Take the time to look closely enough and a garment can be read almost as clearly as words on a page. In this way, archives of garments can provide a unique window into the past, revealing valuable clues to how previous generations shopped, dressed and laundered their clothes. Intact department store tags allow us to compare prices of similar garments from different eras. Laundry instructions on early 1950s bras remind us that nylon was then so new that women, unfamiliar with easy-care fabrics, had to be instructed not to boil wash their intimates. The colour matching between the stretch back and non-stretch front of an early 70s St Michael bra tells tales of the research done in the textiles lab at Marks & Spencer.
Many archive collections focus on pristine pieces, but it is the garments showing signs of wear which often have more stories to tell. Careful mending on the side seam of a 1920s bandeau speaks of a time when most women did not own a drawer full of bras that could be easily replaced when they started to come apart at the seams. When the fabric ripped, repairs were lovingly made to extend the life of the garment so that a new purchase was not required. Sometimes mending makes it tricky to date a garment – for example, when shoulder straps or perished elastic have been replaced years after the original date of manufacture – so the researcher needs a keen eye for fabric composition and evidence of careful home sewing.
The Kestos bra, patented by Rosamond Klin in 1928, consisted of ‘overlapping triangular cups, with shallow darts and slender ties that wrapped around the back to button at the sides’. It was extremely popular and remained in production until the early 1950s with many other manufacturers producing similar styles, and fashionable women were keen to make their own or request a similar style in more expensive fabrics from their seamstress. These simply constructed garments were easy to repair and both mass produced and homemade versions in archive collections often show evidence of multiple mending attempts. This sort of detail can reveal stories of owners who could not afford a new bra in times of austerity, or perhaps speaks of a woman who could not bear to dispose of a beloved garment that she considered to be perfect.
Other examples of post-manufacture sewing are alterations. Before adjustable straps became common, brassieres were manufactured with overly long ribbon straps that the wearer would have to use her sewing skills to adjust to fit. These ribbons had to be unpicked, cut to the correct length and reattached before the bra was suitable for its first wear. An unpicked dart reminds the twenty-first century viewer that, before the use of elastic was commonplace, corsetry had to either be made to measure or adjusted to fit. Home sewn garments, especially those made during and immediately following the Second World War, were often constructed without any stretch. The interior of such a garment can often reveal many adjustments over the years it was worn, to amend the shape to fit a changing body or even for multiple owners.
It’s easy to assume that, once mass-produced bras became too complicated to make at home, evidence of alterations would diminish. However, the women who wore them still saw ways in which changes could be made. A closer look at a 1950s underwired bra can show new buttonhole elastic added to the centre back to make it more adjustable, or short lengths of elastic sewn onto the shoulder straps at the back for added length. Alterations aren’t always just to improve the fit either. Imagine a beautiful lace piece with the backing carefully cut away in several places in order to make the lace sheer.
Darts, although a less common alteration in bras once they became more likely to be made of stretch fabrics like Lycra, can still be seen on later examples. The simple 1930s-inspired designs of the late 1970s were easy to alter but were often so inexpensive that a replacement could easily have been purchased. However, carefully hand sewn darts in the delicate sheer nylon fabric of a 1970s Dior bra speak of a woman who was so desperate to own this designer lingerie that an imperfect fit off the peg did little to discourage her.
Dress history often feels like it is dominated by the silhouettes, styles and designs found in paintings, fashion plates and advertising imagery, but object based research offers a different perspective. The closer we look, the more a garment can tell us. Through the literal fabric of fashion, this type of research helps us better understand clothing of the past and also the people who designed, made and wore it. We just have to first understand the language we’re reading.