This garment is quite a departure for me in terms of historical period. It’s 1920s. Common wisdom says that only tall, slender, boyishly figured women can carry off the 1920s silhouette. Well, I beg to differ. Certainly, the stereotypical “flapper” dress with its very low, hip-slung waistline and Art Deco-inspired piecing and bias cuts are not flattering in modern terms to curvaceous figures, but there was far more going on fashion-wise in the 1920s than this particular style of dress.
The early 1920s, in fact, carried over many of the streamlined, tubular looks that became popular during the end of the previous decade. Waists were somewhat lower than the natural waistline, but not as low as the lower hip. In fact, many waistlines hovered between the natural waist and the full hip, and many extant garments show that while the waistline was visually lowered through different effects such as sashes and beading patterns that created a horizontal band across the hip level, the actual garment’s fit kept nearer to the natural waist. And this can be flattering to many different figure types, because it takes into account the waist-to-hip curve.
This year, I’m branching into an exploration of 1920s styles, and of course, the first step is to create the underpinnings for the outward fashions. As part of the Historical Sew Monthly for 2015, I decided to make a 1920s “envelope chemise” for the very first challenge, which was “Foundations.”
An envelope chemise is a style of “combination” undergarment, carried over from the previous three decades; it combines a camisole and a slip or pair of drawers in one piece. The term “envelope” was applied because a panel wraps from the back hem between the legs to the front hem and snaps or buttons in place to form a crotch piece. This feature means the undergarment is easy to put on and off and makes it easy to … access the necessary area for trips to the bathroom. Ahem.
An envelope chemise was a common base layer during this period, but there were also separate camisoles and drawers or bloomers, as well as step-ins, and I’ve always liked the look of this style of this type of undergarment—there’s no waistband to cut into the body, and it feels less modern than a two-piece underwear set.
There are many period sources, sewing manuals mostly, that give directions and very basic diagrams for cutting the shapes to make any of these types of undergarments. However, this being my first foray, I wanted something a bit closer to a pattern, so I looked around until I came across an Etsy shop called Mrs. Depew. The “patterns” the proprietor sells aren’t properly patterns: they’re still cutting diagrams with rough, vague instructions. But they’re a tad more detailed than a sewing manual, even though they’re taken directly from such sources. And you don’t have to download a whole book to get instructions for one garment. For this envelope chemise, I chose this Mrs. Depew pattern (#2019).
The envelope chemise is made up of three rectangles, plus ribbon straps. One rectangle wraps around the body and attaches to another rectangle that forms a center-back panel; the seams are side-back seams. A much smaller rectangle forms the crotch piece. The cutting was easy.
However, my fabric yardage was 42 inches wide, not the 32-36 assumed by the instructions, and I’m slightly larger than the largest measurement given for the pattern. So my cutting and measurements went a little differently. Ultimately, I had to revise the measurements—unfortunately I noticed the huge amount of excess room in the garment when it was nearly finished, and I had to rip out my seams, recut the center-back panel to a wedge shape to take in the bust ease but still give plenty of room through the hips; then re-sew and reattach the lace trimming. Turns out, I could have done without the amount of ease I thought necessary.
The body is made from a lovely apricot-colored silk charmeuse, which feels heavenly against the skin. The neckline is trimmed with a wide, black lace in a kind of flame-like pattern. Black double-faced satin ribbon forms the straps. I covered the stitches of the snaps on the body with little flower appliques.
This pretty little envelope chemise reminds me of a wonderful sweet I get sometimes: apricot glacé—jellied apricots dipped in dark chocolate; hence the name of this post and of the garment.
Just like my last project, I didn’t take any process photos; I was too taken up with actually doing the work. And, much as I say I hate math, playing with the cutting measurements and comparing to my actual needs, and extrapolating all that into the necessary pattern shapes, is a lot of fun. My brain really likes the challenge and the engineering side of it and it’s so satisfying when it all works out correctly—even though this didn’t at first. But even that is satisfying, because the incorrect result meant I had to go back and refigure everything, and now I know that the measurements and panel shapes I came up with will work for another version, if I decide to do one.
HSM 2015 Challenge Info:
The Challenge: #1, Foundations
What the item is: early 1920s Envelope Chemise
Fabric: silk charmeuse, rayon lace, double-faced satin ribbon
Pattern: Mrs. Depew Vintage 1920s Envelope Chemise #2019
Year: 1920-25 (ish)
Notions: thread, polyester satin ribbon for straps, thread-embroidered appliques
How historically accurate is it? I’ll give it a 90%. The ‘pattern’ is really just a cutting diagram with instructions, both taken from period sources. There’s a rectangular front piece that wraps around to the side back and a rectangular center-back panel, plus a crotch piece. I changed the dimensions of the pieces based on my measurements and the width of my fabric, but overestimated the necessary amount of ease. So I had to rip out my nice French seams at the back panel—and my lace at the neckline—cut the panel down to a wedge shape with the small end on top to get a closer fit around my bust and chest, and re-sew it all. It didn’t take too long, but was kind of frustrating. The chemise is half machine sewn (the French seams and the crotch panel’s edges) and the rest is hand sewn. Little snaps attach the crotch piece at the front for easy on-and-off, and I decided to sew little flower appliques on top of the three snap halves that are on the chemise body to cover the stitches. The instructions said to use either buttons and buttonholes or snaps. I looked at a LOT of extant 1920s envelope chemises and similar undergarments to get a sense of the kind of materials typically used. Charmeuse was not common, but silk crepe was; however, I had charmeuse—and who doesn’t love charmeuse next to the skin? Lace was often used as insertion, cut-away applique, as edge trim, or as whole panels of the garment. For simplicity’s sake I chose to just edge the neckline in lace. I didn’t have enough to trim the leg openings or the bottom edge, but I think it looks nice anyway. Apricot was a very popular color during the early 1920s. Black lace was often used, although in lingerie, it was usually only combined with black fabric. But orange and its variant shades combined with black trimmings and edgings was actually a popular combination for a time.
Hours to complete: About 4, because I had to recut and sew it when I was almost finished.
First worn: for photos, Feb. 6, 2015
Total cost: The charmeuse cost $2.99/yard as a 3-yard remnant; I only used 1 yard for the chemise. The lace was in my stash already, but was not cheap; about $10.99/yard and I used just over 1 yard. The rest of the materials were in my stash so long, I have no idea how much they cost. So, under $15.