Making Edwardian Combinations (Chemise and Drawers)

One of the disadvantages about living in the Edwardian era is that you never got to show off your chemise, corset or petticoat- even though those foundation garments are absolutely adorable! I absolutely love some of the more “scandalous” photos from the 1900s and 1910s of the girls in their corsets and petticoats.

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Edwardian undergarments

pinup, early 20th century style

underpinnings.  I think she has just unfastened her bodice.  Corset (no cover) tied at back.  Petticoat (or drawers, i guess) must be held low in front by the corset hook.  Chemise under the corset.

I know these girls were probably “being bad” by the standards from back then, but I just love the look of those ruffly drawers and petticoats worn with corsets! That’s why I was super excited to make my combinations to be worn under my 1912 ballgown.

A quick refresher for those who don’t know/remember much about underwear in the 1900s and 1910s: No one would ever wear their corset right up against their skin. There’s no way to wash all the oil and sweat from your body off the corset, and who would want to feel that rigid boning right up against their bare skin anyway? That’s why they wore a chemise under the corset. A “combination” is just a chemise combined with drawers. A chemise is a knee-length, strapless dress (with short sleeves or straps) and drawers are wide, short “pants” with an open crotch. (Meaning it’s wide open at the bottom…. so you can use the bathroom without having to completely undress. Awkward, yes, but very practical if you’re wearing, like, three skirts!)

Here are some examples of combinations from the era:

http://www.antiquedress.com/item369p.htm

http://www.antiquedress.com/item4873.htm

Edwardian Chemise

As you can see, these things look like dresses, because the drawer legs are so wide- but they are actually more like rompers. Even though these garments are the least likely to be seen, they still have the full detail and elegance of Edwardian fashion- complete with lace insets, ruffles, pintucks, you name it. They also supported the “pigeon breast” silhouette from that time, with a lot of volume and drooping in the bust area.

Now that you know roughly what a combination chemise is and what it looks like, let’s dive right in to the process involved in making one!

~Drafting the Pattern~

As some of you may know, I prefer the flexibility of drafting everything I sew (figuring out by myself what the pieces should look like) instead of buying a pattern. There would have been no shame in buying a good pattern from a place like Old Petticoat Shop, since these patterns are typically made by historical costuming experts. I tend to have a lot more fun drafting things myself or at least making my own pattern, but I wanted to do it right this time. It’s hard to create the right silhouette if you have a modern brain and no instructions. So, luckily enough, I stumbled upon this amazing resource from archive.com! It’s The American System of Dressmaking, a dressmaker’s textbook…. printed in the early 1900s! The version I found had the copyright renewed in 1910, so I figured it would be current enough to work with my project.

I could talk forever about this textbook and how cool it is (and they even made a creepy prediction about the drastic change of fashion in the 1920s, well before anyone knew it was coming….) But basically, it had instructions at the very beginning on how to draft a basic bodice, so I had to learn how to do that before following the instructions in Chapter 17 on drafting combinations. If anyone’s curious to try this themselves, the basic bodice drafting instructions start on page 57, and the instructions for the combinations start on page 509. It’s kind of hard to follow the language if you don’t know all the terminology. For example, you have to know that “waist” sometimes refers to the narrowest point of your figure, and sometimes it refers to a blouse. I just looked up all the terms I didn’t understand.

I’m not going to go through an in-depth explanation on how to follow these directions- I’ll just say that I followed them as closely as possible and made some minor alterations as needed. My pattern looked roughly like this.

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It’s a pretty generic bodice with roughly triangular pieces for the drawer legs, but the most important thing to notice here is that the waist is slanting downward- that proved to be pretty important in supporting the pigeon breast shape. I don’t think I would have thought to do that myself.

As you can see by the ruler, I drew the pattern to one eighth scale or something like that, so I had to rescale all the measurements when I translated it to the actual fabric. I cut the bodice and drawer pieces separately, since most of the extant garments have a waist seam.

~Construction~

After I cut out all the pieces, I had seven in all: two bodice fronts, one bodice back, two drawer fronts and two drawer backs. They had to be stitched together vertically at the sides and horizontally at the waist. Obviously the center front had to be left open and so did the center seams at the drawers. Before stitching the bodice pieces to the drawers, I had to gather them. Usually I do the drawstring gather method, by basting (loose stitching) the fabric to be gathered and pulling it to the desired length.

Oh, and hey- I finally managed to create some 4-way seam intersections that looked okay! This is the best it’s ever looked for me, I’m quite pleased!

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As always, the part that took the longest was finishing the seams! For the side seams at the bodice and drawers, I used this super helpful technique called French seams, which I discussed in the analysis of the antique tea dress. They work wonderfully for fine fabrics like cotton voile! Here’s how mine turned out at the side seams of the drawers.

