiffon waist, probably 1910’s.

Embroidered peach colored blouse or waist. Probably 1910's.

Sheer, embroidered pink blouse or waist. Probably 1910’s.

It makes sense to me that women who wore these sheer clothes in their prime . . .

Sheer vintage blouse, before 1910.

Sheer vintage blouse, before 1910.

. . . would be perfectly comfortable in sheer dresses in their middle and old age:

Older woman wearing a sheer, striped dress. Fourth of July, 1938, Ashville, Ohio. Library of Congress photo by Ben Shahn.

Older woman wearing a sheer, striped dress. Fourth of July, 1938, Ashville, Ohio. Library of Congress photo by Ben Shahn. Detail.

No wonder they took to the sheer fashions of the late 1930’s:

A dress flattering to larger figures, Simplicity store flyer, Oct. 1939.

A dress flattering to larger figures, Simplicity 3139, store flyer, Oct. 1939. Sizes 32 to 44.

DuBarry pattern 2319B, for a sheer dress. Store flyer, Aug. 1939.

DuBarry pattern 2319B, for a sheer afternoon dress. Store flyer, Aug. 1939. Available in sizes 32 to 42.

Vogue 8315, Vogue store flyer for May 1, 1939.

Vogue 8315, Vogue store flyer for May 1, 1939. Sizes 32 to 42 bust.

Companion-Butterick pattern 7989, from August 1938.

Companion-Butterick pattern 7989, from August 1938. Dotted sheer fabric.

Simplicity 3205, store flyer, Oct. 1939. A sheer dress.

Simplicity 3205, store flyer, Oct. 1939. A dress with sheer lace yoke and sleeves.

Fourth of July, 1938, Ashville, Ohio. Photo by Ben Shahn from Library of Congress.

Fourth of July, 1938, Ashville, Ohio. Photo by Ben Shahn from Library of Congress. Detail. A sheer dress with polka dots and a lace dress.

The lace dress has a curving under-bust seam like this one:

"Figures are no problem to us." A lace evening dress with bolero jacket, Butterick Fashion News flyer, August 1938.

“Figures are no problem to us.” A lace evening dress with bolero jacket, Butterick Fashion News flyer, August 1938.

Lace dress for larger or mature women. Butterick pattern, 1938.

Lace dress for larger or mature women. Butterick pattern 7998, 1938. “Wear with dignity and chic.” Sizes 34 to 52 inch bust.

For more about these and other sheer nineteen thirties dresses, click here.

Thanks again to Lynn at American Age Fashion for writing about photos of older women in sheer dresses!

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Filed under 1900s to 1920s, 1930s, 1930s-1940s, Dresses, lingerie, Musings, Shirts and Blouses, Slips and Petticoats, Underthings, Vintage Garments: The Real Thing, vintage photographs, Vintage Styles in Larger Sizes, World War I

The Evolution of the Shirt and Cut My Cote: Book Recommendation

I’v been wanting to recommend this little book, Cut My Cote, for a long time, and, since I showed some Victorian era men’s shirts in a recent post, this seems like a good time to share some things Cut My Cote taught me about the evolution of the shirt.

Shirt spun, woven and stitched by Elizabeth Hitchings in 1816. Metropolitan Museum.

Shirt made by Elizabeth Wild Hitchings in 1816. Metropolitan Museum Collection.

“This shirt was created, from the linen fiber to the finished garment, by the donor’s great-grandmother, Elizabeth Wild Hitchings, for her husband Benjamin Hitchings, a sea captain, in 1816.”

Cut My Cote, by Dorothy K. Burnham, is more of a pamphlet than a book, but its 36 pages are packed with useful diagrams and thought provoking information. For me, it was one of those “whack on the side of the head” books, because I had simply never considered how precious cloth was in the pre-industrial age, or how garment construction was influenced by the size of the handwoven cloth available. Making clothes from Burnham’s diagrams is a real education.

This book expands on  some themes from Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, by Elizabeth Barber. Barber, an archeologist and a weaver, estimated that it takes a woman seven hours to hand spin enough thread to weave for one hour. For the woman spinning and weaving and sewing a linen shirt like the one above, every scrap would represent days of labor. You can understand why “zero waste” clothing is not a new idea.

Diagram of Man's shirt, by Dorothy Burnham, showing how none of the handwoven linen was wasted. From Cut My Cote. Pleas do not copy this image.

