Three Eras of Ladies’ Changing Underwear Styles – Part Two, 1920s and 1930s

Here is the second part of my post on vintage and historical lingerie that I have made in the last year.  Part one was a princess seamed slip from the 1910s era.  As in my title, this one will focus on 10 years during two decades primarily – the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s.  Between these two posts, I hoping to provide an overview that will give a good picture of how fast things had changed between 30 years to give a backdrop for “modern” underwear as we know it to be now.  Not all that long ago, the first layer for women was quite different, but not a bad different.  After all, I hope to show, too, how this lingerie from the past had a ‘what’ with a ‘why’ that explained its presence, and it is wonderful to wear and easy to sew.  If you haven’t experienced this for yourself, you need to – and if you have made some vintage undies, let me gush with you and say…isn’t it awesome?!

I went for two landmark, quintessential styles – the Kestos bra of the 20’s and the bandeau and tap pants set of the 30’s.  This was for three major reasons.  First, I had patterns of these available and on hand.  This is the practical and basic reason.  Secondly, I wanted to see what the big deal was about these and find out for myself why they were so popular and groundbreaking (besides shocking) for the times.  Thirdly, these filled in a gap for me. I have a vintage original 1950’s corselette bra, a deadstock 1940s bullet bra, a pair of 20’s style bloomers, a whole set of underclothes for the 1910 era, as well as a few individual tap panties (here and here), so a Kestos bra from the Flapper era with a full-out fancy, novelty colored 30’s set was just what I needed for a whole 50 years of undergarment history at my availability.  I did need some new underwear anyway, and I’ve wanting to try my hand at some brassieres, so these pieces were my first step.

Compared to the slip of the last post, the pieces presented in this post see much more wearing.  First of all, they are closer to “modern” skivvies.  They are very comfortable to wear and I actually prefer them over undies of the current style.  They also work great with fashions from the matching, appropriate eras (of course!) and, although they do not sculpt the preferred present-day shape, they complement what I am endowed with for a more natural appearance that does work with clothing of today.

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  All cottons for the 20’s lingerie, a poly satin for the 30’s set, with matching cotton scraps for the linings

PATTERNS:  A vintage original McCall #7823, dated November 1934 in the closing flap of the envelope, for the aqua set, and a pattern from the book “Vintage Lingerie” by Jill Salen for the Kestos bra.

NOTIONS:  I actually had everything I needed on hand already.  I had been wanting to make these pieces for a while now and so I had everything, even the lingerie notions such as the buttonhole elastic, foam bra cups, and plastic rings for the straps.  Besides those notions mentioned, nothing really unusual was needed anyway – twill tapes, hook and eyes, and thread.  The buttons I used are authentic 1920s pearled shell notions from the stash of hubby’s Grandmother.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The 20’s bra was made in a flash in only 3 hours and finished on January 4, 2016.  The 30’s set was made in about 15 hours and finished on November 13, 2016.

THE INSIDES:  All nice and cleanly finished by being self-faced or bound.

TOTAL COST:  The 20’s Kestos bra was practically free to me as it was made with scraps on hand.  The supplies for the 30’s set were bought several years back at (the now defunct) Hancock Fabrics, so I don’t really remember.  As I only needed scraps, on yard of lace, and ½ yard of fabric this probably cost me $10 or less.

I’ll start with the older set of the two!

First off the bloomers you see are bought reproductions, yet (as far as I know) true to the time frame of the bra I made.  Thus, I now have a set that works perfectly to wear under my 1920 ensemble, or any other outfit from the late teens up until 1926 or 1927, when hemlines began shortening up (to the knees by 1929!) as well as slimming down before 1930 came.  Technically, I have read this type of undergarment called ‘pettibockers’, as they are full yet drawn in by ribbons at the knees, but also called ‘drawers’ and ‘knickers’.  However, I have an old original Pictorial Review year 1926 pattern (very much like the Butterick #6194 seen in this post) to make such undie bottoms and they call them ‘bloomers’, so I’ll stick with that term here.

