Recently, one of my Bustle Day Dress Class students asked me what the difference was between chemisettes and corset covers. Both being items worn under the dress proper (and considering they both start with C), I can see how their purpose and function could be mixed up.
Let’s clear up the confusion with a few definitions and study how these items are worn – both in the 19th century manner and how to add them to your historical reproductions.
Starting with the corset cover, this garment is rather like a modern camisole to help smooth the lines of a bra or other underwear. This basic undergarment began to be worn generally in the 1860s through the late Victorian decades and on into the Edwardian period.
The main function is to support the silhouette – by hiding corset lines and colors (for when you want to wear that fuchsia silk corset 😉 ). They protect the outer garments from the hardware used in corsets. It also gave Victorian women who had leisure time something pretty to embroider.
A corset cover is fitted over the figure in lines that match the contemporary fashionable bodice cut (hence, its purpose in supporting the silhouette). It can have more ease than a bodice or underbodice (see below) and can be made with or without sleeves (but the sleeves are nearly always short).
Corset covers are very similar to underbodices and both can be worn interchangeably for many ensembles. They are not visible when fully dressed (with the exception of trim at the neckline). I’ve only seen corset covers with a front closure, usually buttons & holes.
(The Wearing History corset cover pattern makes a pretty modern top too (below) if you wanted to stay in the 21st century with your sewing.)
Many costumers get confused with the garment (and name of) underbodice.
Like… it makes sense that it’s not the main dress bodice and is worn under it, but what does it do? Why would someone need an underbodice?
Well, in my research, an underbodice is made sleeveless or with tight sleeves on a fitted bodice-type garment worn as an extra layer for warmth or possibly silhouette support. It’s not unlike the underlining of a bodice but merely made up separately. Do not confuse an underbodice with a corset cover; although, an underbodice may look and function very similar to a basic cover.
An underbodice is made up like a lining and worn under a sheer dress/bodice for modesty. It could be completely separate from the main dress or the outer bodice mounted on top of it as in the photo of the sheer bodice above.
Generally, it is cut in the same way as the fashionable bodice but might have a lower neckline and shorter sleeves or none at all.
In modern wear it’s like a camisole or tank top worn under another top. For under 19th century ensembles, use a full bodice pattern and trim down the neckline. Be sure to fit your dress bodice over all undergarment layers including your underbodice.
When attaching an underbodice to the main bodice, make up both garments separately then mount the fashion fabric onto the fitted underbodice at the shoulders, bottom hem, and armholes.
An underbodice can be boned to support lighter outer bodice fabric when mounted on top. It can be completely hidden or visible as part of the ensemble.
In the Edwardian era, a guimpe of full bodice and sleeves to be worn under a gathered outer bodice could be considered an underbodice.
With the chemisette I consider it both an undergarment as well as a fashion accessory for it is worn under a bodice but also changes the look of the ensemble by adding depth and interest. A 19th century chemisette is like today’s modern dickey or modesty panel.
The primary functions of a chemisette are to fill in a low neckline for modesty, add warmth, and to change up the daytime look of a dress or bodice. The upper part and collar of a chemisette is meant to be seen when worn.
In the 1850s and 1860s chemisettes could be complete with attached undersleeves that are visible and fill in the wide pagoda and bell sleeves of the period.
Most Regency through Victorian chemisettes are made simply with a flat panel of fabric in the front and back attached together by shoulder seams or even cut as one piece. These panels can be cut triangular in shape or square. The bottom side edges are connected with ties or left apart.
A few “full” chemisettes are made up like an underbodice with side seams. (Those with sleeves would need a defined armhole and side seam.) These that look more like a regular bodice but are indeed worn under it, I’ve found, are still called a chemisette.
Many, many chemisettes have collars. With some, the purpose of the body panels are there solely to support the collar for wearing under a bodice. In later Victorian decades you’ll find descriptions of “collars” to change up a bodice. These resemble dickeys but could also be called chemisettes – simply with a very small front and back part as something to mount the collar onto.
If anything, using the terms “corset cover” and “underbodice” interchangeably is ok. Although, they are different items. However, a chemisette IS NOT the same.
To get started making your own fashionable set of chemisettes, I recommend the Truly Victorian TV104 pattern as a good base which can be changed up in numerous ways to fit your 19th century ensembles. Also, Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion I has a set of four chemisettes from the early century decades to draft out.
For more visual research, take a stroll through my Old Petticoat Shop Pinterest boards. I have several broken down into chemisettes, corset covers and undergarments from Regency through Edwardian periods.
I encourage you to explore more about these unfamiliar articles. Make them up; add them to your historical wardrobe. Take your costuming up a notch!
Do you wear chemisettes or corset covers? Have you found that they add or detract from your historical ensembles? Share with us in the comments.