Diagram of 16th c. man’s shirt, by Dorothy Burnham, showing how not a single inch of the handwoven linen was wasted. From Cut My Cote. Please do not copy this image. The cloth was 27 inches wide.

In the shirt above, the sleeves (B) narrow from below the elbow to the wrist. The triangles of fabric (C) trimmed from the lower part of the sleeves are used to widen the upper part. The neckline is slit straight across, and gathered into the collar at front and back. This gives ease across the back. (Modern shirts have a center back pleat for the same reason.) Notice how similar it is to that shirt made by Elizabeth Wild Hitchings nearly three hundred years later.

“I shall cut my cote after my cloth.”

Burnham examines this proverb and finds it true:  “I shall cut my cote after my cloth.” ( Haywood’s Proverbs, published in 1546) You may have heard a variant of the proverb:

“You must cut your coat to fit your cloth.”

The size of the cloth often dictates the shape of the garment. Using her measurements of rare surviving garments, Burnham charts their cutting patterns. In examples that trace the development of the European shirt, for instance, you can see how reluctantly the cloth is cut at all, and how every inch is utilized.

The Loom and The Shirt

Burnham explains the various types of looms used from place to place, and how the physical requirements of the loom (width, portability, number of weavers) dictates the width of the cloth. Ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt [all slave-owning societies, as it happens] used very wide, vertical or horizontal looms; some needed two weavers passing the shuttle back and forth. The Greeks wove big, wide pieces of cloth, and wore them sideways, wrapped around the body with one selvage as a hem and the other at the top, usually pinning (rather than sewing) the garment at the shoulders. Excess length was controlled with belts, or by folding the top down, or both (below right.) It didn’t need cutting or sewing.

Greek charioteer, ca 475 BC; Roman dancing girl, before 79 AD.

Greek charioteer, ca 475 BC; Roman dancing girl, before 79 AD.

Nomadic societies had to use looms that were portable and easy to set up. Sometimes a waist strap (or back strap) loom was used (Click here to see one being used.) When fabrics began to be worn vertically, instead of having the selvage as a hem, their width was dictated by the weaver’s reach when passing the shuttle from one side of the loom to the other. Since shirts made from narrow cloth were also worn very long, added width was needed for walking, so the sides had to be open at the hem, or the front and back were slit and godets inserted, as below. The fabric for this 13th century shirt was only 22 inches wide. Fabric (C) left over from the sleeves (B), which narrow toward the wrist, is used for godets (C) to widen the bottom of the shirt.

Burnham's diagram for a 13th century French shirt. The wedges cut off the fabric used for sleeves have been inserted into the bottom of the shirt front and back. Please do not copy this image.

Burnham’s diagram for a 13th century French shirt. The wedges (C) cut off the fabric used for sleeves have been inserted into the bottom of the shirt front and back. Please do not copy this image.

This drawing of a medieval farm worker shows a similar garment, with tapered sleeves and a very full skirt.

Harvesting barley in a long, belted, shirt-like garment. Late 1300's c. From 20,000 Years of Fashion, by F. Boucher, p. 199.

Harvesting barley in a long, belted, shirt-like garment. Late 1300’s. From 20,000 Years of Fashion, by F. Boucher, p. 199.

Shirts for the 1700’s

Late 18th c. shirt in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Late 18th c. shirt in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

I have made late 18th century shirts like this one using Cut My Cote as one source, and, while perfectly authentic, they did not always behave well on sweaty actors and singers.  You can see that the shoulders of the shirt are much wider than the shoulders of the wearer, and in the diagram there is no shoulder seam. Even on a motionless mannequin, the shoulders fall forward, twisting the sleeves.

Also, when the neckline is cut as a straight line, like this one …

Shirt, late 16th c. Diagram by Burnham. Please do not copy.

Shirt, late 16th c. Diagram by Burnham. Please do not copy.

… it doesn’t take into account some facts about the human body. First, flat rectangles of cloth are relatively two dimensional; we are three dimensional. Second, we are not symmetrical when seen from the side.

Left, and illustration from Walt Reed's book The Figure; Right, an illustration from Drawing the Head & Figure by Jank Hamm.

Left, based on  an illustration from Walt Reed’s book The Figure; Right, based on an illustration from Drawing the Head & Figure by Jack Hamm.

Our necks are lower on the body in front than in back. The measurement from the base of the neck to waist (CF measurement) is always shorter than our Center Back measurement (CB). If you cut your shirt’s neck opening in a straight horizontal line, the opening will be forced down in the front, and the shirt will twist on the body. The shoulders of the shirt will want to move forward, while the back rides up. (Actors will be more comfortable with a modern curved neckline on an otherwise “period” shirt.”)