I was tempted to use two handkerchiefs to make this bra, so it could be much like the way the first divided ‘cup’ bra was made by Caresse Crosby in 1913, as the story goes.  The early bras were really that simple and barely supportive, but compared to the corseted figure or the unibosum styles, this kind of bust definition was dramatically innovative!  The Kestos form of this bra in particular is a brand of sorts – it was one of the first commercially manufactured with separate cups.  It was a trademark by circa 1925 (or 1927-ish; accounts differ), and was invented by Rosalind Klin, a Polish-born female designer residing in London.  It also has a very creative and unexpected way of closing, the main visual and wearing trademark that ladies cared about!  The straps for the chest wrap around the body to button closed in front again under the bust.  From my experience wearing this style, it is immensely comfy and so easy to close and put on oneself.  The criss-crossed back prevented any riding up of the straps, and made the bra versatile for many garment styles.  The overlapping front cups supported the straps and stayed close to the body.  I really don’t know why bras ever stopped being made like this!  None of this modern trickery of a back closure you can’t see with its many problems of fit!  Kestos bras had a strong popularity through the 30’s, and even the 40’s as well, yet dissipating after circa 1937.

I really made my version a bit thicker and substantial than the pattern calls for, besides definitely downgrading on the original design, as well.  As you see, the original garment for my pattern was very fine indeed, with progressive early tap panties.  My 20’s bra was a trial garment for me, so I made it basic and straightforwardly simple (much like this one from 1941).  I guess I could add some lace or such now, or even dye it a different color, after the fact that it’s done.  I do now feel confident in making an amazingly fancy version, though!

Jill Salen’s book “Vintage Lingerie” 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 this bra pattern 200%, but most of the rest of the 1:1 scale patterns, including the matching panties, need to be enlarged 400%.  Then, add your own either 3/8 inch or 1/2 inch seam allowances.  I have had pretty good successes so far with using patterns from this book.  All of the patterns offered are drawn off of the existing garments shown, and fall in the ballpark of somewhere between a 32 to a 36 or 38 inch bust. I fall in that range and so can generally grade up or down as needed.  For the 1920s Kestos bra pattern, according to how well it fit me with no changes needed, I estimate it is for a 33 to 34 inch bust.

I doubled up on the thickness, to have more support, no see-through, and easily finished off edges.  Each cup on this pattern is two pieces, and I had four cups to have assembled, so I ended up with a bunch of little pieces to keep track of!  This was the downside to making this bra super simple.  The straps on old originals generally are elastic covered in self-fabric casing, but as a wanted to go basic and keep the bra all-cotton, I merely used raw twill tape and bias tapes for the straps.  For my bra, I still needed some elastic to have some give, so the ends of the straps that go around the chest had the last 6 inches become attached to modern buttonhole elastic.  I had this elastic on hand and I’ve been dying to find the perfect opportunity to use it, but I still can’t help but wonder if all my 1930s kestos adefforts to be ‘historical’ (even old 20’s shell buttons, too!) went out the window using such a modern notion.  Nevertheless, I have found a year 1936 Symington Kestos bra, from the Leistershire County Council, which does have very similar looking buttonhole elastic.  Whatever – I love it.  Well, yeah!  It was whipped up in 3 hours, of course I do!

The back the bra closure creates is indeed special.  The way the straps criss-cross behind makes them less confining than the one-restricting-band-around-the ribcage from a comfort point of view.  Once you wear a Kestos bra it’s like a breath of fresh air you never knew you could have with a brassiere.  It also makes the Kestos bra the best thing ever for any low backed dress or top.  No wonder it continued to be a hit in the 1930’s when a wide open back was the popular for evening wear, and slitheringly sexy, manner of showing off both skin and body…as if a bias cut gown needed something like that!  Granted the body form doesn’t fit the bra as well as it fits myself, so it is lower than normal for me.  However, I draw the line at myself publicly modelling this post’s pieces.  If I want the back lower, I could fix that the way they used to in the 30’s and 20’s for a Kestos – make a loop that hooks closed at the back center of my bloomers or tap panties, and connect it to the straps to bring them down…down, to the waist…for the ultimate backless bra!  There are so many options with a Kestos closing bra.  It is the ultimate in comfort, ease, and versatility.

