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The Blouse Collection

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Around 100 white blouses form part of the Ulster Folk Museum’s Textile collection. Ranging from the early 1800s to the 1940s, they describe the changing styles of this practical garment.

Cotton bodice, early 1800’s

Cotton bodice, early 1800’s

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Cotton chemisette, 1860-70

Cotton chemisette, 1860-70

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Cotton bodice, 1895-1905

Cotton bodice, 1895-1905

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Embroidered cotton net blouse, 1900-1910

Embroidered cotton net blouse, 1900-1910

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Cotton blouse with shadow work embroidery, 1900-1910

Cotton blouse with shadow work embroidery, 1900-1910

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Silk blouse, 1900-1910

Silk blouse, 1900-1910

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Cotton muslin blouse, 1910-1915

Cotton muslin blouse, 1910-1915

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Cotton blouse with cutwork design, 1910-1915

Cotton blouse with cutwork design, 1910-1915

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Cotton blouse with sailor collar, 1915-1920

Cotton blouse with sailor collar, 1915-1920

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Cotton blouse with crocheted rose design

Cotton blouse with crocheted rose design

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Cotton blouse, early 1920s

Cotton blouse, early 1920s

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Cotton bodice, early 1800s

Image: Cotton bodice, early 1800’s HOYFM.2012.286 © National Museums Northern Ireland
Cotton bodice, early 1800’s HOYFM.2012.286 © National Museums Northern Ireland

One of four similar bodices owned by a family from Crossgar, County Down, this piece dates from the first decade of the 1800s.

The high bust and waistline fashionable during the Regency period were a marked change from the formal styles of the previous century. Tightly laced corsets were out in favour of simple styles influenced by classical Greek and Roman designs. The import of silk fabrics was restricted due to the war between England and France, leading to a demand for cotton and muslin fabrics.

Floral bands on the bodice front
HOYFM.2012.286
© National Museums Northern Ireland
Floral bands on the bodice front HOYFM.2012.286 © National Museums Northern Ireland
Cording on sleeve cuffs HOYFM.2012.286 © National Museums Northern Ireland
Cording on sleeve cuffs HOYFM.2012.286 © National Museums Northern Ireland

Handmade from a cotton fabric, this bodice features a small floral design made from tiny loops, similar to towelling. The same looped effect is used in a geometric pattern on the two bands which accentuate the front of the bodice.

The unusually long sleeves sometimes seen in clothing of this period were intended to be worn partially covering the hands. Gathered at the shoulders, the sleeves are drawn in to form the cuffs by three rows of cording.

The bodice is fastened at the back with small buttons made from a fine metal ring covered in fabric with a small 'x' embroidered in the centre of each button.

Cotton chemisette, 1860-70

Cotton chemisette, 1860-70
HOYFM.61.1970
© National Museums Northern Ireland
Cotton chemisette, 1860-70 HOYFM.61.1970 © National Museums Northern Ireland
Cutwork design on cuff
HOYFM.61.1970
© National Museums Northern Ireland
Cutwork design on cuff HOYFM.61.1970 © National Museums Northern Ireland

This long-sleeved chemisette of cotton lawn with embroidered band and cuffs dates from the mid-Victorian period.

A chemisette is an underbodice of fine fabric, worn under a dress to provide sleeves and cover at the neckline. In this case, the cuffs are the most striking feature, beautifully embroidered with a scrolling cutwork design and trimmed with a ruffle of lace.

The garment has been sewn both by hand and using a sewing machine, readily available to the home dressmaker by this period. The quality of the embroidery is far greater than the sewing used to make the bodice, suggesting that the cuffs and band were purchased ready-made from a draper.

Bodices such as this would have been easy to launder, protecting the more elaborate outer garments from the skin.

The low, sloping shoulders of this style would make it difficult for the wearer to raise her arms.

