Monday, June 1, 2015

"Behind the Seams" - 1860s Swiss Waist in Electric Blue

Greetings all! Today I begin the first of a new series of posts I'm calling "Behind the Seams." I hope to feature a different item each month! In these posts I want to show a few of the more interesting details of some of my vintage and antique garments. Creating each post is proving a little more time consuming that I originally planned but I think all the extra work will pay off in the end. I've always been interested in knowing what the insides of older clothing looks like, how it's sewn, etc. and really want to be able to show those details as best I can. Each post will include LOTS of photos. I'm not really sure how many is too many so your feed back will be most welcome. (Can there really ever be too many photos of an awesome vintage/antique dress?)

I would also like to hear from you, dear reader, what it is you would like to see. What kind of construction details are you most interested in? Any particular time period? Most of my collection is 1920s or newer but I do have several older pieces, such as the one featured today, that I think everyone will enjoy seeing.

This incredible little piece was a surprise find at an antique shop a few years back. I was on a mission looking for hats and was poking around a rather cluttered antique shop (the best kind) when I spied something bright blue a corner. And I mean bright, like electric, blue! Expecting a hat or scarf of some kind I pulled out this little beauty. Most certainly not a hat, lol!

This corselet, or Swiss waist, is a little worse for wear but what a great study piece! A Swiss waist is a boned, pointed underbust garment that was worn over skirts and blouses or dresses. They were very popular fashion accessory in the 1860s. Some even had shoulder straps, like this example. Often called corsages in the 1860s, the terms Swiss bodices, Swiss belts, or Swiss waist belts or simply waists are used to describe the same type of garment. They show up again in the 1880s and 1890s, which is when the name Swiss waist became common. Unlike a corset, a Swiss waist does not fastens with a metal front busk. They have a flat front, with or without a front opening, or can lace up the front with hand worked eyelets. The back fastens with lacing.

Black was a common color as seen in the print below. But many surviving examples, like mine, indicated that some women were not afraid of color! Or patterns! Check out this crazy plaid and paisely silk waist at the The Fenimore Art Museum. Also this one in teal.

(Godey’s, August 1862)
The inside of my waist is lined in dark blue cotton and each seam is stiffened with 1/4" wide baleen. I know it's baleen and not metal because you can see it in spots where the lining is torn or worn away.

The waist closes with 5 hooks and eyes and has 11 eyelets for a cord which is now missing. Each tiny eyelet is only about 1/8" in size and beautifully sewn. The hooks and eyes are most likely a more recent addition.

The edges of the waist are bound with self fabric piped with a narrow cotton cord. Piping was a very common detail on 19th clothing. The waist is also trimmed around the edges with self fabric ruching that is 5/8" wide.

 The eyelets are tiny but bound very neatly. This was made for a tiny gal! When laid flat it measures 24 1/2" long about 9" high at the center from. The back is slightly shorter at 7 3/4". The narrowest part is 2 5/8". It is made of 7 sections. I found it interesting that white thread and a darker brown thread was used to construct the waist. The modern seamstress it taught to use matching thread for her projects so the stitches are not as easily seen. However, on close examination, even on the front where the trim is attached, you can see the stitches. To me this is a good glue that this was something made at home rather then a professional, but I'll admit I have no documentation to support that.

I plan to make a pattern from this someday but I think you could easily draft one yourself from the measurements I've given. If you can't wait, don't worry! Katherine of Koshka the Cat has a pattern drafted from a waist in her own collection. The size and shape is a little different then mine but I really like it.

Source - The Graceful Lady


  1. I think the swiss waist definitely needs to make a come-back! Thanks for sharing all of the beautiful inspiration!

    1. Hi Brittany! Yes I agree, it's a great little accessory.

  2. This is such a lovely, cheery piece! I love the ruffles and the delicate eyelets. As far as what I would like to see in the future... interesting construction details! Anything from the 1900s,10s, 20s, 30s, and 40s! :D

    the Middle Sister and Singer


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