Now, the 30’s brassiere and tap panties I made is the next step in chest closing, bust supporting, and body conscious covering, bringing women’s lingerie recognizably close to today’s methods. The tap pants are feminine and freeing compared the previous era’s style, yet still covering one’s bottom discreetly under skirts and dresses.  The brassiere is basic in design yet Depression-era fancy and more about supporting and shaping than the 1920s were.  Luckily, with the advent of talking motion pictures in 1929, and the advancements of film and filming methods thereafter, there are many glimpses to be had of the early 1930s style underwear for women.  Some of my favorite 30’s lingerie sets seen on film come from Carole Lombard in “Twentieth Century” (1934), Joyce Compton in “Anabella’s Affairs” (1931), and Loretta Young in “Born to be Bad” (1934).  The Hays Code of Decency put an end to such displays of intimates after 1934, the year of the pattern I used for my sewing.

However, there are two films in particular that show an interesting side to the two differing styles of women’s underwear that existed between the 20’s and 30’s – “Three Wise Girls” from 1932 and “The Smiling Lieutenant” from 1931.  You know how some people find it hard to accept change or adapt to the newest mode, even if it is “in”?  Well, undies are not seen, so no doubt many women went back to wearing the old style pre-1927 bloomers and such that they were used to wearing, getting away with it, too, when hemlines came back down to calf length in 1930.  It wasn’t cut and dry, black-and-white, when it came to when, who, and how the two styles underclothes I’m presenting in this post where worn.

If you see what “The Smiling Lieutenant” and “Three Wise Girls” show, it seems as it is was other women and not just clothing styles that convinced (or shamed) women to give up the old styles.  In “The Smiling Lieutenant”, the character of Claudette Colbert is “helping” the married Princess, played by Miriam Hopkins, to “save” her marriage by ditching her mid-20’s style bloomers and wearing the newest tap pants and bra, even adding in the habit of smoking too!  It’s a very dramatic scene that the storyline revolves around, and Claudette Colbert has the Princess lift up her long, ruffled dress to reveal her undies, then performs a tune “Jazz Up Your Lingerie” to convince her otherwise (watch it for yourself here).  “Be happy! Choose snappy! There’s music with every ribbon…”  Thereafter, we see the old style bloomers burning in the fireplace, and the princess in a skimpy “teddy” with cut off bobbed hair!  It’s the new feminism winning out over old-fashioned morality. The anachronistic setting suddenly makes sense: the Victorian Age must give way to the Jazz Age.

In “Three Wise Girls”, one of Jean Harlow’s many attempts at finding a job is becoming a model for a dressmaker’s salon, showing off gowns that clients are interested in purchasing.  The lady in charge of the dressing room, Mae Clarke , wearing a one-piece 30’s ”step-in” slip, sees Jean Harlow before she dresses in a slinky 30’s evening gown, and Harlow is criticized on how she looks, with the old bloomers causing wrinkles and bulkiness.  She gives Harlow the newest style of tap pants and bra to wear, telling her (more or less) that if she is going to work for them, this is what underwear she’ll be wearing.  After all, being a model is about the most body conscious job out there!  When Jean Harlow quit working for the dressmaker’s salon, she is seen again wearing her 20’s style bloomers in 1932.  I’m now supposing that it wasn’t just a matter of comfort zone or attachment when it came to not adopting the new styles – perhaps it was also due to a Depression-era thriftiness or just plain lack of money that some women stuck to the old 20’s style skivvies in the 1930’s.

I’d like to think that if I was living back then, in 1934, and had the money and the means, that I would be a woman that would adapt a pair of lingerie just like what I have made!  I made the set out of a wonderful novelty color, as you see, because how could I resist when all the right notions needed just happened to fall in my lap in matching colors!!!  No really, though, ladies of the 30’s did have fun when it came to the underwear made and offered.  There were not only novelty colors and plenty of lace, but also suggestive designs, sheerness galore, and decorative details aplenty.  Check out my Pinterest board on vintage lingerie for more inspiration! 

For being a printed McCall’s this pattern was quite clear in its instructions and generally easy to make.  According to the size, this pattern should have technically been several inches too big for me, so to test it out I made the tap pants first.  They fit me well, and thus I made the bra up unchanged, too, and it just fits me exactly…any smaller and it wouldn’t fit.  Thus this pattern definitely runs small.  This is important to share, as it seems this particular McCall’s is frequently seen for sale on Etsy or Ebay as well as having been re-printedSimplicity Company recently released a year 1937 bra and tap pants set pattern that looks awesome (I have yet to try it) for an easily accessible, slightly later style, and cheaper option if you want to make a set for yourself.