Cotton bodice, 1895-1905

Cotton bodice, 1895-1905
HOYFM.611.1999
© National Museums Northern Ireland
Cotton bodice, 1895-1905 HOYFM.611.1999 © National Museums Northern Ireland
Hand embroidered trim
HOYFM.611.1999
© National Museums Northern Ireland
Hand embroidered trim HOYFM.611.1999 © National Museums Northern Ireland

Towards the end of the Victorian era a new tailored style appeared in women’s fashion influenced by menswear. High collared shirt-style bodices were worn with practical, tailor-made skirts, jackets and very often a tie.

The ‘tailor-made’ was a revolutionary form of dress that was much criticised when it first appeared. Despite this it was a practical and smart outfit that quickly caught on and by the early 1900s was worn by increasing numbers of working women. This easy to wear style heralded the move towards simpler garments and allowed a range of bodices to be worn with the one suit, a practical idea which allowed the wearer a range of looks from relatively few outfits.

The plain, sturdy fabric of this bodice is softened by the addition of hand embroidered broderie anglaise trim and mother of pearl buttons.

The clever construction of this cotton example makes it appear as a smooth high necked bodice with a softer gathered blouse over the top.

The large full sleeves and vertical pleated fabric across the bust are designed to draw the eye in towards the neat 56cm (22”) waist. Around the turn of the century the corset shrank to its tightest dimensions ever. After this period, waists would gradually return to their natural size.

Embroidered cotton net blouse, 1900-1910

Embroidered cotton net blouse, 1900-1910
HOYFM.896.1979
© National Museums Northern Ireland
Embroidered cotton net blouse, 1900-1910 HOYFM.896.1979 © National Museums Northern Ireland
Machine embroidered lace
HOYFM.896.1979
© National Museums Northern Ireland
Machine embroidered lace HOYFM.896.1979 © National Museums Northern Ireland

In 1900 a new straight-fronted corset appeared giving the figure a distinctive s-bend shape. It forced the top of the body forward and the hips backward. Bodices were cut several inches below the waist; the resulting fullness gathered or pleated to the waist band giving a pouched effect. When worn with the new corsets this emphasized even more the curve of the silhouette.

This blouse is made from cotton net, machine embroidered with a small flower design and lined with fine silk.

The silk peplum at the waist line of the blouse is designed to be tucked inside the skirt and worn with a belt. The high lace collar is supported with strips of celluloid, encased in cotton tape. The full sleeves are gathered below the elbow into fitted cuffs of machine-embroidered lace and trimmed with duck-egg blue velvet ribbon.

Machine-made lace was much cheaper than the handmade varieties, only available to the wealthy. Once a cheaper alternative was devised it soon became mainstream fashion and no longer desired by the upper classes.

Cotton blouse with shadow work embroidery, 1900-1910

Cotton blouse with shadow work embroidery, 1900-1910
HOYFM.2012.296
© National Museums Northern Ireland
Cotton blouse with shadow work embroidery, 1900-1910 HOYFM.2012.296 © National Museums Northern Ireland
Embroidered shamrocks
HOYFM.2012.296
© National Museums Northern Ireland
Embroidered shamrocks HOYFM.2012.296 © National Museums Northern Ireland

A delicate shamrock design in shadow work embroidery covers the front of this blouse and also runs around the edge of the collar and cuffs.

Originally from India, shadow work became popular in the 1700s when European traders began importing muslin goods. Worked on a semi-transparent fabric, such as lawn or muslin, the stitches are worked on the reverse of the fabric producing a ‘shadow’ design on the right side.

The sleeves of this blouse appear to be strangely shaped with the cuffs at right angles. In the early 1900s, the fashion for large, puffed sleeves changed. Instead of the fullness at the shoulder, as in the previous example, fabric was gathered into the cuff forming a pouch that hung down just below the elbow.

