Costuming is not period clothing. This makes me a terrible cosplayer — even though that’s what reenactment is, just for history, not fiction — because comics, TV and film never shows me what’s underneath the visible garments. A costume is an externalized depiction or representation of an idea, while clothing is much more mundane and the product of invisible technology. Example: the modern hemispherical or teardrop shaped boob is the product of the invention of lycra, moldable sheet foam, a nylon fabric called powernet, and cheap steel. When steel was expensive, so were underwires. It’s also the product of changing social mores that allow for things like visible nipples. The old style torpedo-bullet-pointy bra effectively masked temperature or hormonal nipples in stiff decorative stitching. (Modern visibility of this: in Mad Men, Joan will never have anything remotely like a visible nipple — her undergarments won’t allow it. Peggy might, especially as the seasons move forward — her black and white gingham dress does show this. Peggy’s friend Joyce, being on the far end of the counter-culture, has shown nippage.)
I learned the hard way in my dim college days of medieval re-creation that what goes next to skin matters a lot more for comfort and look than any amount of technique, and thus, I have to build my wardrobes from the skin out. No matter how perfect a houpelande looks, if it’s worn over a push-up bra and tights, it’s gonna look weird. This is actually good, since I can practice technique on clothing less visible and less expensive, but at first, it felt truly boring and wasted effort to spend days or weeks on something nobody but me and a lover would see. It took me a long time to realize that foundation garments really are the foundation for the entire look, and for appropriate movement. One can run in a properly fitted corset or stays — and I’ve done so whilst serving as field medic — but one cannot slouch.
The modern body type and the modern silhouette are incredibly recent inventions. Look at The Bletchley Circle or Call the Midwife — these are both modern dramas, but the costumes are point perfect. Bras used to make boobs look all pointy and stabby, and in the context of the time, that was beautiful and appropriate. These programs depict a recent time — the 1950’s. Step back to Downton Abbey and the silhouette changes again (and in the course of the series so far.) Note that in Season 1, all of the women still wear corsets on late Victorian lines. By the current season, the only ones still corseted are the Dowager Countess and Mrs. Hughes, who are both personally conservative and extremely confident in their personal world views. They fixed their fashion choices and won’t stray from them. (Also, given their ages, it’s likely that they lack the core muscles to maintain their posture without assistance.) Even Mrs. Crawley has dumped the hard lines of the corset by S2. Move further backwards in time (Bleak House, then Wives and Daughters, then Sense & Sensibility) and the silhouettes change further.
The Napoleonic Wars era is almost unique in clothing history because it breaks with a running pattern of emphasizing the female waist to hip ratio in favor of a smooth, columnar line with high, widely separated and emphasized boobage. This doesn’t mean women just stopped wearing corsetry for twenty years — the older ones had the core muscle issue, and the younger ones had just as many body variations as we have today — one breast larger or more droopy, a tummy that wants to pooch or uneven hips. The difference between a set of stays and Spanx is not qualitative.
The greatest difference between clothing then and clothing now is not one of fabric or construction or line, but of infrastructure. Specifically, running water and washing machines. Before running water, every drop had to be either pumped or drawn from a well or surface water source, and had to be heated without the aid of machinery more sophisticated than a boiler. Hand washing is heavy labor — a three or four day task for most households, and for large households or institutions, a never ending one. There are extremely convincing economic arguments that the invention and mass production of the washing machine is as important to equal opportunity for women as birth control. In Amanda Vickery’s The Gentleman’s Daughter, even wealthy women aren’t using the scarce labor and fuel to bathe and have clothing washed daily. While their standards of clean were more flexible, most people in the pre-industrial world were not slovenly. They had senses — greasy skin felt greasy to the people of the past, too. There were slobs — but we have slobs today, and it is not necessarily a mark of either ignorance or poverty, nor was it then.
They dealt with cleanliness with basin baths – which do work fine – and regular changes of undergarments, and using their undergarments as a sort of full-body dress shield. Which means the shift, or chemise.
A shift is the most simple sewn garment. In base form, it’s two big rectangles, two medium rectangles and two squares. The big rectangles are the front and back, the medium ones are sleeves, and the squares are gussets under the arm for shaping and ease of movement. They’re always made of the most durable, undyed, local fabric and they’re always washable. Shifts have existed since shortly after weaving.
For most of the western world, the local, undyed, washable fabric is linen. While cotton becomes more common through the 18th and 19th centuries, it had to be imported from India, Egypt, or the southern US, and that made it more costly than the local linen. Further, a cotton fiber is short and fine — 3 to 8 inches, depending on variety — while a flax (linen) fiber is 2-3 feet long. It’s much easier to spin linen thread than cotton, and it took a while for Northern Europe to learn how to spin cotton. (In the 18th century, most cotton fabric produced in England was made from thread spun in India — where they knew cotton well — and shipped several thousand miles.) Experienced linen spinners could produce thread as fine as modern sewing thread from flax fiber, so it was not the bulky, coarse fabric that most of us associate with modern linen. Thread counts from extant garments show fabrics with 150 to 300 threads per inch — quite respectable and comparable to modern natural fiber fabrics.
The other major textile technology difference is loom size. Until the mechanized looms of the late 18th century, a loom was about a yard wide, because any wider, and it becomes difficult for one person to work it. Humans were just as prone to repetitive stress injuries then as now. That meant that all fabric came in 22-36 inch widths, so they took advantage of those qualities. It’s much easier to butt two selvedges together with a whip stitch and get a nearly flat seam than to make French seams on handmade garments. It just so happens that two pieces of 30 inch wide fabric sewn into a tube will fit most people with generous wearing ease. Even carpet was woven on narrow looms and sewn together rather than trying to broad-loom.