REPAIR: Antique 1890s Bodice

This is a snapshot of one of my grad projects from this semester.

We were to journal the process of repairing something, and naturally I chose a garment. I’m not a conservator and my goal wasn’t perfect restoration, but rather a mix of conservation and bricolage to restore integrity and shape. Everything I’ve done can be removed if necessary and shouldn’t have harmed the garment further, and I added findings and sleeves that aren’t antique or perfect matches, but represent what the originals would have been.



I bought this bodice on eBay for about $20 – the pictures made it look like a shirtwaist with a vest, and I couldn’t tell how damaged it was. I was pretty pleased to find that it was actually in fairly good condition and that I wouldn’t be destroying it merely by handling the fabric.

I felt very apprehensive about actually doing any repair on the bodice when I got it. Lots of arguing with myself – what right do I have to work on an antique garment? If I don’t, who will? What will I do with it afterwards? What should I do with it now?

I was advised by my friend Mem to put it in the freezer initially in order to kill any potential bacteria. That was a good start, and brought me back to reality. I talked to one of the university curators about my ethical quandaries and brought it up in class, and was basically advised to go for it. It’s not a museum object, and it’s not going to be; why not try my best and use it as a learning experience?

I spent some time trying to date it; my recent experience with the 1890s had given me some frame of reference, but the little vest section made me think it might be on the later end, so I looked around. The lack of sleeves makes it much harder to date, as they inflated and deflated in particular years, and the fake-bolero style (on this bodice, it’s sewn into the side seams, so it does open up at front but it’s still fake) was popular even before the 90s and continued to be so through the turn of the century.


Of the dresses that I’ve seen, there are fewer that have a fitted and light colored underbodice – same with the thick bow collar that mine has (the collar wraps around to the back and ends in a bow). The ones that do tend to be the middle years, so I would tentatively date it as ’92-96, and I’m hopeful that it’s really ’95-96, but again – it could really be from any time 1889-1903.

It has a label on the waist tape, which I was hopeful about, but no luck so far.



It’s incredibly hard to read. It was printed in green ink and is mostly still there, but because of the ribbed texture of the tape the light reflects off of it in weird ways. I think that it says “Glass & McFall /1326 PINE STREET / PHILA., Pa.”, but that address doesn’t exist (anymore?), and I haven’t been able to find anything about Glass & McFall.



Now, for repairs: there were a lot of little things wrong, but overall it’s structurally sound. The main black ribbed fabric is incredibly sturdy – no idea what it is, though. The cream silk with leaves is pretty sound, but has marks at the front; the plain cream silk that lines the bolero is fine.

The inner lining fabrics were less sturdy; there’s a thin black silk that’s quite torn under the arms and at back, and the collar lining (which looks to have been replaced, as well, since it doesn’t match) is frail and ripping. I patched areas here and there and sewed small rips in sturdier fabric (like the neck bow, which is a thick black matte satin).


A single piece of beading was coming off (I’m impressed the rest is in such good condition), so that got resewn, and I stitched the waist tape and some boning channels back together. The boning inside is pretty unsalvageable – a lot of the baleen is broken – but I left it alone instead of taking it out.


A few other edges and bits were loose, so I reinforced them a bit, but that was it for repairs!

“But what about the biggest thing?” you ask. Yes, well, I saved the sleeves for last. 🙂

I really wanted to give these enormous gigot sleeves, hence hoping for 1895-96. The references I’d found were mixed – some had sleeves the color of the vest, and some had sleeves the color of the underbodice. It may be a seasonal thing – have your bodice look like a jacket in the winter, but in the summer just a decorative vest, maybe?

Anyway, I weighed my options for fabric and color and came to the conclusion that I’d never find similar fabric for either – the black is very thickly ribbed silk and the cream has that specific pattern. I shrugged, gave up on that idea, and got some black cotton broadcloth from Jo-Ann’s. I do have a ribbed black spandexy fabric at home, but it’s heavy and slinky and would look awful in this shape; broadcloth is light and has a bit of body.


I went back to my Yubaba research and used the diagram from the 1897 Superlative System of Cutting Ladies’ Garments for these.

I’m quite happy with the look – they really suit the bodice! They’re more placeholders and representations rather than a true restoration, and I think it helps give context to the garment.


Sadly, it doesn’t fit my dressform, and I really wanted to see it as it should be. It’s about a 32″ bust and 25″ waist, which narrows it down to….one person that I know. Sigh.

Turns out it didn’t actually fit her – a corset would probably have helped, but she doesn’t have one, sadly. It was still very cool to see on a person! (Just ignore the gap at the ribcage, whoops.) Some bust and hip padding would not go amiss.


(Yes, I had prolonged arguments with myself about putting this on a real person. She’s wearing a tight shirt underneath it, which was the best I could do when I wanted to see this on a real body.)

If anyone out there wants this bodice for study (or if it would fit you!), please let me know. I really don’t have anywhere to store it properly, and would happily send it off if you just pay shipping. It’s fulfilled its function as a textile repair project, after all!

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