The new boyish silhouette that became fashionable for women in the 1920’s demanded a whole new styling of undergarments. The desired shape of the day featured a flat chest, narrow hips, broad shoulders, and an obliteration of highlighting feminine curves. Advancements in home comforts, such as heating, as well as an active lifestyle, heralded lighter underclothes with an enticing beauty and a practical down-to-earth purpose.
I have made a piece of historical lingerie which was born of these wildly transitional time, an undergarment that has a niche in the 20’s that is all it’s own – Tango Knickers. This is the most unusual, interesting, different, and challenging project I have done in some time.
THE HISTORICAL FORTNIGHTLY CHALLENGE: #4 “Under It All”. It was intended for challenge #3 “Pink”, as well, but I couldn’t finish this post in time for the deadline.
FABRIC: Everything I used came from what was on hand. I didn’t want to use an expensive fabric on an experimental project. I was planning on using this as a sort of workable muslin. Thus, the pink fabric is a 100% polyester I have had on hand for maybe 10 years (it’s been too long to remember when it was bought). It has a embossed type of scroll design on it and it is medium weight, rather sheer, with a soft feel – a beauty of a fabric. All the lace came from my Grandmother’s collection of lace, which I am now privileged to have for my use.
PATTERN: The pattern came from author Jill Salen’s book, Vintage Lingerie, pages 26 through 29, the Tango Knickers
YEAR: In terms of color, nude tones and white were preferable until 1927, when peaches and pinks became more popular and available (info from here). Thus, on account of the pastel pink color, these Tango Knickers are more like a late 20’s undergarment.
NOTIONS: I didn’t need to buy a thing – rummaging through what I had on hand provided everything. I am glad for this because all the lace I used might have pinched my sewing expenses. I luckily had 3 spools of Metrosheen pink thread, and even the shoulder straps are two white grosgrain ribbons I used to use for my hair as ties.
TIME TO COMPLETE: In total, this vintage undergarment took about 12 hours (more or less) and was finished on February 13, 2014 (just in time for Valentines Day!)
HOW HISTORICALLY ACCURATE IS IT? The color, the construction methods, the design, and (especially) the pattern are all historically accurate. However, the fabric sadly misses the mark, and the laces, although vintage, also are not wholly accurate, either.
THE INSIDES: Both the side seams and the crouch seams are finished in French seams. All the edges of the pink fabric that join with the lace are done in tiny 1/8 inch seams, using my new hemmer foot. See picture at left. The hip seams with the gathers are covered inside with pink bias tape. The center front and center back seam, which I added to make these knickers fit, is the best I could make of it, folded open and sewed down on each side to stabilize the fabric.
There is quite a history behind tango knickers which needs a bit of an explanation. Jill Fields’ book, An Intimate Affair, page 37, on Google Books, and Jill Salen’s book Vintage Lingerie both mention that tango knickers first appeared in 1914, with leg holes extending up the sides allowing maximum movement for dancing. Later on they were also called “athletic combinations”, but these tango knickers had several designations during their popularity which specified their construction. In England, in 1917, the term “cami-knickers” was used for this style of undergarment, referring to the fact that they are a one-piece “combination” of both a top and bottom covering. However, in the 20’s, calling tango knickers “step-ins” was popular – after all one does have to step into them, wiggle it up on yourself, then slide the shoulder straps on. “Step-Ins” was the label which associated tango knickers with them with modernity and comfort(clarified in the next paragraph). The term “Knickers” was designated to closed-crouch underwear, such as tango knickers or tap pants, versus open “drawers” of previous eras, which had two separate “legs” with an seamless crouch. At left, is a colored early 20’s Symington ad where three ladies are wearing reducing corsets over their “step-ins”, and my second picture (at right) is a 1920 advertisement drawing.
Looking deeper, apparently the undergarment tango knickers had a significant aura all their own to the culture of the 19-teens and 20’s. With morals looser and women going of unescorted, tango knickers stood for a new empowerment – they were supposed to create a certain attitude and make a powerful statement by any women who wore them. The closed crouch of tango knickers, and the fact they are difficult to get out of, conveyed a new sense of modesty for the 20’s. Tango knickers were especially aligned with the ideals of the Suffragette movement, where women have a hand in controlling their own family, their own bodies, their own mind, and their own country. To a Suffragette, trousers (separate leg, closed crouch) meant power and a big step towards moving past the Victorianism of the previous century, with all its corsets and restrictions. See page 39 of An Intimate Affair, Jill Fields’ book. The public perception of any one piece “step-in” undergarment, in fact, was much like it was when women started donning one piece overalls and assembling planes during World War II (except “step-ins” were also seen as a youthful trend for all ages). Public displays of underclothes was introduced, giving all the lace and decorations applied a dual intention to entice and sensualize, such as in the old photo at left.
The thigh slits alone were very important to tango knickers. They are part of what makes a regular step-in a tango knicker. Having thigh slits allows for full freedom of movement when dancing, and also saves a combination undergarment from being dowdy. After all, the Latin American dances that were so popular to the 20’s had a much more steamy style than what is normally danced nowadays. Just watch this dancing scene from the Carole Lombard 1934 movie Bolero, and you might be shocked, but, it is a good example of the hot style of Latin dancing 80 or so years ago. Carole Lombard is wearing a see through dress, not cami-knickers, but it shows why those thigh slits in tango knickers were needed…for some wild dancing moves!