I did do some “updates” to the pattern, mostly when I was sewing the bra.  There is satin outside and cotton inside for my person taste and comfort, when the pattern seemed to expect one layer.  However, the biggest difference is that I added lightweight store-bought bra foam liner in between the inner and outer layers of my bra.  Again, the original design called for cups thin and basic.  I do like how the foam insert makes the bra feel more like a modern piece, with more support and no see-through.  What I don’t like is the center horizontal seam to the foam insert.  Using a pre-made foam cup liner is something I won’t do again, although it fit perfectly with the pattern I was using and made little to no difference as I was sewing.  From now on, I’ll buy my own foam and make my own padding if I want such an add-in again.

I did stick to the original design with the completely non-elastic, no-stretch design.  Everything is non-adjustable and all stitched down in cotton twill tape.  I even made my own back bra closure from scratch to match using the pattern’s pieces (no pre-made notion here)!  Although the straps might need tailoring to be adjusted every so often, it is quite comfy this way.  Nothing is going to move on me or pinch me or fall apart as quickly as elastic does.  Once you ditch the elastic in your bras (as scary as that might sound!), it is really freeing.  You don’t really need it.  It does force you be better at customizing what you make to yourself, though!

The only real change I made to the tap panties original design was to add in an extra dollar in change to weigh it down.  No, I’m not crazy!  The fact that these are a poly satin creates static cling when I wear these in the wintertime.  In order to keep these bias panties hanging down properly and not clinging or bunching up to my waistline, I made lace pockets at the two side seams to hold two quarters each.  It kind of makes these feel like a true Depression era garment…with extra change safely hidden on me!  The waist has no trick – only hook-and-eye closed.  The bias cut to these gives them a body clinging fit that flare out at the hem.

The panties’ faced crouch gusset is sorely understated by these pictures since the mannequin wasn’t fully adjustable to stand on a right or left “leg”.  On me however, the design is ah-mazing!  Much like an underarm sleeve gusset, you clip into the center bottom of the front and back to connect the two with an adapted rhombus diamond shaped piece, then faced that on the inside so the seams are covered.  Wearing History has pattern #4005 from the 1940s that is shocking similar, and her blog provided a tutorial on sewing the faced crouch gusset which was very helpful.  Even still, having something so small with points and curves be faced in such a way that the two sides perfectly line up was…well…exhausting.  But I did it, and it looks just as nice inside as out, only no one sees it.

So – this conclusion of my post brings me to contemplate a few things.  Is it the egg or the chicken?  Does the lingerie influence the fashion or does the fashion influence the lingerie?  Or, does the primary layer for our bodies have its own organic progression?  I do find it interesting that undergarments almost always have not just been about coverage or support, although that is the basic reason for their being worn.  Even today, it’s about molding women into a desired shape, not necessarily customer (or recipient) feedback based.  Is it society based?  What do we women want to wear for our bodies?  What shape do we like for ourselves?  Who really controls our choices in this field?  We generally wear what is out there, much like the rest of fashion nowadays, and if you’re anything like me, searching for the “perfect” lingerie is exhausting, worse than searching for a needle in a haystack.  However, with sewing skills, that is not the only option nowadays!  We have every past era to choose from, and notions, fabrics, and patterns available to order.  Set those sewing talents to good use making something for your body, your comfort and your taste because the first layer of garments is the most intimate, personal, unique!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this duo of posts.  Writing this now makes me want to bust out some more patterns from Jill Salen’s book or that Simplicity re-issue I haven’t tried yet!  As always thank you for reading and please – share your thoughts and ideas!  What do you think about vintage lingerie?

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3 thoughts on “Three Eras of Ladies’ Changing Underwear Styles – Part Two, 1920s and 1930s

  1. I love making vintage lingerie too! I have made so far 2 brassieres and still looking for a free time to make more. I do have the same book too 🙂 Happy sewing!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have been browsing underwear books and came across the ‘Jill historic’ one and wanted to see pictures of the inside. I discovered your blog from images on google search and have been inspired! I’m putting the book on my Christmas list now!

    Like

    • That’s great! Thanks for commenting. Jill’s “Vintage Lingerie” book IS fun with many projects from every decade of the 20th century as well as some 19th century stuff – you should love it! I hope Santa is listening, right?!

      Like

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