Vintage patterns

My grandmother’s undergarments

No, not the actual stuff! I am not about to air her bloomers or anything. ๐Ÿ˜ฎ

My elder grandmother was born around 1908 and got married in early 1930s, with her first child born in 1936, so 1930s was very much “her” decade – the time when she was young.

My paternal grandparents with their sons, January 1951. The younger boy is my father, aged 5. Did the photographer tell them to look serious or is my uncle having an “attitude” of a 14 year old being made to sit for a family portrait? ๐Ÿ˜ฏ

The 30s remained with my grandmother for the rest of her life in more or less obvious ways, the less obvious one being her undergarments. She liked her 1930s ones and stuck to the style for the rest of her life – her sister was an accomplished dressmaker and made her replacements as time went on. And because of this, I remember what they were like! ๐Ÿ˜

My paternal grandparents with my great aunt (left), my mother and me, September 1974 at our summer cottage. Apples are ripe for picking – my grandfather was an avid apple grower in his retirement. (My father is there too – behind the camera!)

A set of undergarments consisted of a bra, a corselette with garters, a pair of stockings and a pair of bloomers. The bra, corselette and stockings formed a single combined garment when worn as they were attached to each other – essential to keep everything from riding up or down as you went about your business. This was very much a comfort-driven outfit, made even better by the choice of materials: the bra and corselette were made of cotton satin, and stockings could be silk, nylon, cotton or wool, according to the weather and occasion. In summer, when it was too hot for stockings of any kind, you wore garter thigh bands where normally the tops of your stockings would be, and you clipped the corselette’s garters to that.

The bra

The bra was very much what we wear today, except it had no moulded cups and no elastics of any kind – my grandmother liked to boil her linens, and that would destroy elastics in no time. But it appears that a well-fitting bra made to measure does not require elastics to be comfortable, and shoulder straps can be adjusted with a little slider the same way as we do it today.

A bra for a “robust figure” from Praktikus Modenblatt February 1952. Bras from 1930s and 1940s were pretty much the same. The underbust section could also be narrower for less “robust” figures. โ˜บ Note the closure at the back: with buttons and little cloth loops. The whole bra was made of non-stretch material, usually cotton. The striped areas in this drawing are just decorative stitching, not elastic.

The cups were padded and quilted instead of being moulded. The quilt sandwich had soft cotton cloth against the body, cotton batting in between and cotton satin on the outside. Embellished with cotton lace and quilted with cotton thread, the whole thing was boil-proof and lovely to wear. It was fitted snug against the ribs under the bust but not too tight and certainly looser than the recommended bra fitting of today (does anyone else find these recommended sizes way too small or is it just me?).

There was a row of buttons on the band under the bust for attaching the corselette.

The corselette

A corselette is a kind of corset with very few bones or no bones at all. It appeared in 1920s to help create that lean boyish silhouette. Originally it could be laced quite tight and quickly evolved into tight fitting elastic “shapewear” things that you find in shops to this day – they resemble a piece of a scuba diving suit and provide about as much breathability. I find them absolutely awful, they squeeze my bowels and give me sharp colicks. ๐Ÿ˜ญ

In 1930s there was also a movement towards more comfortable underwear, certainly for working women who couldn’t be fainting every half an hour, regardless of how feminine that might make them look. ๐Ÿ˜ My grandmother’s corselette was of that type. It extended from the empire line where you buttoned it onto the bra, and down to the thighs ending with garter clips to clip to the stockings. It was snug but not tight, it closed with corset hooks along the front and had laces on the back so it could be adjusted to the daily changes of the figure rather than forcing the figure to squeeze into a hard shell. It had high cut-outs on the central front and back about 2 inches under the hip joint which allowed for full leg movement.

This is why you need a Spencer corset (right). My grandmother’s corselette wasn’t from Spencer. It had cut-outs at the centre front and back as I’ve drawn. Not doing much for modesty and can’t be made very tight, but still smoothing the figure while allowing for a full range of movement and all the practical necessities. It was attached to the underbust band of the bra with a row of buttons.

Now you see why you needed stockings – if the legs of the corselette were not attached to anything, they would flap about. There were just a few bones in it to keep the shape and prevent it from wrinkling up around the waist. And it was made of cotton.

Like the bra, the corselette was made entirely of non-stretch cotton, but it was not padded or quilted. There was just the satin upper and the soft cotton lining. The bones could even be plastic because they were removable for washing, just like the garter clips.

This garment was not meant to change your figure. It was simply a piece of underwear to smooth over what you had and to allow your dress to glide over it. Because it was satin, you didn’t necessarily need a slip.