History aside, the construction of my tango knickers were slow in reaching the ‘finished’ stage, mainly on account of having to get around to enlarging and adapting a roughly drawn, mystery size pattern. Jill Salen’s book offers 30 patterns of all the vintage/historical garments shown in the book but they are almost all practically Barbie doll size. Either you need a knowledge of how to transfer sizing using graph paper (which is what her patterns are on) or go to a copy place that will figure out the percent and do large size prints. I opted for the copy place option, and ended up enlarging the 1:1 scale patterns 400%, then adding either 3/8 inch or 1/2 inch seam allowances. The tango knickers were the only pattern so far I didn’t add seam allowances to, as it looked like it had a quite generous fit already, and I sewed in tiny 1/8 seams anyway.
The tango knickers pattern was actually a large rectangle, about 50 inches long in fact. Two layers of lace, and a panel of fabric in between, are added to the top portion of the tango knickers across the length of the rectangle. Then the one side seam is sewn together only halfway down the short side of the rectangle. I said “only halfway” because the large thigh slits are cut into the bottom half of my tango knickers, cut in the shape of a large capitol ‘T’. There are two smaller rectangles, approximately 16 by 5 inches (without lace), that get lace added to the sides before they get sewn onto (both sides of) the vertical bar part of the ‘T’ thigh slits. There is a slit cut into the bottom 2/3 of the smaller rectangle and more lace sewn along in an extended ‘U’ shape. Now the entire thigh section, with the smaller thigh slit rectangle and all the lace, gets a gathering stitch and is gathered into the original horizontal ‘T’ bar cut in the main body of the tango knickers. Like I said in ‘THE FACTS’ up above, the hip seam is nicely covered and stabilized by light pink, single fold bias tape.
I was so blessed to be able to have just the right amount of lace in the right design and width (according to the pattern) to go into making my tango knickers so special. My Grandmother’s stash of lace provided just enough, plus only 5 more inches, of zig zag grid, Deco-styled lace for all entire tango knickers, except for the very top band. I meant for the top band of lace to be a matching, but especially pretty, different lace, anyway, and what I ended up using had only about 8 inches over what I needed. All the lace sewn on my tango knickers is old, as evidenced by the occasional brown or yellow stain, but probably not quite vintage. My guess is the majority of the lace used is a poly type, with the top band of lace being a Battenberg cotton style. Both types of lace are extremely soft and a dream to work with. Whether the lace is vintage or not, just using my Grandmother’s lace makes this project so much more meaningful. I am sure there’s probably a story behind these laces, since some of it had been hand gathered (I took out this stitching to use for my purpose). There is a lot more (a large tub’s worth) to work with yet, and I am thankful to have a beautiful supply to fuel my creativity.
The finished look of the ‘according to pattern’ tango knickers afforded the biggest laugh I have ever had over anything I have sewn. They literally could have fit two of me, and looked like an oversized burlap sack hanging on me. I knew I could not fuss with the side seams at all, and the crouch seam was way too wide to be sensible, so I brought in my tango knickers along the center front/center back, in one continuous line from the front down through the crouch and up to the back. After opening up the seam, sewing it down, and ironing it, my fix really doesn’t look that bad in my opinion…just a bit odd. However, like I said above, regarding this as a trial muslin, if I ever want to make another set of tango knickers, I now know exactly where and how much to adapt the pattern to fit myself. In total, I think I ended up taking in 4 inches on each seam(8 inches total). These tango knickers are a very nice a wearable muslin, indeed, which brings me to answer the last ‘THE FACTS’ question: WHEN DID YOU FIRST WEAR THIS? Well, not yet, but I fully intend to wear my tango knickers with the right era appropriate garment. So far I’ve only put them on to fit them for myself and I really wonder what I will have to go through if I have to visit the bathroom while I’m wearing these. Talk about a learning experience!
I would like to give a big shout out of thanks to the wonderful employees of my favorite fabric store, for letting me use a store dress form to model my tango knickers. There is no way my tango knickers would look this nice laid out on the floor in our house, and they probably fit much more nicely on the fake body form than on myself, especially, in my mind, the rear view. I couldn’t have done this post without everyone’s help.
As a parting conversation, I would like to point out that there is a strong and humorous reference to tango knickers that can be found in a classic movie, Topper, year 1937. In Jill Fields book, An Intimate Affair, page 43, she talks about how “step-ins” underclothes are key to the film’s (and the novel’s) narrative resolution. At the film’s end (not to ruin the film for you, if you haven’t seen it yet) Mrs. Topper dons something she formerly despised, combination “step-ins”, for her husband Cosmo, symbolizing her “necessary” transition from their old-fashioned sensibilities over to the modern “live fast/die young” ideals of the ghosts the Kirby couple. I am not saying it’s the best movie morally, but it is a fun classic, and I recommend just clicking on this link to Turner Classic Movies where you can go ahead and watch the whole movie for yourself. Here’s a teaser for the ladies – it’s a Cary Grant movie!
I can’t help but make mention of one last historical association to closed crouch combo underclothes which is very appropriate with the 2014 Winter Olympics going on at the moment. Page 42 of Jill Fields’ book has a paragraph that talks about how combo “step-ins” were adapted to use as short bloomers worn under women’s 1920’s skating outfits, so they could do all the amazing moves they do nowadays (i.e. leg up, knee to nose, etc.). Yes, public ice skating competitions for women were so popular early in history. There is a 1924 Women’s Wear Daily ad for the Fitz-U stretchable seamed bloomer, showing a flapper, in a fur-trimmed blouse, striking a beautiful pose on ice. At right is a French 20’s ad which I find quite humorous – this poor flapper is not so elegant and ready to crash. 1924 was the first year that Olympic figure skating became an official and permanent sport. Go check out the life of Sonja Henie, a skating medalist and record breaker who began at age 14 in 1927, and as well as this “Bustle” page for more history of women’s Olympic awesomeness.
The picture below is from 1928, showing the Olympic competitors in St. Moritz, Switzerland, performing the “French Can-Can”.