Wearing Antique Clothing
home : tidbits : Wearing Antique Clothing
Corsets and Crinolines - unique vintage clothing

Tidbits : Wearing Antique Clothing

As a antique and vintage clothing dealer, I have many customers who buy vintage costume to wear. They wear their lovely antique pieces re-enactment events, Victorian and Edwardian teas, living history displays and sometimes just as part of a modern outfit. However, there are many schools of thought on the subject of wearing vintage clothing. Some believe that nothing over 40 years should be worn at all, others believe that their items are theirs to do with as they please even if that means eventually wearing out a garment.
I have even met extreme views that nobody outside of a museum should even own antique clothing as most collectors don't have access to conservation materials or proper storage facilities. Personally, I'm more middle of the road and believe that strongly made common garments like pantaloons, black wool bodices, sturdy made walking skirts, etc can be worn safely for non strenuous activities if they are examined carefully and deemed not to have any structural damage and are taken care of properly after wearing.

Since I have been asked many questions on the subject of wearing vintage clothing, this months Tidbits will hopefully gives some basic suggestions on the subject of how to wear antique costume safely and with a minimum amount of wear and tear.

Before actually deciding to wear an item of antique clothing, one must be familiar with your measurements. Most old clothing was homemade to a specific person and this is the case even well into the 20th century. Because of the non standard sizes, you will have to know your own personal measurements to see if an item will fit you properly.

The main measurements you must know are (see diagram):
1)Your neck circumference (for high collar blouses)
2)Shoulder width taken across the BACK of your shoulders straight across from tip to tip of the sharp edge of the your shoulder bones (The illustration shows a dotted line, this means that the measurement should be taken at the BACK of the shoulders).
3)Sleeve length from the tip of your shoulder bone to your wrist (not illustrated).
4)Bust taken around the FULLEST part of your bustline
5)Under bust (approx. where your bra ends just under breasts, basically your ribcage.)
8)Skirt length taken from your waistline to your ankles although this may vary according to the style of skirt worn (not illustrated)

This is a basic guide and of course there will be various other measurements such as if you have specific fitting problems like fat upper arms or if you want to make sure if the back width will fit you.
The problem with bodices is that they tend to be very shortwaisted as the corset pushes in your lower ribs creating a high than normal waistline. Measurements should be taken first in your normal well fitting underwear (so you can see if things like chemises, nightgowns and pantaloons will fit) and then repeated in your corset along with the undergarments you are going to wear (to see if the outer garments like bodices, skirts, dresses will fit over your undies). Once you know your "nude" and "corsetted" measurements, you can use both sets of measurements to judge the fit of an item. It is also a good idea to allow an extra inch or two in a garment for "breathing space". This stops any extra stress on old seams, especially on tight fitting items like bodices.
For tricky "baggy" items like Edwardian shirtwaists, they were often made approx. 6-8inches bigger than your actual bust size, i.e if your bust measures 42inches then your shirtwaist would actually measure approx. 48inches in the bust to allow for the pigeon fronted look. A shirtwaist measuring 42inches in the bust WILL NOT fit a 42inch bust but will fit a approx. 34-36inch bust, this is a common mistake that I see with many antique shirtwaists up for sale today.
Remember an ill fitting garment, not only looks silly but you will also cause damage to it.

Before you put on your antique garments, make sure you are clean and don't wear perfume! Avoid makeup if possible and do your hair before dressing. To avoid getting white deodorant stains on the inside of items, you can lightly sew "sweat shields" into the underarms of bodices and blouses. These are cheap and are available at most sewing supply shops.

When choosing a antique item to wear, always inspect it to make sure it's safe to wear. NEVER wear items made out of shattering (also know as "tin loaded) silk. These will disintegrate on you.
Look for stressed seams although if you allow for an inch or two for ease in the garment, then an item can be gently worn. Moth holes are more cosmetic damage and most items can be safely worn with moth holes if they are not in highly stressed areas, if you know how to darn, the better! Many things can be fixed on antique items according to your sewing ability, seams which have become unstitched can always be resewn although rips can be a little tricky if you do not have much sewing experience.

To wear a vintage outfit properly, you will need proper period correct undersupports. I do not recommend wearing antique corsets as many of them have already has a stressful life and are rare treasures but thankfully new corsets, bustles and crinolines are still made today.
Most antique underwear from the 1860's and onwards made from sturdy flannel, wool or medium to heavy weight cottons are still strong enough to be worn without any trouble. Some items of antique underwear are harder to find than others like fitted corset covers in larger sizes, so repros can be happily worn with originals if need be and this takes the strain off the antique items.

Although the thought of wearing a beautiful original 1860's silk ballgown fills us with excitement, these things probably should not be worn except for a photo.
For less strenous activities like teas, promenading, garden parties, more diaphanous items can be worn like Edwardian lingerie gowns made out of batiste, muslin, lawn and even silk it is the non shattering kind. Silk failles, bengalines, and non shattering silk taffetas can also be worn if the garment fits well and is worn very gently.
If your looking for antique clothing items to wear to slightly more active and regular events, look for wool, velvet, linen or medium/heavy weight cotton skirts and bodices. For re-enactments and strenuous events where you'll be moving around alot, it's safer to stick with very heavy wool or heavy weight cottons, however, most antique garments will not be able to stand up to this constant amount of use. It is best to save your antique items to wear to the days during re-enactment where your "best clothes" would be worn. It is better in this case to mix reproductions with antique items. Items such as chemises, pantaloons, corset covers, petticoats, capes and wool bodices could be worn with repros.

No item of antique or vintage clothing can stand up to constant wear so items must be worn with common sense. Even in the heaviest wool walking outfit will break if you start swinging your arms about and playing baseball in it! Women were not expected to do all the things we do today in our modern clothes. Even furniture and chairs were built more upright to accommodate a corsetted posture, they didn't have cars with sloping bad posture seats built in! So one must be very aware of how one moves in old costume. It's even an idea to get changed when you arrive at an event to avoid travelling in your outfit in the poorly designed train/car/bus seats. Your outfit will also take up more space than your modern clothes will so you also have to be careful not to catch your skirt on anything by misjudging your distances, especially in a large cage crinoline support skirt! Pick up your hem when you walk up stairs and if your wearing a train, warn the people walking behind you to be careful!
If you drop something, you can just swoop down and pick it up but have gently lower yourself down to avoid popping an old seam, even better ask someone to get it for you!

When not wearing your antique garment, it should be inspected for damage after removal and be repaired before the next wearing. You can safely wash most white Victorian underwear in mild soap. Other colored things may have to be handwashed and pretested for running as old dyes are sometimes volatile. Sturdy things can be drip dried and other more delicate things may have to be dried flat. Things that cannot be washed, should be left to air out on a bed or chair or may be able to be spot cleaned with some clean water, mild soap and a clean cloth. If your in doubt about washing an item, your best bet would be to visit your local museum and ask the opinion of a conservator as old fabrics are so varied!

I hope you have found this helpful although it is no means a comprehensive guide to wearing antique and vintage clothing. These are just some points I have picked up along the way with my experience in wearing antique items. It's a trial and error experience but in my opinion, the most information that I have gained about costume has actually been from wearing it.

Whatever your collecting preference, whether it's to wear or not to wear, enjoy your collection!

All photos are from the collection of L. Hidic