The cuffs and back panels of the blouse are pin-tucked; a method of reducing fullness at certain points without having to cut the fabric. It works particularly well on finer fabrics and was especially popular on blouses from 1900-1920

Silk blouse, 1900-1910

Silk blouse, 1900-1910
HOYFM.2012.297
© National Museums Northern Ireland
Silk blouse, 1900-1910 HOYFM.2012.297 © National Museums Northern Ireland
Collar detail with mother of pearl buttons
HOYFM.2012.297 © National Museums Northern Ireland
Collar detail with mother of pearl buttons HOYFM.2012.297 © National Museums Northern Ireland

Between 1890s and early 1900s the great department stores were at their height and the ready-made industry was booming. Ready-made clothing, which had started out as an option for poorer people and tended to fit badly, greatly improved during the Edwardian period. Along with mass production came mass distribution and lower prices allowing more women to imitate the current trends using simpler designs and cheaper fabrics.

By the early 1900s the average woman was now buying her ‘best’ clothes from shops rather than dressmakers. Styles were becoming simpler and easier to fit. Most department stores had their own workrooms where garments could be specially made and alterations could be carried out. Partly ready-made clothing could also be purchased – a finished skirt with fabric for a bodice and sleeves or skirts made with the back seam left undone for fitting.

This beautifully tailored blouse bears the makers label Williams and Cox Costumiers, Torquay and was owned by the Lamberton family from Eglinton, County Londonderry. It is made from a woven striped silk fabric with a cotton peplum and mother of pearl buttons.

Cotton muslin blouse, 1910-1915

Cotton muslin blouse, 1910-1915
HOYFM.2012.301
© National Museums Northern Ireland
Cotton muslin blouse, 1910-1915 HOYFM.2012.301 © National Museums Northern Ireland
Bobbin lace and Ayrshire embroidery
HOYFM.2012.301 © National Museums Northern Ireland
Bobbin lace and Ayrshire embroidery HOYFM.2012.301 © National Museums Northern Ireland

The fashionable female shape during the Edwardian era was one of voluptuous curves and small waists. High collars and long sleeves were worn in the daytime, with bodices made from light fabrics and an abundance of trimmings. Elegant embroidered underwear, trimmed with crocheted panels or lace were worn under soft, gauzy blouses like this example.

This cotton muslin blouse is trimmed with frills of bobbin lace and inserts of Ayrshire embroidery across the shoulders and around the cuffs. This fine style of white embroidery is more commonly associated with christening robes and supported a large industry in Ireland and Scotland. The whitework embroidery industry in the north of Ireland alone employed over 100,000 women in one capacity or another at the start of the 1900s. Worked in white cotton thread on cotton lawn or muslin, it is characterised by floral designs and cut out spaces filled with needlepoint lace stitches.

At some point the waist of the blouse has been taken in by 10cm (4”) possibly as a result of it being handed down to a younger relative.

The embroidered band down the front of the blouse conceals a row of small opaque glass buttons.

Cotton blouse with cutwork design, 1910-1915

Cotton blouse with cutwork design, 1910-1915
HOYFM.969.1988
© National Museums Northern Ireland
Cotton blouse with cutwork design, 1910-1915 HOYFM.969.1988 © National Museums Northern Ireland
Broderie anglaise cutwork panel
HOYFM.969.1988
© National Museums Northern Ireland
Broderie anglaise cutwork panel HOYFM.969.1988 © National Museums Northern Ireland

1910 marked the end of the trend for the hourglass figure and instead a straight silhouette with a high waist became popular. Instead of restricting the waist, corsets became longer, encasing the hips and making it difficult for the wearer to sit down. Skirts became straighter and tighter, containing hidden pleats and slits which could be adjusted when walking.

Worn with loose fitting, blouses like this one, practical tailor made suits were now the mainstay of a woman’s wardrobe.

This blouse is decorated with pin tucks and inserts of bobbin lace. The three quarter length sleeves and sailor collar are trimmed with a ruffle of the same lace. The broderie anglaise cutwork panel on the front of the blouse has been embroidered by hand and conceals the press-studs used to close the blouse.

