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.)
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!
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.
Under evening dress, your torso could be warm, but your arms had to be bare.
“It s no longer necessary to shiver through the long winter months in order to be stylishly dressed.”
“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.
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.
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.
Dress shields were usually safety pinned or basted into place in the armholes of a dress or jacket.
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.
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.” Kleinerts.com
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.
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.)
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.
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.