Feminine Lingerie Dresses

As spring transitions toward warm summer weather, our wardrobes shift to accommodate. I can imagine the same type of change happening around the turn of the 20th century; women updating their wardrobes with new dresses or making adjustments to the dresses they already owned.

White cotton or linen dresses were fashionable during late spring and summer in the late 1890s all the way to the late 1910s. These dresses were made of gauzy muslin and decorated with a lot of embroidery and lace to create a frilly look. They were called lingerie dresses, and, according to Survey of Historic Costume, were called that because the “fabric and decoration so much resembled women’s undergarments of lingerie of the period.”

Lingerie dresses have always fascinated me. A delicate dress of white would be hard to keep clean, so lingerie dresses were worn by those who did not have to engage in daily labor, mostly the upperclass. Lingerie dresses were intended to be day dresses — worn to garden parties, while promenading, or other social events.

Stripping the color allows me to show students how the silhouette subtly changed during this time. To the untrained eye, maybe these dresses all look the same. But if you look closely, you can see that the volume of the skirt, particularly at the back of the skirt, minimized gradually. The silhouette changed from an S-like shape, to more upright and tubular (which leads into the boxy cut of the 1920s). The decoration moves from a ruffly, Art Nouveau style to something more akin to the sleekness of the Art Deco.

dress, 1902-4 from Metropolitan Museum of Art | dress, 1903 from Metropolitan Museum of Art

dress, ca. 1905 from Metropolitan Museum of Art | dress, ca. 1905 from Metropolitan Museum of Art

detail of back of dress, 1907-8 from Metropolitan Museum of Art | dress, 1908-10 from Metropolitan Museum of Art

Lingerie dresses evoke romanticism and femininity. And so they were adopted by suffragists campaigning for the right to vote in the 1910s. Suffragists wore lingerie dresses in order to show that women did not want to shed their role as feminine nurturers even though they desired voting rights.

Women were encouraged to wear lingerie dresses while marching in parades to create unifying visual appeal. They must have looked beautiful and impressive marching together in a sea of white. This is probably my favorite element of lingerie dresses — their relationship with feminism.

Fashion Is Cyclical

Last week I gave two students a tour of the historic fashion collection I work with. We started talking about trends and how fashion is historically cyclical. By their expressions I could tell they didn’t follow what I was saying fully.

evening dress by Chanel, 1927 from The Met | paper dress by Hallmark Cards, Inc., 1967 from Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection

So I grabbed a 1920s shift and a 1960s paper dress. Right away they could identify that the A-line silhouettes were identical.

chiffon dress, 1930s from Augusta Auctions | chiffon dress, 1970s from Dress: The Art of Wearing Vintage

Next I found a bias-cut, chiffon dress from the 1930s and a chiffon dress from the 1970s. First, I explained what bias-cut meant — that most clothing is cut out of fabric in which the grains run vertically and horizontally (luckily I was wearing a dress cut on the straight-of grain whose vertical and horizontal grains were easy to see), but that bias-cut clothing meant the grains were running diagonally. I could tell they were catching on when they pointed out how the floral pattern of the 1930s dress was on an angle. I showed them that the 1970s dress had bias-cut sections as well, not to mention that both were made of flowy chiffon.

Then I choose a 1940s suit and an 1980s suit both with strong shoulders. Again they could see the similarities in silhouette and masculine influences.

However, this was where we hit a bit of a dead end. The 1950s and the 1990s don’t replicate this patten. But, I said, even though the 1950s followed Christian Dior’s “New Look,” it wasn’t actually a new silhouette. I explained that the New Look was an hourglass silhouette, which was last seen in the 1860s. Dior’s reintroduction of this look was popular because western culture was craving femininity after the clothing from the 1940s had become so masculine.

This was a perfect segue back to trends. They asked me why neon was so popular currently, so I asked them to think back to the last time it was used so abundantly. They admitted that it was awhile back. We talked about how it’s popular this season because it hasn’t been used in awhile, so it looks fresh to our eyes. Fashion is all about change, and we want something that seems “new.” But newness is a bit of an illusion, since you can find elements of most trends somewhere in a historic fashion collection.

That’s when I noticed we were standing next to neons and other loud colors from the late 1960s and early 1970s. The two students agreed with me that the colors weren’t agreeable to their eyes, but I showed them that in contrast to the colors worn in 1950s and early 1960s, these loud colors would have looked completely new and, thus, cool at the time.

It was the most fun I’ve had in awhile giving a tour. Once I started pulling garments, the young women opened up and showed curiosity and thoughtfulness. They could concretely see how fashion trends reoccured. Another strong case for historic fashion collections’ power as tools for teaching.