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(By the time I learned about French seams, I had already done the waist and didn’t want to rip it apart again, so I finished them a different way.)

For the center front, I wanted a facing with buttons, so I just cut out long rectangles on the grain (as opposed to on the bias), and pressed them and stitched them to the front. When I make bias tape or plain rectangular strips for finishing edges, I press them in three steps: First, fold it in half and press it. Second, turn one of the edges in towards the crease, and pin it, and press it. Third, repeat step 2 for the other edge. Here’s steps 1 and 2:

This is the most efficient way to press bias tape or plain rectangular strips before stitching them over a raw edge. It saves you a lot of mistakes, as opposed to trying to do all three steps at once!

After stitching that onto the center front edges, I had to stitch the buttons and button holes on by hand. I used to have a buttonhole foot, but I somehow lost it…. Oh well, the Edwardians didn’t have buttonhole feet either! Surprisingly, it didn’t take too long.

Next, I added a ruffle to the bottom of the drawer legs. I originally cut the drawer legs too long, so that they were almost tea-length. I just cut off the bottom so that I had thick strips of fabric, and gathered the tops and reattached them to the bottom of the drawers.

And then…. there was a problem. A BIG problem.

The one drawer leg came out to be, like, three inches longer than the other!

I don’t really have an idea how this happened, but I think I was trying to make some adjustments to the inward-facing edges of the drawers and I didn’t check the symmetry, so the one leg came out to be much longer than the other.

I don’t have any pictures of my mad rush to get this massive blunder fixed, but basically I had to try to adjust the waist to pull up the longer drawer leg and let down the shorter one. My neatly finished waistline took quite the beating as a result, unfortunately. But I did manage to make the drawer legs look (almost) even, as you can see in this picture.

Edited in Lumia Selfie

As you may already know if you’re one of my Instagram followers, this produced another set of problems. The drawer legs were now too short! If you go back to the top of this post and look at the vintage photos, nobody had a drawer leg that was shorter than the kneecap. Drawers from this period ALWAYS covered the kneecap. I knew that I would feel really unhappy about this project if I didn’t do something about it, so I decided to add a second ruffle to the bottom.

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I cut out the new ruffles out of large rectangles (making sure they were thick enough to make the drawers the proper length!) and gathered the top with the drawstring method. I stitched them close to the top of the first ruffle, as you can see above, and trimmed the raw edge short enough that I could stitch down the previous French seam and cover it. It looked pretty good this way!

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(When the previous French seam was even, anyway…)

Adding the second ruffle helped SO much, and it added to the overall cuteness! Keep reading for the final pictures, but first….

~Embellishing the Neckline~

If there’s anything I learned from my antique 1910s tea dress, it’s that you simply cannot neglect the details in any Edwardian era pieces. It doesn’t matter if it’s underwear or outerwear, you really need to go the extra mile and add some sort of embellishment, even if it’s unseen or it doesn’t add to the functionality! This totally goes against the grain of our fast-paced modern lifestyle. I wanted this piece to have some of the excellence that the Edwardians would have put into it.

I had known from the beginning that I wanted to have lace at the neckline, but how to attach it? I found a great tutorial from Sew Historically about doing the “bermuda fagoting” stitch, which basically looks like a bunch of neat little holes in the fabric. I followed the tutorial and picked up threads from the lace in addition to the other fabric. It came out really beautiful, in a subtle kind of way.

~Final Thoughts~

For me, this is one of my best projects yet because I learned a lot from it. Mainly, I learned a lot about overall neatness and finishing seams properly. This is the first project where I can, with pride, show you pictures of the final product turned inside out!!

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Yep, that is inside out, people!! You can see there is some roughness at the waist because of all the adjustments I had to make to it. And there is some unevenness at the ruffles because I was in a hurry to do those. But otherwise, it came out really neat and pretty symmetrical.

I’m also really pleased with how the shape came out. There was a lot of fullness and a nice round shape at the front. I attest that to the downward-sloping slant of the waistline and the extra room for gathering.

Overall, I would rate this piece as 95% historically accurate. The 5% missing comes from the fact that my lace and the ribbons are polyester- boo! But the rest of the fabric is cotton voile, one of the most common fabrics for Victorian and Edwardian undergarments. The construction is 95 to 99 percent accurate since it was drafted from instructions from a 1910 textbook. The shape came out pretty accurate, with the rounded bodice front and the flared bottom at the skirt.

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This whole outfit just feels so cute and playful, I love it!

If you haven’t already, would you be so kind as to fill out my reader survey? It has questions about how you found the blog, what you like and dislike, what you would like to see more of, etc. I’d love to hear your feedback so I can write content more relevant to YOU! Thanks for reading!

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