Corset Covers: Protection Against Soiling and Indecency
By: Emily Bach
Throughout the course of this past week, we have processed quite a number of petticoats and corset covers. When these undergarments were stored in Pratt House in the past, at least twenty of these textiles were packed one on top of the other in a single box – a testament as to why rehousing the costume collection is such a necessity for preserving fascinating textiles. In contrast, when we repack undergarments such as these, we pack a maximum of six in a box due to our packing techniques and efforts to prevent any further textile damage. In costume history, corset covers provided a measure of protection for woman’s clothing for over a century, so as we continue the rehousing effort, it is about time the corset covers received a little protection for their own well-being.
Corset covers began to appear in woman’s fashion around 1840 and by 1860 they were commonly worn. A woman would own numerous corset covers due to the perspiration and soil they endured throughout the day, and she would also own covers that differed in fabric depending on the specific occasion it was worn. For daily wear, a woman wore cotton or linen corset covers while silk and lace trims replaced cotton when she wore her evening wear. When winter and cold weather hit, a woman adopted wool or flannel covers to add an extra layer of warmth. Of the covers we processed, we dealt with mainly cotton muslin covers. They were all donated by Mrs. Francis White. A silk ribbon is attached to the neckline on each under-body*, allowing the wearer to cinch the neckline to fit. Pearl buttons allow closure in the front and lace trims the neckline, as well as the shoulder straps. The fabric flares out underneath the waistband and features a scalloped edge. Along the bust of the cover, the wearer’s initials are intricately scripted in the floral embroidery that decorates the cover. Our corset covers date between the early 1900s to the 1910s. We also processed one silk-satin under-body. It features gorgeous lace trims along the neckline, shoulder straps, and underneath a silk band displaying floral embroidery. So far we have not come across any flannel or wool winter petticoat-bodices.
The corset cover served more than one purpose. They provided protection against wear, protection against sweat, and increased a woman’s modesty. A woman would dress into her chemise and drawers first, followed by her corset, and finally her corset cover as a final layer of protection. Bodices were often boned, which introduced the risk of these bones rubbing against the corset, one of the most expensive articles of clothing a woman owned, and wearing it out. The linen or cotton-muslin corset cover offered a layer of protection. One can catch a glimpse at the price of corsets by observing advertisements for corsets in 1900 and 1902 editions of Sears and Roebuck and Co. catalogues. Because the museum’s petticoat bodices date to the early 1900s, the pricing in these catalogues provide an interesting perspective. In the 1900 edition, corset prices range from twenty-five cents at the low end to two dollars and fifty cents at the high end. In the 1902 edition, prices range from thirty-nine cents to a dollar and fifty cents. In 1900, $2.50 would cost around $72.80 in today’s economy. Rather than buying a garment frequently due to soiling or damage, it was more economically efficient to maintain a garment’s quality for as long as possible.
Because women attempted to preserve their garments due to the quality and money put into clothing articles, corset covers provided extra protection from the detrimental staining and rot sweat caused in the underarms of a bodice’s underarms. Short sleeves could be added to covers in order to absorb the sweat, rather than leaving the bodice vulnerable to the chemicals in perspiration. A child’s shirtwaist gives us an idea of what this sleeve treatment would look like on a corset cover.
Lastly, corset covers offered an extra measure of modesty. Before corset covers gained popularity, women donned chemises that featured an extra flap of fabric that covered the corset to prevent any accidental reveals of a woman’s corset. As corset covers became more common and women sported low necklines, especially while wearing evening wear, women wore covers featuring lace trims. No longer did women worry about appearing indecent due to an accidental slip of her neckline. Fortunately these corset covers are now safely packed and placed in their happy new home in our climate controlled work-room where their preservation will provide essential knowledge on the history of women’s costume history.
* Corset Covers have many names: petticoat bodices, camisoles, chemisettes, under-body.
More on Protection Against Soil – Underarm Liners, Shields Against Summer Sweat: https://www.mdhistory.org/costumeblog/?p=490
Eleri Lynn, Underwear: Fashion in Detail (London: V&A Publishing, 2010), 24.
Willett and Phillis Cunnington, The History of Underclothes (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1992), 147.
Anita Stamper and Jill Condra, Clothing Through American History: The Civil War through the Guilded Age, 1861-1899 ( Denver: Greenwood, 2011), 114-115.
Sears, Roebuck and Co. Fall 1900 Edition, 685.
Sears, Roebuck and Co. 1902 Edition, 942-944, 1066.
Currency Value Calculator: https://www.measuringworth.com/uscompare/relativevalue.php