Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Focus On: Dickeys and Vestees

By Sherri, SewBettyand Dot

Do you crack up or cringe when you hear the word "dickey"? It's one of those fashion items that one doesn't hear much about these days: the dickey seems to have (mostly) fallen out of favor (except with Howard Wolowitz on The Big Bang Theory--he's a big fan!).

Historically, dickeys--defined as a false shirt front, or "detachable bosom" (really!)--were items worn by men: laundering garments was expensive (and difficult--no Maytags) in the 19th century, so just as collars and cuffs were removable on everyday shirts, the dickey could be laundered as it was the most visible part of the shirt seen underneath a man's jacket (which was rarely removed outside of the privacy of one's home). The dickey was most often an element of a formal shirt, one worn under a tuxedo or other formal suit. In addition, many uniforms had dickey fronts--again, as a way to save on laundering costs: the bellboy or waiter presented a neat appearance but didn't have to wash the entire shirt beneath the jacket. With the invention of celluloid, an early form of plastic, dickeys went high-tech (for the time). These plastic shirt fronts were held in place either with straps at the back or via trouser tabs. (By the way, the etymology of the word is unclear: Wikipedia says it may come from rhyming Cockney slang: "dickey dirt" means "shirt"; I'm not sure if that's true, but I like it!).
Advertisement for a man's false shirt front or "dicky"/"dickey". From Wikipedia, courtesy of The New York Public Library. www.nypl.org
The dickey with which we are all probably most familiar in our own experience is the pullover turtleneck knit dickey, which is actually a  smart idea: it adds warmth at the neck and throat without adding bulk. From my own youth, though, there were some rather unattractive examples out there (purple acrylic mock turtleneck under a polyester printed shirt, anyone?). 

This is actually a free knitting pattern from FreeVintageKnitting.com; it is from Botany College Hand Knits, Vol. II (1958). 
In terms of women's garments, in the nineteenth century women began to wear chemisettes, or tuckers--these were lightweight (muslin, linen, lawn, lace) sort of half blouses (often tying at the sides) that covered the chest/bosom, both for modesty's sake and to alter the appearance of a dress at a time when people had far fewer clothes. The same dress could be worn in the evening without this item, and the dress would look very different. 

Four chemisettes in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (metmuseum.org); courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Three are from the mid-nineteenth century; the one at lower left is from ca. 1925-1930.

These are really kind of dickeys, yes? In the twentieth century, these sorts of items--dickeys and vestees--were worn almost as accessories, as a way to add interest at the neck (and again, change the look of a garment) without adding the bulk of a blouse. They often had bow ties, embroidery, or collars (the peter pan collar was a favorite). Vestees are, as far as I can ascertain, slightly longer garments, and seem to have less ornamentation--but maybe not: perhaps a vestee and a dickey are one and the same for all intents and purposes (fashionista historians, please weigh in and let us know!).

Whatever you call it, there are a million ways to use one of these faux-fronts to change up your wardrobe; in fact, they are a great way to transition between the seasons.

Now let's look at some dickey/vestee patterns from member of the Pattern Patter Team on Etsy! It's interesting to note that in many cases the dickeys/vestees look like part of the dress--you have to look closely to see that a dickey is part of the pattern.
Top row, left to right: DuBarry 5800: Denisecraft

Top row, left to right: Simplicity 3611: AdeleBeeAnnPatterns

Top row, left to right: Vogue 3293: VintageNeedleFinds
 Simplicity 6434: SelvedgeShop

Whether it's a dickey or a vestee, which one of these lovely patterns would YOU don? Tell us in the comments!


  1. I love Vogue 3293 - I would wear that! When I hear the word dickey, I think of my high school marching band uniform which included black polyester dickeys. [shudder]

  2. Wonderful! I like Butterick 3859. Thanks for the post.

  3. Love the history of the dickey, cute and fun info! Love Vogue 3293. :)

  4. Great post! I love the history behind the dickey.

  5. My mom & dad both had Dickeys. (Dad's was in the 70's) Who knew they had been around for so long! Thank you for all of the info!

  6. Really enjoyed this since I still wear them. Last fall I picked up two white blouses from a thrift store and modified them to wear as dickeys under winter V neck sweaters. I do have one on the patterns shown above in my stash but took the easy way out.

    Thanks Sherri for doing the historical "grunt work" for us.

  7. Wore these a lot growing up, also called them modesty panels!

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  9. I worn a lot of the pullover turtlenecks while home in Michigan, just to stay warm. Now days in Texas, I prefer the little cami types that cover my cleavage. lol

  10. Love learning the history of items.terms - thank you for researching and posting this informative article:)

  11. I also really like Butterick 3063. So many styles in that pattern! One dress becomes six!