Underwear: The Liberty Bodice


Figure 1.--This is a British Liberty Bodice. Note the vertical straps or reinforcements both back and front. Presumably garters or other clothes could be attached to the reinforcement straps by buttons sewn on by hand or by pins. (Apparently the Liberty Bodice did not come with the buttons alreadt sewed on. The mother was expected to sew on the appropriate buttons desired.) The material is a sturdy cotton and would provide quite a bit of warmth for the torso. In most cases the bodice would be worn on top of an undershirt or other basic underwear with sleeves.

The "Liberty Bodice" was the British version of the German Leibchen. This garment was fairly standard for children in the United Kingdom from about 1908 until the later 1920s although it was more favored by school girls than by boys. It was a bodice made of heavy cotton with reinforced straps over the shoulders that came all the way down to the waist. Buttons were usually sewn onto the straps for the support of other clothing. It didn't normally come with hose supporters already attached, but elastic tapes for "suspenders" (the British term for hose supporters) could be fastened onto the straps by means of buttons for the support of long stockings. Most schoolboys older than 8 or 9 years began wearing knee socks with short pants shortly before World War I and therefore no longer needed the "liberty bodice"; but girls continued to wear them up through the 1930s and 1940s until about the age of 14 because their uniforms often required long black cotton stockings. Many girl scout uniforms in Britain included black stockings.

Classic British Garment

The British Liberty bodice was the equivalent of the German Leibchen and American underwaist. These were all support garment worn by young children of both genders and by girls up through about age 14 for fastening bloomers, underdrawers, and "suspenders" (i.e., hose supporters) so that long stockings could be worn. Unlike America which had avariety of different support garments, the Liberty bodice was the only important support garment worn by children.

Manufacturer

The H. Symington Company played an important role in the history of corsetry. There seems to be a relationship with the R. & W. Market Harborough company, but I am not sure what it was. The Symington Company manufactured corsets. The company began to make corsets inthe 1850s. Corsets were a very important garment in the 19th century. Their corsets were for fashionable Victorian ladies who wanted a narrow waist. They were also a support garment for holding up stockings. The company was quite successful and even sold overseas. One of its most noticeable proucts was the Liberty Bodice, a product produced for about 70 years. The Liberty Bodice was similar to the underwaists that American children wore. They were designed as support gaments, but some were advertised as being benefical for posture. As corsets began to be worn less in the 20th century. The company turned to swimwear.

Chronology

These garments were introduced about the turn of the 20th century to supplant various tight-binding corset waists and other more restrictive undergarments. In Great Britain boys wore knee pants and long stockings (as in continental Europe and the United States) up until about 1914 (when the First World War began). After this point, most English boys switched to wearing knee socks and no longer required a liberty bodice. Girls continued to wear them, however, up through World War II (they were often required as part of girls' school uniforms, which typically consisted of blouses and skirts worn with long black stockings and elasticized "knickers"--the British term for underpants). A few boys wore liberty bodices in the period between the two wars for special dressy occasions when their mothers required them to wear long stockings, but by this time, the liberty bodice was considered very much a girl's undergarment and was naturally hated by boys. After World War II in Britain the liberty bodice was considered very old-fashioned and pretty much dropped out of use. But it persisted in a few places.

Description

The Liberty Bodice was a bodice made of heavy cotton with reinforced straps over the shoulders that came all the way down to the waist. Buttons were usually sewn onto the straps.

Purpose

The Liberty Bodice was designed to support other clothing. This is why the buttons were sewn onto the staps and waiustline. It didn't normally come with hose supporters already attached, but elastic tapes for "suspenders" (the British term for hose supporters) could be fastened onto the straps by means of buttons for the support of long stockings. A children's book illustration shows how a child dressed with the liberty bodices.

Leibchen

The "Liberty Bodice" was the British version of the German Leibchen. One garment discussed in the German clothing section was a "Leibchen"--a vest-like garment worn under a boy's shirt to which hose supporters were sewn or otherwise attached. (I don't believe the German boys had safety pins at the tops of their garters as the American boys usually did.) The Leibchen ordinarily buttoned up the back and was apparently made of some sturdy material (jean cloth?) that would take the strain of the attached hose supporters. This may be the garment which the two cyclists in your pages on German Long Stockings are wearing although one of your German contributors in "Long Stockings: Length" mentions that older boys "had shorter garters fixed at a waist belt similar to that worn by their mothers, but of course without all the adornment of women's garter belts." Note that the stockings are very long in these pictures and that the supporters fasten very high on the leg under very short shorts. Some of these Leibchens appear to have only two garters in front--one for each stocking--while others seem to have four garters--two for each stocking.