Cotton blouse with sailor collar, 1915-1920

Cotton blouse with sailor collar, 1915-1920
HOYFM.399.1976
© National Museums Northern Ireland
Cotton blouse with sailor collar, 1915-1920 HOYFM.399.1976 © National Museums Northern Ireland
Embroidered design of shamrocks
HOYFM.399.1976
© National Museums Northern Ireland
Embroidered design of shamrocks HOYFM.399.1976 © National Museums Northern Ireland

The need for women to take over men’s jobs during World War 1 accelerated the trend towards less restrictive and decorative daywear. Skirts and jackets were made in darker colours and simpler cuts. Sailor collars were very much in fashion and would have been worn with a small modesty panel or vest if the neckline was particularly low as in this case.

Since the Gaelic revival in the early 1890s, shamrocks remained a popular embroidery motif for women’s blouses and dresses. Transfer designs were widely available from draper’s stores and women’s magazines, allowing the home dressmaker to keep up with the latest trends. The shamrocks on this blouse have been embroidered in satin stitch with cutwork details on some of the larger leaves. The design is continued around the collar and the handkerchief style cuffs.

Another common feature of blouses from this period is the scalloped edge finished with a buttonhole stitch. The blouse is closed with hook and eye fastenings with round crocheted buttons for decoration.

Cotton blouse with crocheted rose design

Cotton blouse with crocheted rose design
HOYFM.370.1972
© National Museums Northern Ireland
Cotton blouse with crocheted rose design HOYFM.370.1972 © National Museums Northern Ireland
Irish crochet rose with satin stitch foliage
HOYFM.370.1972
© National Museums Northern Ireland
Irish crochet rose with satin stitch foliage HOYFM.370.1972 © National Museums Northern Ireland

This blouse of cotton lawn has been machine sewn then embellished with hand embroidery and Irish crochet lace.

The facing on the collar and button band is turned under and edged with drawn threadwork to form a decorative geometric border. The crocheted buttons are merely for decoration as the blouse is fastened by press studs and tied at the waist with cotton tape to keep it in place inside the skirt.

Irish crochet lace became closely identified with the town of Clones County Monaghan, where the rector’s wife, Mrs Cassandra Hand, was responsible for setting up a school to train local women as a way to provide employment during the famine period. Around 1900, this type of lace was extremely fashionable in clothing and household textiles. By the period 1915-1925 it was still popular on collars and cuffs or to embellish underwear and handkerchiefs.

Each individual motif is crocheted then arranged and joined by crocheted bars. Unusually, on this blouse the rose motifs have been sewn directly onto the fabric and joined together by satin-stitched leaves and stems. A more traditional type of Irish crochet is used to edge the cuffs.

Cotton blouse, early 1920s

Cotton blouse, early 1920s
HOYFM.1512.1987
© National Museums Northern Ireland
Cotton blouse, early 1920s HOYFM.1512.1987 © National Museums Northern Ireland
Satin stitch design of daisies and foliage
HOYFM.1512.1987
© National Museums Northern Ireland
Satin stitch design of daisies and foliage HOYFM.1512.1987 © National Museums Northern Ireland

After World War 1 women were seeking more functional clothing with simpler designs and shorter skirts.

A flat straight silhouette with a dropped waistline became fashionable and the corset was completely abandoned and replaced by the brassiere - much more suitable for the less restrictive clothing of the 1920s. Knitwear was very much in fashion and blouses were worn with skirts and knitted cardigans or jackets.

Cut from one piece of fabric, this slip over blouse is typical of the period with its simple construction and beautifully applied embroidery. Made from a fine cotton lawn, it has been constructed using a sewing machine then hand embroidered with a heart shaped design of daisies, leaves and dots.

The sleeves feature a smaller version of the main design and the hem, neckline and cuffs are scalloped and finished off with an edging of buttonhole stitch.

A stitched channel at the waistline originally held elasticated tape to create some shaping. Although comfortable to wear and easy to launder, cotton lawn is easily damaged and this example shows signs of repair in several places.