Another problem that had to be solved was the trapezius — the muscle that connects your neck with your shoulder.

Geometrical stick figures (top) and a more complex figure, bottom.

Geometrical stick figures (top) and a stick figure adjusted to treat the neck and trapezius more realistically (bottom). Photo from Walt Reed’s book The Figure.

It took a long time for most shirt makers to solve these problems, although this woman’s smock from 1630 has a triangular gusset at the side of the neck; that was part of the solution.

This shirt, which belonged to British banker Thomas Coutts, has triangular pieces at the neck, either side of the collar.

Early 19th c. shirt belonging to Thomas Coutts, Metropolitan Museum Collection.

Early 19th c. shirt belonging to Thomas Coutts, Metropolitan Museum Collection.

This 19th century shirt with a neck gusset was collected by a friend.

Linen shirt, 19th century. The collar has a gathered triangular gusset at each side.

Linen shirt, 19th century. The collar has a gathered triangular gusset at each side. inserted in the straight, slit neckline.

The triangular gusset is an attempt to solve the problem of the trapezius.

The triangular gusset is an attempt to solve the problem of the trapezius. It just didn’t go far enough.

The collar, hand sewn, of a finer fabric than the shirt's body.

The collar, hand sewn, is a finer fabric than the shirt’s body.

This shirt, from the same collection, has a shoulder yoke and a different way of using a triangular gusset:

Yoke across the shoulders and a gusset below the yoke.

19th century shirt with a yoke across the shoulders and a gusset below the yoke. Apparently the shirt body was cut straight across, but did not match the shape of the yoke without piecing. The neckline seems to be curved in front.

These collars with a wide gap between the wings were seen from the 1820s through the 1850s, persisting among older men. They could be starched and worn turned up, or worn turned down.

Shirt collars with a wide gap in front: a fashion plate, 1849, a sketch by Ingres, 1826, an older man, 1859, and Ingre's self portrait at age 79, 1859.

Shirt collars with a wide gap in front: a fashion plate, 1849, a sketch by Ingres, 1826, an older man, 1859, and Ingre’s self portrait at age 79, 1859.

This shirt, also owned by Thomas Coutts, has a yoke. So did the shirts worn by Mississippi boatmen in the 1840’s and 50’s, as painted by George Caleb Bingham; their shoulder seams drop far down the arm. (Shirts were one of the few ready-made garments available. But they were not sized to fit before the Civil War, when statistics that made standard sizing possible were collected.) The boatmen’s shirt size was probably dictated by the width of the cloth available.

The Jolly Flatboatmen, painting by George Bingham

The Jolly Flatboatmen, painting by George Caleb Bingham, 1846.

The problem of the too-high-in-front neckline was solved by wearing the shirt unbuttoned at the throat. There are no other buttons, except at the wrists, and shirts were pulled on over the head.

Mississippi Boatman by George Caleb Bingham, 1850.

Mississippi Boatman by George Caleb Bingham, 1850.

Another problem for shirtmakers was that, if the sleeves were tight, it was hard to raise your arm.

Photo from Erik A. Ruby's book The Human Figure. If your sleeve was tight, raising your arm like this was difficult.

Photo from Erik A. Ruby’s book The Human Figure. If your sleeve was tight, raising your arm like this pulled your shirt up several inches.

Some cultures — like Japan — left the underarm seam open. Europeans wanting to wear tighter sleeves without losing the ability to raise a sword or a tool, wore a very full sleeved shirt underneath a tight outer sleeve that was attached only at the shoulder, or tied on just at the top.

A young man by Memlinc, and a young lade by Ghirlandaio. Both are late 1400s.

A young man by Memlinc, and a young lady by Ghirlandaio. Both are late 1400’s. Her sleeve is also open at the elbow, so she can bend her arm easily.

But the best solution was a square gusset (C), inserted in the underarm seams so that the bias stretch would accommodate movement.

Burnham's diagram of a 17th century shirt with underarm gussets. Please do not copy this image.

Burnham’s diagram of an early 19th century shirt with underarm gussets (C) and neckline gussets (F). Please do not copy this image.

The shirt above, diagrammed by Burnham, was one of several owned by Thomas Coutts (d. 1822); the survival of his large wardrobe is a boon to historians.

Victorian era Shirt with underarm gusset. It also has neckline gussets, like the Thomas Coutts shirt diagrammed.

