|Sketch of a chemise, by David Ring.|
Found on Wikimedia Commons
Underwear is the layer of clothing closest to the body. It includes shifts for women (also called chemises), breast bands and bras, men's shirts, loincloths (wearable by either sex though usually associated with men) and equivalents of what Americans now call "panties" for women. Before the 20th century, underwear was most often made of linen in Europe and America, but in modern times it's usually made from cotton or cheap synthetic fabric worldwide.
Until at least the end of the medieval period, stockings and socks arguably qualified as underwear under the above definition, because they typically were not made to be seen. However, stockings and socks require special fitting and design, which is why they are not included here, though some stocking projects can be as quick to make as the items discussed below. Corsets are also underwear, but because they require way too much detail work to be a one-afternoon project, I will not include them here either.
NOTE: A man's shirt or woman's shift likely will take longer than a single afternoon to make (even during the summer) if completely handsewn. If one cheats by using a sewing machine, it should be doable in one afternoon, as it involves mostly long straight seams. For that reason, I have included shifts and shirts here.
As always, unless I have said otherwise here, I have not made any of the items in this collection of tutorials myself.
- Mammilare or Strophium: These are Roman terms for a simple band to constrain and support the breasts. The simplest form is a long, narrow rectangular piece of fabric, ripped along the grain to provide a straight though unhemmed edge. This website shows a very basic one made from wool, whose natural stretch would make it a good choice for folk who do not get an allergic reaction after wearing wool against the skin. See it here. (Frankly, I'm surprised to find this post still available on the Internet, since I first discovered it more than two decades ago.)
- Late Medieval "Supportive" Smock: This is a kind of smock that is cut to provide some support for the breasts. Elena of Neulakko explains its use, as well as how to make one, here.
- Early Modern Shirt: The Costume Historian provides this tutorial, which is suitable for the period from roughly 1530 to 1660 CE.
- Regency Era Shirt: The Tea In A Teacup blog provides an illustrated tutorial as to how to make a shirt from the Regency (roughly, the early 1810s to the early 1820s). You can find that tutorial here.
- 18th Century Shirt: From La couturière française comes a genuine shirt tutorial and pattern from the mid-18th century, with clarifying text from the owner of the web site. Potentially a lot of fun, if you have the right mindset and skills.
Women's Shifts and Petticoats:
Shifts did change in design, slowly, over time. Early medieval shifts were fairly wide through the body, with long sleeves and a neckline matching the neckline of the gown under which they were worn. Later medieval shifts could be sleeveless as they were often worn under form-fitting gowns. Renaissance shifts (such as the Venetian camisia below) were extremely wide, both in the body and sleeves, and were gathered with tiny gathers into a band that usually matched the neckline of the gown with which they were to be worn. 18th century shifts could have three-quarter-length sleeves and were quite short. 19th century shifts were short-sleeved or sleeveless, about knee-length or came just below the knee, and were finally replaced with "combinations"--which were closed with loose legs on the bottom. Below are some examples of tutorial on how to make a sampling of female undergarments through the ages:
- Viking/Early Medieval: It is believed that these garments were shaped just like an ordinary gown or robe, but were often made of linen and worn underneath one or more garments. (The Viborg shirt, a male equivalent, is too complicated to be a one afternoon job.) They can be made quickly if done anachronistically with a sewing machine; handsewing them, though a simple matter of making many long straight seams, takes much longer. Handsewing History has a well-illustrated tutorial about how to make such a garment, here.
- Byzantine (10th century): Peter Beatson's pattern for a Byzantine undershirt is based upon an actual archaeological find, the Manazan shirt, on display in a Turkish museum. This style may have been worn by both men and women; the gender of the wearer of the Manazan shirt is, to my knowledge, still debated. NOTE: My Manazan shirt, which I wrote about in several different posts starting here, used Beatson's original proposed pattern, which his page now explains was probably erroneous.
- Venetian Camisia (16th century): Shown for informational purposes, though handling the fine gathering is more easily done by hand and probably takes the end result out of the range of a one-afternoon project. Bella's Realm of Venus site includes a tutorial here. I have also found an "easy to wear" version that's a bit less thoroughly historical, where the construction seams were sewn by machine, though the gathering was still done by hand.
- 18th Century Shift: Like medieval shifts, these are made from geometrically shaped pieces of fabric and connected with straight seams. Mara Riley's tutorial explains the technique and gives supporting sources and suggestions for obtaining needed supplies as well. Find it here.
- 18th Century Petticoat: Petticoats were worn from the Renaissance through the end of the 19th century. Construction does not change much; these are essentially a quantity of fabric pleated or gathered onto a waistband. Since the waistband is never when the garment is worn, how you make the petticoat matters less than the type of fabric you use and the length of the garment. Try this tutorial from the American Duchess website.
- Loincloths: People living in cultures who do not wear any other clothing often wear loincloths. The simplest form of these requires a cloth about 18 inches wide, which is wrapped around the man's waist at least twice. The hanging end is then brought between his legs, from back to front, tucked into the wrapped portion, and allowed to hang over the wrapped portion in front. This website, which discusses loincloths worn in Borneo, also gives a surprisingly good tutorial on how to wrap a "generic" loincloth, here.
- Dhoti: The dhoti is a wrapped, lower body garment worn in India. It may be short or long. It's essentially a loincloth with pleats used to control the extra fabric, and thus comes farther down the legs than a loincloth does. This page provides a useful tutorial, with sketches, in how to shape and drape a dhoti. NOTE: The page is not in English, but the drawings are clear and easy to understand. It even includes a video!
- Braies: This article (in both Finnish and English) suggests that the type of knee-length underpants shown on men in European medieval art could have been made by draping, belting and tying a suitably-sized piece of cloth. The technique is speculative, but would make for a very quick project indeed!
- Civil War (Men's) Drawers: More complicated than a loincloth, but still reasonably simple. This link will take you to a blog which explains the construction and includes an image of the original pattern, which should be sufficient for some people to reproduce such a garment, though it's not a project for a beginner.
Until the Renaissance, women do not seem to have worn underpants, at least not after Rome fell. There is some evidence for the use of a garment by Ancient Roman women called a subligaculum. (However, it's possible that the bikini-type garment shown in this ancient Roman mosaic by women engaging in physical exercise was not worn anywhere other than in a physical exercise context.)
From the Realm of Venus page we have an illustrated discussion of the evidence for long (knee-length) drawers being worn by at least some Italian women during the Renaissance.
I have not hunted for free tutorials in this category because there is no consensus about the shape of Renaissance-era underpants, and commercial patterns are easily available for many later period undergarments. If I find additional tutorials on female undergarments, I will write another post on this subject.
Do your own research if the maximum possible historical correctness is your aim, but whatever else you do, have fun!