Sewing, What I wear

A practice in Practicality: doing housework, 1910s style

Since the Historical Sew Monthly Challenge for May is ‘Practicality’ and one of my submissions for it is a 1910s blouse (from the Wearing History Elsie blouse pattern), I thought I should actually test the practicality of said blouse.

Now, a blouse is a very practical garment – for a 1910s wardrobe.  It was inexpensive, versatile and washable, and was basically the 1910s version of a T-shirt.

But how much could you actually do in it?

And full 1910s undergarments (corset, combination, petticoats), skirt, and heeled shoes.  Plus a period apron for the messy  stuff.

Well, I spent half a day in the full outfit  and I managed to:

– tidy the house (general putting away the 37 things in each room that the elves seem to pull out of the drawers and closet every night and leave strewn about the house)

– sweep the kitchen, lounge, and hall

– mop the kitchen

– wash dishes (by hand)

– dust the dining room

– do laundry (OK, with a washing machine)

– make dinner

It looked a bit like this:

Doing housework in 1910s clothes - 1

Doing housework in 1910s clothes - 1 (1)

Doing housework in 1910s clothes - 2

And you know what?  It really wasn’t bad at all.

I was really hot when I first finished getting dressed, but my body quickly adjusted, and all the natural fibres breathed nicely.  Once I’d settled into it and started working temperature wise, I was just as comfortable as I would have been in jeans and a cardigan.

The heels were a bit of an issue, but that’s more my Hawaiian-bred aversion to shoes indoors than a comment on the type of shoes.

The shorter hem made it easy to bend over to sweep and mop and pick up things.

The sleeves rolled up, and stayed rolled up, for dishwashing and cooking.

Doing housework in 1910s clothes - 1 (2)

And the corset was actually fantastic.  All that back support while sweeping and bending over to pick things up was really, really helpful.  At the end of cleaning I felt much perkier than I normally would.

I was also surprised by how little the longline corset got in the way of bending over to do things once I was really settled in to it.  After an hour I didn’t notice it as an impediment at all.

Doing housework in 1910s clothes - 2 (1)

In fact, I was just about to  deem 1910s clothes just as practical as modern wear for housework, when I discovered the one entirely strange and unexpected thing I can’t do well in them.

I bent over to pick up Felicity.

Bending over – no problem.

Picking up Felicity – no problem.

Holding Felicity.  Now that was an issue.

The corset did such a beautiful job of smoothing out all my lumps and curves, and creating a seamless line from bust, down over my hips,  that, with the addition of the high waist of the skirt, there was just nowhere on my body for Felicity to nestle in to.

Normally when I pick her up I can rest her against the curve of my stomach (see, non-flat stomachs are awesome), or the hollow of my waist against my hip.

Wearing History's 1917 combinations

In a longline corset?  Nope.  She just kept sliding down, and eventually I had to give up and put her down.

If this happens with a 4 kilo cat, I’m assuming the same thing happens with babies.  Which makes 1910s clothes perfect for light manual labour, terrible for being a mother.


More research needs to be done! (which does sound rather like a weird hint about me and kids, but it’s not).

Doing housework in 1910s clothes - 3


  1. Becky says

    Housework research–I love it! 🙂 You are certainly committed to your craft.

  2. Anne says

    Love this post! I would be very interested to know what can actually be done in all that clothing. And if you get lightheaded from working in a corset because of the lung restriction. I have five young kids so I always wonder how you could breastfeed in all those clothes also. And up and down stairs in long skirts and shoes and babies clinging to the skirts!!! It has to be more work!

    • Elise says

      Doing ‘mum’ things like growing pregnancy, breastfeeding and the like in clothes pre-1930 is hugely fascinating to me!

      • Sally Nelson says

        Many early clothing had lots of room to expand and reduce seams, to adjust for pregnancy and putting on weight etc.
        We read of households where the parents rarely spent time with the children – there were plenty of servants, who were employed to take care of the basics – and often became very close to those children, closer than their parents were….

  3. How cool. I’ve never tried to do housework in period attire before. I think I need to now! I did go an entire summer with no shorts once and I found it way easier to get used to than I thought.

  4. Oh wow, your blouse is so beautiful (I first thought it was a modern garment). And it pairs so nicely with the skirt. I also like your prakticability-tests. Sound slike a Kind of experimental archeology.

  5. Oh so fabulous! I love all of this, and wish I could try it immediately! The experimental archaeology aspect of costuming & daily life is fascinating & underappreciated. Poor Fiss, though…
    Thank you!! Kitty Calash

  6. Lynne says

    I love the ‘proper’ broom and duster – and they actually work! How interesting about the lack of cat curves – has anyone tried managing a baby? There must have been a way. I imagine you can’t just stick a hip out when you are in a corset. You are right – it needs research.