Usage

This garment was fairly standard for children in the United Kingdom from about 1908 until the later 1920s although it was more favored by school girls than by boys. Most schoolboys older than 8 or 9 years began wearing knee socks with short pants shortly before World War I and therefore no longer needed the "liberty bodice"; but girls continued to wear them up through the 1930s and 1940s until about the age of 14 because their uniforms often required long black cotton stockings. Many girl scout uniforms in Britain included black stockings.

Terminology

The Liberty Bodice was invented by a corset firm called Symington's and designed as a health garment to "liberate" children (especially girls) from tight corsets and stays that progressive people were beginning to consider harmfully restrictive and binding on growing young bodies--hence the term "liberty" suggesting liberation from the old ways of dressing children.

Individual Accouts

A HBC reader has mentioned the Liberty Bodice already has a reference to the "liberty bodice" in his recollections about long stockings. The comments are on the ong Stockings: Personal Experience section under the heading "English Boy (About 1915). This boy says that he wore a liberty bodice with "suspenders" to hold up his long stockings until he was 9 years of age.

Christabel Burniston (1920s)

An interesting description of the "liberty bodice" appears in a memoir by Christabel Burniston entitled Life in a Liberty Bodice: Random Recollections of a Yorkshire Childhood (Highgate Publications, 1991), p. v. Burniston writes, "In the early 1900s women were tightened and trussed into whaleboned corsets and even little girls were pressed into boned stays. In 1908 the corset firm of Symingtons, sensing that fashions were becoming more relaxed, especially for children [boys and girls alike], bravely launched the Liberty bodice, the most sensational flag of freedom ever to be flown in the fashion world. My mother, well ahead of her time, soon had her three daughters wearing the heavy cotton bodices with their upright bands of braid. Designed as they were to flatten the bust and release the waist, they were not intended to charm but rather to disguise. Rubber buttons dangling above a button-holed tape hoisted woollen or lisle stockings into position. Such was the basic garment of the avant gard. After three years in a woollen baby binder, I too graduated into the Liberty bodice brigade which I wore, on and off, until 1925. By the time the First World War broke out, millions of young girls were wearing this uniform and I believe Liberty bodices were still being manufactured during the Second World War." HBC N.B.: Liberty bodices are still being worn by some women in Great Britain--i.e., by women who don't like wearing tights and prefer not to wear garter belts ("suspender belts") as a means of keeping their stockings up. These are advertised on the internet.

Judith Stansfield (1940s)

I came across this interesting account by a British woman, writing in 1999, of wearing a liberty bodice as a school child in the 1940s. Her name is Judith Stansfield. Although liberty bodices seem to have been worn principally by girls in Great Britain, at least after World War I, they were occasionally also worn by boys but were usually considered "sissy" clothes much like the American equivalent--"panty waists." Stansfield writes, ""Before the days of ubiquitous central heating and when winters were real winters, [the liberty bodice was] an undergarment to keep children warm in winter. There were two kinds - "chilprufe" [= chill proof] with a high wool content and cheapo cotton ones. There was a snob value in these when stripping down for PE even then. Some had rubber buttons onto which suspenders [= hose supporters] could be attached if you wore thick lisle [= cotton] stockings. I only ever wore knee socks, which meant there was a bare patch of skin, which was likely to get chapped and had to be treated with vaseline -- especially painful on the calves when you wore wellies [= knee-high rubber boots] and they got wet inside when the snow got in! I think [the bodices] were called liberty bodices because they were like loose corsets with no stiffeners -- there were little taped bits where presumably the bones had been. [Actually, the tape strips down the front, back, and over the shoulders were reinforcement strappings to take the additional strain of additional buttoned-on garments.] It was mainly girls who wore them and the odd boy with chest problems whose mother insisted and who was thought of as a sissie..... [Boys, for the most part in Great Britain, stopped wearing long stockings after World War I and therefore didn't need the attachments for stocking supporters. These were a survival from the pre-war period when boys did wear black stockings held up by "suspenders" on their liberty bodices. See the personal account of an English boy about 1915. You also wore a vest - wool in winter and cotton in summer, plus one or two jumpers or if you had a mum or gran who knitted, a fair isle twinset. My older aunts and grandparents were shocked when we stopped wearing even vests in the early 1950s - they were quite convinced we would 'catch our deaths'."






HBC




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Created: 9:21 PM 9/16/2004
Last updated: 5:03 PM 3/16/2007