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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Foundational Lingerie: a 1942 Rayon Slip

Basic is beautiful to me for my new under garment sewing creation. Between being extremely useful and complimentary to a woman’s curvy shaping, this undergarment is now a frequently worn winner in my wardrobe of sewn garments. Believe me, once you make an undergarment, you suddenly realize that a complete outfit is really only achieved my working from the inside out.

100_5039a-compThis is sort of part one of two blog posts, both connected to the same outfit based off of Whoa Nelly for Agent Sousathe same episode from the Marvel’s “Agent Carter” television, “The Iron Ceiling”, Season 1, Episode 5, aired on February 3, 2015. I’ll address at the end of the post about Episode 5 and the way my slip creation is connected to part two post. Inspiration aside, I ultimately made my slip because 1.) I needed it, 2.) I can’t find anything to buy like what I wanted, and 3.) I wanted to have an entire outfit, inside and out which I made and that will co-ordinate perfectly with my vintage as well as modern garments. Besides, it’s always fun to try new things and use up leftover remnants laying in one’s stash bin, both applicable to my slip!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  One yard of pure white 100% rayon challis100_4996-comp

NOTIONS:  I had the thread, bias tape, twill tape ribbon, and zipper needed on hand already.

PATTERN:  Simplicity #4352, year 1942

TIME TO COMPLETE:  Not long at all…this creation was effortless. In all, I spent maybe 4 hours in total and it was finished on April 18, 2015.

THE INSIDES:  The inner edges are left raw to do their own thing, merely stitched over. The top edge and bottom hem are covered by sewing down and folding in bias tape.

100_5048-compTOTAL COST:  around $5 (more or less, I don’t remember precisely)

100_4998-compNow just to clarify a few things about the specifics of my pattern, I have not as yet found any record or picture of another version of Simplicity #4352 which is says “Made in Canada” like mine does. This combo must be rarer, but to be more unusual it also mentions in the bottom corner, “Simplicity Patterns are featured in Chatelaine Magazine.” I’m not sure what that magazine was exactly besides a woman’s periodical of the time, but I’m thinking that my find is a bit special. This is my first WWII Canadian pattern.

From what I can tell from the American versions of this slip pattern, and from the styling of the garment together with the envelope lettering, all point to the fact that it is highly probable to be from year 1942. However, this particular design seems to have been reprinted for a few years during WWII (highly common), so if it’s not from ’42 precisely, the pattern would be no later than 1945. Out of a dislike to be vague and a will to be decisive, I’m sticking with assigning to my slip the first year it seemed to surface – 1942.

100_5043a-compThe back guide for the needed fabric amount showed much more than I really needed. As you can see in the facts, I only made this out of one yard. There were a few things that effected this frugality of fabric. The width of the rayon I used was 60 inches wide (helping to fit more of the pattern pieces on the layout), and I did shorten up the slip to be just below my knees, but it was the way I folded the fabric at the layout stage – with the selvedge edges in at the middle to make two fold lengths – which really helped get the most out of a small amount. The pattern pieces were really long and skinny because of the princess seaming, so I also oppositely staggered the pieces…meaning I would place one with the large end towards the left, the next piece towards the right, then back to the left for the bigger end of the next. Extreme, I know, and it’s not that I don’t use my scraps, but a 1940’s thrifty WWII woman would have had the same mindset. Yup, this slip was another exercise in the art of getting the most of every possible free space on a cut of fabric with no compromises on the grain line. This economy at the cutting stage adds to my overall satisfaction/pride with my finished project.

I did have to lightly grade up in size for the slip, and I added it in two increments: at the sid100_5049-compe seams and at the centers in front and back, by moving the pattern away the necessary amount from the fold edge. The long princess seam down the center of the bust was sewn with a seam allowance slightly smaller by ¼ inch to shape the slip better for me. All the long seams were top stitched down for a smooth look under clothes without relying on constant ironing to keep things in place. The side zipper is quite necessary to keep the slip’s close streamlined fit, nipping in the waist, and amazingly not really a problem to me under other skirts, tops, or dresses with side zippers, too.

Using rayon challis for making a slip was the best thing ever! I absolutely love, love, love rayon – its hand, its wear, its ease to work with, and its historical accuracy – so it was a matter of course for me to turn to using it. However, you know that annoying polyester fabric that seems so beautiful and drapey on the bolt until you actually wear it and it turns into a static mess, clinging to your every move unless you spray it to death with static cling or line it with another fabric? Whew. Yeah, it’s a gross and annoying problem for sewers. Well, wearing a non-static, natural fiber rayon slip 100% completely miraculously solves that former curse of polyester. Hallelujah! So simple, I don’t know why I haven’t come across this solution earlier. Cotton would be anti-static, as well, and silk would, too, but it’s expensive and not used during the 1940’s. Rayon flows well, even with similar fabrics like cottons, woolen, and even other rayon, too.

I’m not sure what would be 40’s appropriate for the straps, but I used what was on hand – twill tape ribbon. My mind considered making the strap adjustable, but in the end, they were just stitched down. Hey…I am my own tailor, designer, do-it-all, so if the straps need to be fixed I’ll just unpick and re-fix.100_4999-comp

Check out that small detail line drawing close-up! It has such a tiny spot on the cover, I had to zoom in for you. Now you can see the two different versions to be made. I chose the drop neck version because open necklines will work with it better, and, besides, it’s just so darn pretty with the dip in the back neckline as well! I do love the straight neck version, with all the lace on it, but it’s not so practical for me. The cover is just all over appealing to me, from the loose pigtails to the bow-topped heels.

Now for an inspiration explanation. In the beginning of “Agent Carter” “The Iron Ceiling” Episode, Peggy is wearing a deep teal, white pin-striped masculine-inspired shirt dress. Once she gets the o.k. to fly off on a secret mission, she proceeds to change at the men’s locker –the only spot available – into a Agent Sousa catches Peggy changingcommando, military outfit. Here we see a brief, fleeting glimpse of her under slip in an uncomfortable but hilarious situation for her co-workers. I do own a vintage 1940’s black rayon slip, very much like the one seen briefly on Peggy in “Agent Carter”, and the straps are very skinny and adjustable, with remarkable shaping. However, I wanted to make her outfit from “The Iron Ceiling” Episode, and I intended to sew the whole this myself…both slip and dress. Thus, starting from the inside out like it mentioned earlier, part one (this post) is about my slip, and part two will be my copy of what Agent Carter wore over it – a pinstriped shirt dress.

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Time for the Tango! My 1920’s Combination “Step-In” Knickers

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.

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THE FACTS:

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.Jill Salen book cover 

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!)

100_2605-comp,wTOTAL COST:  Nothing! 

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.

Symington ad for The Armmori Belt   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 lingerie-12tango 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 cami-knickers all-in-one step insVictorianism 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.

100_2603a-comp,wThe 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.

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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.100_2602-comp,w

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! 

100_2604a-comp,wI 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 c1920s-france-la-vie-parisienne-magazine-the-advertising-archivesombo 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”.

Competitors in the Figure Skating event performing the

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