Underarm Liners: Shields Against Summer Sweat

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By: Emily Bach

Summer hosts numerous activities to enjoy outside from vacationing at the beach, hiking along trails, or simply walking through the neighborhood or city looking for new places to explore. As July comes to a close, there is no denying that summer is also a time of intense heat. With exposure to heat there is one inevitable natural response that is a constant burden – perspiration. Not only does it cause discomfort, it leaves pesky stains that damage your garments. Sweating is unavoidable, but how do you preserve your clothes from its damaging effects? Do not worry, our friends from the past faced the same struggle and discovered clever methods and fashion inventions to battle this misfortune, one in particular that is absolutely fascinating and still used today. What is this amazing item? Underarm liners!

Before delving into this ingenious creation, it is important to understand why perspiration is so damaging to clothes. Sweat has an acidic chemical makeup, which over time stains exposed fabric. Sadly this is an occurrence frequently seen on garments in the costume collection. Often times the fabric underneath the arms are stained brown or yellow due to sweat. Fading also results from perspiration because sweat is largely water. Repeated exposure to water dissolves the dyes, causing the fabric to fade. Worse than staining, perspiration’s acidic nature weakens the fabric’s structure, causing deterioration of the garment. When deciding whether a bodice or dress is strong enough to be hung, we always look at the condition of the underarms. When sweat deteriorates the structure of the textile, it often leads to splitting, which is when the fabric splits apart. If a garment exhibits this condition, we will not hang the item because splitting signals that the fabric is extremely fragile. This severe deterioration is often a result of perspiration.

Because dresses were expensive, women began protecting their garments from soiling. While rehousing dresses from the costume collection, we have frequently come across underarm padding sewn into bodices to protect the fabric. These liners were simply layers of cotton or linen textiles with filling sewn together to create a padding to absorb any perspiration. Not only did this protect the integrity of a garment, it saved families money. Stained dresses required professional care to remove the stains, which could be expensive. Underarm liners also prolonged the life of a dress or bodice, which meant women did not have to replace dresses as often.

We have seen first-hand the benefits of these liners. One wedding dress we rehoused hosted prominent liners. There is minimal soiling to the dress’s outer fabric, largely because the liners absorbed the damaging body oils and sweat.

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In contrast, we have seen the damaging effects of minimal sweat protection. The bodice of the Napoleon III court dress contained no liners, which resulted in the severe staining of the bodice’s silk underneath the arms. Rather than brown or yellow, the common color of staining from sweat, the bodice’s underarms are black. Luckily the fabric has not deteriorated to the point of splitting.

1944.35.3 Bodice of Napoleon III Court Dress. Due to sweat, the underarms are stained black. There is spotted stain running down the underarms. 1944.35.3 Bodice of Napoleon III Court Dress. Due to sweat, the underarms are stained black. There is spotted stain running down the underarms.

 

Another prime example of staining from perspiration is a 1920's silver wedding dress. In the following pictures you can clearly see how the chemical makeup of perspiration has stained the underarms a combination of orange and purple. Not only does the dress showcase extreme staining, the fabric has deteriorated severely, leading to splitting. Because of this, we boxed the dress to prevent any further damage.

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Although a small clothing item, the tiny underarm liner has protected garments for centuries. Underarm pads can still be bought today, highlighting their effectiveness. For the remainder of the summer, if you ever require a little extra protection during the heat, remember the wonderful underarm liners!

Find out more about how you can save the treasures in our Costume Collection by participating in our Adopt A Box! program. We thank you for your support.