    Dinner looks delicious!

  7. Laura D says

    Anne, they actually made both maternity corsets and nursing corsets. There were laces up the bust area. 🙂 I’ve seen scans of period ads for them. By 1910, they’d reached their limit in length. Earlier versions were shorter. Some didn’t have the bust included, some stopped at the waist. It just depends on what decade you’re examining.

  8. Lyn Swan says

    Interesting information on doing housework while wearing period clothing. Since following you blog I have become very interested in corsets and have been thinking about building one for myself. I have chronic lowerback pain and have wondered if some sort of support would help.
    Thank you for continuing to inform, enlighten and inspire.

  9. Maybe that’s why babies were normally pictured on chairs or in prams for the upper class; lower class would probably have used some variation on a sling until the baby was mobile. This is of course merely a guess, but then again once you’ve been wearing corsets all your life you’re probably stronger in the arms than we are and able to support baby despite those impediments.

  10. This was a treat! What a wonderful bit of living history. So impressive.

    The blouse and skirt are lovely, as is the wearer.

    The skirt would be a stretch for me to sew, but I think I could manage the blouse.

    Did you make the apron or is it a vintage piece? Would you be interested in doing a construction tutorial for the apron?

    • Ruby says

      This apron has different pockets but it looks very simple to make. Just cut it out, apply pipping around the whole thing, and sew on straps. I think I will make one, too!

  11. Interesting! I can certainly see how the corset would prevent backache. Also, did you make curry? It looks delicious.

  12. Alex says

    I know that back when my niece and nephew were babies, my posture suffered because whenever I held them, I was either cocking my hip or letting my ribcage settle further back from straight (purposely creating a hollow chest) to help me keep them up. Standing up straight wasn’t an option, perhaps because my arms are rather weak (I can’t do a proper push-up). Aside from keeping them up, it’s very difficult to cook and clean with a baby in your arms, because you only have one hand free.

    I think that women would have used a length of cloth to hold their babies, either on their backs or on their fronts, much like women still do today in many countries. Even my mother used one for me (I’m 18)

  13. I have 2 kids and believe me, my back hurts like hell every day from that ill-posture I bended while carrying them around (no, kids don’t stay 4 kilos forever, and they want to cuddle you when they’re 15 kilos too!) and I still sport that pose, when night I lay on my back it stretches and hurts every way while my vertebras are smoothing out… 🙁 The worst is my belly curves out if I was expecting again… :((( So Victorians~Edwardians knew something about corset supporting for the back, now I need one too to help me stand straight and don’t live with pains anymore, ouch… 🙁

  14. Fascinating! I always do my housework in a long skirt (because why change?) – maybe I should try a corset too? But not heels. Not indoors.
    Perhaps holding Felicity could be recast in the light of an upper-body workout? I don’t imagine she would approve though – you know how cats are about being practical!

  15. lovely post – and gorgeous blouse too. i can see the advantages of the corset, I find sometimes when I am sewing a lot my shoulders start to hunch so if I have tired shoulders or am going to do a lot of sewing, I wear an elastic – basically its like two loops of elastic (size of headbands) and I loop them together and wear each loop over my shoulders (its like a racer back or a 1970s detective movie shoulder holster). its brilliant. (i dont think i will go down the route of a full corset quite yet!)

  16. Kristina says

    I love this post! For a while now, I’ve thought of making period house clothes, to do housework in. I think it would be more fun doing cleaning and all when I’m dressed lovely (for period “Jeans and T-Shirt” still look like princess clothes to me). It must be so romantic! At least that’s how I imagine it. (Had some Anne of Green Gables lately..)

  17. love this post ~ I think it’s great to be able to see historical clothing in ‘real life’! Personally, I couldn’t imagine my corset being that comfortable for house work, but I’d be interested in trying it out anyway! I think this is were you need a few different corsets for the various activities. 🙂 ❤

    Your blouse is really pretty, as well as being so practical.

    bonita of Lavender & Twill

  18. Summer says

    Very interesting! I’ll be watching for more research.

  19. hopflower says

    I am afraid that for only the lightest tasks would this outfit be comfy or practical for housework. We have it much easier today with supplies and cleaners, etc. to clean a house from top to bottom. It was much harder work back then. No vacuums, no swiffers, having to haul coal and clean coal dust from the fireplace, no silver cleaners, etc. Beating rugs and mattresses is heavy work!

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