The underpants

The underpants were worn over the corselette for practical reasons. You could imagine different kinds of knickers to work here, even a thong. ๐Ÿ˜ฏ Although in winter long bloomers would be a lot warmer. ๐Ÿ˜‰

I shall only say that the knickers were not high waisted (i.e., not “full brief”), but instead they went up to about an inch under the waist, so just above the central cut-outs on the front and back of the corselette. This was important so as not to add extra layers around the waist as it would be uncomfortable if you were wearing a belt over your clothes, in particular with a separate skirt and top.

The knickers were also made of cotton – you guessed it! ๐Ÿ˜€ But this cotton was a fine knit like today’s cotton jersey, so they stretched. Fancy knickers could be made of silky viscose or even pure silk – also as a knit, although you couldn’t boil those of course, so no good for everyday use, according to my grandma. โ˜บ

Why am I writing this?

Apart from the saucieness of it, you mean? ๐Ÿ˜‰

I mentioned before that I wear a corset every day to deal with my back sway. It has been working miracles, so I keep wearing it and am always looking for ways to improve it. Recently I stumbled upon thispost about a 1911 corset and this post about a 1930s corset – both by The Rogue of the Thread. I asked questions and a discussion followed, and suddenly I remembered my grandmother’s corsets that I’ve seen so often in the wash! Ah! Now I understood how they worked!! ๐Ÿ˜€ And of course I had to tell you all about it.

31 thoughts on “My grandmother’s undergarments

  1. Elena, I so enjoyed this article. It brought back memories of my own Grandmother. She was born in 1909 and always wore her โ€œstep insโ€, a kind of short coulotte and a slip. We laughed every time we saw them on the clothesline.

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    1. Thank you! It is interesting how our grandmothers kept to the type of undergarment that they wore when they were young. But come to think of it, I am not that different in this respect! ๐Ÿ˜ฎ It’s just that the undergarments didn’t change so radically in the last 30 years as they did in the last 90.

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    1. Come to think of it, my grandmother actually taught me how to select and wear undergarments so as to be comfortable and yet get a nice figure in the dress. I was still a child though, may be 6-7 years old or a little older, and I didn’t wear any of those things myself, of course. My grandma didn’t insist that I should wear her particular types of undergarments – she was fully aware that the fashion had changed – but she used hers as an example of simple but effective underwear. “Your underwear shouldn’t squeeze you or make you faint!” – I remember her saying that, and me thinking: “Why would anyone wear stuff that made them faint?” ๐Ÿ˜‰

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  2. Oh my goodness I remember watching my grandmother get dressed and in the late 1960s and 1970s she wore quite the girdle contraption that was also like a corset. I guess there was no room in her day for jiggly bits jiggling! Interesting post about vintage undergarments!

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    1. Yes, lycra-covered fat rolls were considered indicent back then. Not that they didn’t have fat rolls – they did just like us! – but you were supposed to smooth them over with a corselette or some such.

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  3. Great post! Love the tidbit about the thigh bands. I hadn’t considered how a non- stocking day would be handled. Now I’m wondering how bulges were smoothed in a bathing suit. I wonder if there was a “sport” girdle or sometimes something built in to the inside?

    Ah, old advertising. I love how the left photo shows the woman frowning, slouching and probably even pushing her stomach out. Subtle they were not.

    My grandma was a 40s girl, so she had very similar undergarments, but with some stretch. I do remember her eventually going to pantyhose, but she essentially kept the undergarments, the “foundations,” of her youth.

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    1. My elder grandmother never wore suimsuits, at least not in my lifetime, so no idea. My younger grandmother, who was 20 years younger, wore whatever was the thing in fashion at the time – she liked to try out all the new stuff. Ok, not going topless, but basically wearing a bikini like everyone else. She switched to one-piece swimsuits as she got older.

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      1. I can’t imagine my grandmother ever having ever worn a bathing suit. I remember that she was very against bikinis and my mom’s late 60s/early 70s very short dresses.

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      2. My elder grandma was not judgemental at all – she would just say: “This is for the young”. ๐Ÿ™‚ My other grandma however had loads of judgements on what not to wear!

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    2. My grandfather also kept wearing non-elasticated socks with non-stretch suspenders (the sock suspenders were like miniature suspender belts but they sat just under the knee resting on the calf muscle). He had modern elasticated socks too but hated them – they squeezed his legs, made his feet cold and were perpetually sliding down. He hated wrinkles around his ankles just like any woman would! ๐Ÿ˜€

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      1. I remember those sock garters. I think they still make them. My grandfather wore them with the finer dress socks on a daily basis, so the elasticized ones. I’m guessing it had more to do with his MS and having mobility issues. I wonder when elasticized socks became common? WWII?