Victorian era shirt with underarm gusset. It also has neckline gussets, like the Thomas Coutts shirt Burnham diagrammed.

Neck gusset in a Victorian era shirt.

Neck gusset in a Victorian era shirt.

Neglected Treasures

For the most part, shirts are not beautiful; they are not collected; they get worn out and used as cleaning rags; they get passed down to be worn as work clothes, instead of being wrapped in tissue and passed down as heirlooms. That is why very old shirts in very good condition are really, really rare! And a very old shirt with provenance can end up in a museum’s Costume Collection.

This wedding shirt from 1841 has a curved neckline; like a formal dress shirt, it opens down the back. It’s in the Victoria and Albert collection.

I’m not sure whether the dealer who bought my friend’s collection had any idea about how rare documented Victorian era shirts are. Here for example, is a lace embellished shirt that my friend was able to document, because it was made for a wedding and remained in one family.

A wedding shirt dated to 1871.

A wedding shirt of Davenfort Harrold, dated to 1871. The neckline curves and is deeper in front. A separate collar could be worn.

Eureka:  Shirts That Fit

I think the ultimate solution to making shirts that fit arrived along with the industrial revolution, when spinning and weaving became mechanized, lowering the price of cloth. Before that, as Dorothy Burnham says, “an extreme economy of material was practised in the cutting of traditional garments…. In ancient times, weaving far outstripped the techniques of cutting and sewing….”

Once people realized that cut cloth will not unravel after it’s been sewn, and that a certain amount of wastage is preferable to a poorly fitting shirt, the problems of the neck and trapezius fit were solved by a diagonally cut shoulder seam and a curved neckline that was cut deeper in front than in back. (The triangular neck gusset was, in a way, included in the new seam across the shoulders, which creates a triangle.) a seam across the shoulders

Using statistics collected for the manufacture of military uniforms, a range of sizes and a closer fit became possible.

Shirt diagram from the Cutter and Tailor.

Shirt diagram from the Cutter and Tailor. It is essentially a modern shirt.

This heavy cotton flannel shirt, made in Sherborne, England, ended up in California. It is factory made, with a curved neckline, sloping shoulders, and a double layer of fabric for warmth. But its one-size-fits-many sleeve length had to be adjusted with a tuck. (Office workers could shorten their sleeves with a sleeve garter.) Also, like earlier shirts, this one pulls on over the head.

Vintage flannel factory made work shirt made in Sherborne, England.

Vintage flannel factory-made work shirt, probably from Sherborne, England. The label says “N. E. Strickland & Co., Shirt Specialists, Sherborne.” Strickland shirts are still being made, but not necessarily by the same company.

There is a good review of Cut My Cote at The Perfect Nose. (Click here). It shows several different illustrations from the book and encourages the stitcher to dive in and use them instead of patterns — “mark it onto your fabric in chalk/ marker and have at it with ruler and rotary tool.”

I have done this (using a #2 pencil and muslin), and I learned a lot about the evolution of the shirt from making smocks, blouses, and shirts from Cut My Cote. My old copy was covered with measurements in pencil! You can find used copies for about $15.00 — Click here. — Or you could buy it new from The Royal Ontario Museum, which has kept it in print since 1973! Cut My Cote at ROM– Click Here.

For serious research into 18th century and early 19th century shirts, follow the links at 18th Century Notebook. An entire list of links to shirts in museum collections can be found by clicking here.

The TwoNerdyHistoryGirls wrote about 18th century shirts (and why the hems were so long — ick!) here.

It’s easy to see why this 1630  embroidered smock at the V & A Museum didn’t end up as a dishrag. And its
gorgeous blackwork embroidery probably saved this going-on-500-year-old Tudor shirt, circa 1540. It’s in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Read more Here.

But spare a thought for the uncollected, hand spun, hand woven, hand stitched, everyday shirts that were made and worn and finally worn out.

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Filed under 1700s, 1800s-1830s, 1830s -1860s fashions, 1860s -1870s fashions, 1870s to 1900s fashions, A Costumers' Bookshelf, Costumes for the 16th century, Costumes for the 17th Century, Costumes for the 18th Century, Costumes for the 19th century, Early Victorian fashions, Exhibitions & Museums, Late Victorian fashions, Menswear, Resources for Costumers, Shirts and Blouses, Tricks of the Costumer's Trade, Uniforms and Work Clothes, Vintage Garments: The Real Thing