Undersleeves

Every so often, my job requires that I dress like a Victorian.  When I first started, fresh out of museum studies and thrilled to be employed, I remember a slight feeling of embarrassment and nervousness the first time I donned the costume.  I think it was mostly my own insecurities and anxieties working their way out, but after time and NUMEROUS occasions, I’m quite comfortable in my ‘pioneer’ dress and am quite happy to wear it as the time sees fit.

The dress I wear was made by me, under Grandma’s careful supervision, over two years ago, and recently, I’ve been adding to my accessories through various historic knitting patterns.  I completed by Sontag last Spring, and my Sortie Cap was a very fast knit over a weekend last summer. Since the holiday knitting season ended, I’ve been slowly working away at another historic pattern which will keep my arms very warm, as I’ve been knitting myself a pair of undersleeves.

I’m still working on undersleeve #2, and I’ll share the project, photos, and my own edits and notes in a future post, but I thought for today, I’d share a little history on this accessory, because until I started working in the Museum field, I had never heard of undersleeves before.  The name seems straight forward, but what is the history of this accessory?

Undersleeves were commonly worn during the mid 1800s, an essential part of any woman’s fashion.  They were detachable, which made laundering easier – and laundry was no easy task during the Victorian era. As much as I long for aspects of the past, I am very thankful for my modern washer and dryer. Hot water, harsh soaps, washboards and wringers – no thank you. Typically white or off-white, undersleeves helped to keep body oils off the fabric of dresses, which were commonly made from wool or silk, materials which couldn’t be washed.  Undersleeves served to be both purposeful for protecting the fabric as well as decorative.

Many museums have undersleeves in their collection, and quite often they are trimmed with lace or other delicate stitching.  When fashions changed, as fashions inevitably do, undersleeves were a simple way to change up the look of a dress rather than with a new dress entirely.  The undersleeves would also change seasonally; warm weather would see sleeves made from light-weight white fabrics such as organdy, while cotton and other heavier materials could be used to help stave off the cold.  The pattern I am making from Godey’s is for wool undersleeves, clearly intended for cold weather wear.

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Cotton Undersleeves, c. 1850, in the collection of the Met Museum
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Linen Undersleeve, c. 1840, in the collection of the Museums of  Mississauga
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Undersleeves, c. 1906, in the collection of the Canadian Museum of History

The styles of these accessories also varied, from those that required pinning to the interior of the dress sleeve, ones which gathered at the wrist and those that were open and loose at the wrist.  Not only could the material change for the season, but Peterson’s, another Lady’s publication from the era, discussed how undersleeves could change for wear throughout the day.

White undersleeves for morning wear are made with a deep linin cuff, fastened with three studs, either comprised of precious stones, or of gold.  For evening wear, the cuff is made of lace and embroidered insertion; but fullings of any description are now never employed, as the under-sleeve should be as flat as possible.

~Peterson’s Magazine, 1863.

Undersleeves, after a number of decades, fell out of fashion, but one can still find many sewing or knitting patterns for making your own.  Coming next week, the Godey’s pattern I followed when knitting my woolen undersleeves, my interpretation of the pattern, and my finished sleeves. Stay tuned!

 


When researching this post, I referred to a few sources, including:

The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Clothing Through World History, Volume 3, 1801 to Present, edited by Jill Condra; accessed: https://goo.gl/npaeZg

Oshawa Express, ‘Under sleeves, a unique piece of clothing,’ J. Weymark; accessed: http://goo.gl/WYbzxL

Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900,  Joan L. Severa; accessed: https://goo.gl/gI30oL

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6 thoughts on “Undersleeves”

  1. “Every so often, my job requires that I dress like a Victorian.”

    My initial thought was, “that sounds like fun!” …but the whole costume probably gets in the way of doing things, right?

    I had heard of, but never really looked into undersleeves before, thanks for sharing the history of them and the pictures!

    Liked by 1 person

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