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      2. I think elastics and synthetics in general became common in the USA a good 10 years earlier than in Europe. I remember my younger grandmother had an acrylic cardigan sent to her in late 1940s as a gift from her American uncle. Such things were not seen here yet! She treasured that cardigan always, until my mum pinched it from her. Admittedly, it still looked good in 1980s – I’m sure that was not the same acrylic that we have today! Modern acrylic sweaters don’t seem to survive the wash. ๐Ÿ˜›

        As for sock garters and non-elasticated socks, that was standard army issue. My grandfather kept to his army uniform even in retirement – it was like a second skin to him. I think he could choose to have those old style garments rather than more modern ones. The army supplied his clothing also in retirement.

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      3. I’m going to have to look that up about synthetics. That acrylic sweater was probably made of sterner stuff. Everything was made to last, unlike today’s fast fashion.

        I’m going to have to look that up about WWII and non elasticized socks. Could have been different in the US. I wonder about the possibility of US Army supplying clothing in retirement. Another facet I never considered.

        I SO wish I had my grandfather’s uniform. He was in the Infantry and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. When he passed away my grandmother got rid of it and most everything else of his. I do have a couple photos.

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      4. A couple of photos is all I’ve got as well – too many moves and family dramas. ๐Ÿ˜› My other grandfather was in the army too (who wasn’t? it was WWII!), but he happily switched to civilian clothes after his dismissal. Mind you, he was a lot younger, and still had a good 20 years of civilian work afterwards. Yet I remember he was still receiving a new watch every 5 years or so, and I’m sure he could have had new uniforms as well if he wanted (I think he did get new boots!).

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      5. I don’t actually know if my other grandfather was in the war. Probably. People would have gotten used to those good quality boots, so I can see that being a desirable thing to keep receiving. And they were quite nice. A friend of mine found a basically unworn pair of WWII Officer’s buckle boots in a thrift store. The shop knew they had something decent, if only because they were in perfect condition with good soles and thick but pliable leather. They wanted a shocking $25 for them (you can still buy questionable thrift store shoes for a couple dollars). He bought them and sold them for something like $250 and that was 20+ years ago

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      6. I wonder why that was? I get why the military would make very good quality, but you’r think that after WWII there would be a range of options generally available.

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      7. Apparently, in 1950s and early 1960s you could buy similar quality also in regular shops. After that, the cheap fast fashion started setting in. Shoes only meant to last one season – unheard of previously! Military boots however kept the quality going. In fact, we just bought a pair of modern officer’s riding boots for my husband’s steampunking needs, and they are so good, that he’s wearing them without steampunking – with jeans. Those are traditional old style boots for horse guard rather than the combat boots that he’s used to wearing (he’s ex-army too).

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      8. They probably didn’t repurpose the factories that made the boots during the war, just kept going instead until fashions changed and WWII soldiers had need of more comfortable footwear.

        I’d love to see pics of the new boots. I love a good boot. I searched long and hard to find some decent calf-high ones for myself that had a good sole, no real heel and are made well. I did decently, but wish I could wear men’s sizes so I could have better quality. I have 1980s(?) style combats that I wore for almost 10 years straight that are just as good as when I got them. They were one of those really lucky thrift store finds.

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      9. There’s a picture of the boots in my recent steampunk plans post: https://vintagesewingmachinesblog.wordpress.com/2018/08/30/the-things-to-come/. Or if you can see eBay item 332775683895. They’ve got metal horseshoes incorporated into the heels! ๐Ÿ˜€
        Myself, I have to wear heels, around 3″. Something to do with my leg tendons not being “regulation length”. There it is again – non-standard. Flat shoes make my calf muscles cramp and hurt really badly. ๐Ÿ˜›

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      10. Come to think of that acrylic cardi, I remember the Macy’s label – it must have been top quality and expensive. My gandmother’s uncle wasn’t rich at all, but he saved up especially so he could send the best as gifts. The gifts weren’t frequent at all, but always worth keeping. He lived in New York.

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      11. It’s nice to be able to get whatever we want, whenever we want now, but it often makes gifts less special (and harder to buy in my opinion) and everyday things less sentimental. Unless something is handmade ๐Ÿ˜Š. I’m working on a cheater quilt (because I don’t quilt) for my cousin’s newborn where I designed the three fabrics that are in it. I hope it’s as special to them as the process has been for me.

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  4. I love this post, Elena! And it was such a treat to see a photo of you with your family when you were a little girl – so adorable! ๐Ÿ™‚ I loved learning more about 1930’s undergarments! I’d love to make myself one day, they were so lovely!

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    1. Thank you! ๐Ÿ™‚ I was actually thinking of trying that bra pattern – it is even in my size, and it is very simple – only 3 pieces. I wonder how it would fit and whether it would be easy to adjust it.

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