Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Historical Costume: 19th Century Underwear Revealed

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of watching historical costume expert, Mireille Weller, demonstrate what a Victorian lady in 1875 would have worn, from the shift up. As I watched her getting dressed, I realized that it was not that different from Regency times, so I thought a post on  19th century underwear might be interesting.  

The defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo signalled not just a change in the map of Europe, but also a change in fashion. After twenty-five years of war, people were desperate for something new. As the waist slowly descended to normal levels, the base of the skirt, held in place by a wadded hem, began to bell out. Stays had always been worn but now they became stiffened with whale bone and extra-tight lacing came in to emphasize the waist. By 1818, fashion dictated that a small bustle (known colloquially as a ‘bum-roll’) be tied as high up as possible under the back of the skirt to create the fashionable ‘Grecian bend’. In fact, according to The Handbook of English Costume in the 19th Century, a miniature version of this was in evidence even earlier before 1810.  

And, we must not forget that the formal dress of the 18th century, with huge hooped skirts for the ladies, was the correct court wear until 1820. Our heroines would have had to cope with hoops and corsets, if they were to be presented to the Queen. So how did they manage?

Stage 1: the shift and stockings

Mireille, our guide, appeared in her shift and stockings. Her shift was a loose cotton (linen in the Regency) garment with short sleeves and a scooped neckline which fell to just below the knee. It was ubiquitous throughout the 19th century, being cheap and easily washable. Her cotton stockings were held up by garters above the knee. Our Regency heroine’s stockings were held up by garters below the knee and, thus, occasionally visible.

This could lead to some embarrassment as the following poem from The Oracle of 1800 shows:

Why blush, dear girl, pray tell me why?
You need not, I can prove it;
For tho’ your garter met my eye
My thoughts were far above it.

Stage 2: the open-crotch drawers

Mireille then put on her open-crotch drawers, tying the strings at the back. Then she pulled the shift out so that only the legs of the drawers showed.

Stage 3: boots

So, what came next? The answer was unexpected. Boots. Mireille had learnt from experience that once she’d got her corset on, it was impossible to bend down enough to put on her boots, so they had to come first.

Stage 4: the corset. This was fastened at the front and tightened at the back.

Then came the hooped petticoat plus the bustle at the back to give the right silhouette. And our Regency heroine would have attached the bum roll at this point.

Stage 5: the crinoline and bustle

Next came the corset. This fastened at the front with wire hooks and eyelets but there was also lacing at the back which Mireille could tighten herself. She invited me to measure her waist before and after. Her waist was one and a half inches smaller after she’d tightened the laces and, doubtless, a determined maid could have lost another inch or so. 

Interestingly, tightly-laced stays were worn throughout the early Regency period. As The Ipswich Journal put it in 1807: ‘long stays are adapted to give the wearer the true Grecian form’. And in 1813, a garment described as an ‘Apollo’ was, according to The British Press, ‘a sort of under-dress or coat of mail worn by ladies to make their waists looks slender and genteel.’ It sounds excessively uncomfortable!

Stage 6: the first petticoat goes on over the head.

Next came the petticoats – two of them. She put them on over her head as she couldn’t bend enough to step into them. The second petticoat was more decorated than the first and they were both there to hide any evidence of the crinoline or bum roll ‘scaffolding’. In winter, a Victorian lady would have also worn a scarlet flannel petticoat for warmth. Since Medieval times, the colour scarlet was thought of as being, literally, warming; the early 17th century portrait of the Cholmondeley sisters in the Tate Britain gallery, each holding a baby swaddled in scarlet, is a good example. And we know that ‘The Princes of Wales wore a very large red shawl at the theatre’ in 1808. Presumably this, too, was for warmth.

Stage 7: the second, more decorated petticoat

Of course, having two or more petticoats, each one more elaborately decorated than the one underneath, allowed a lady to lift her skirt a fraction to display a froth of lace.

Stage 8: the skirt

Then came the skirt which also had to go on over the head – and you can see from the photograph how awkward it was to arrange properly. In reality, Mireille would probably have had a maid to help her. The skirt fastened at the back.

Stage 9: the decorative over skirt

After that, she put on the overskirt. This was purely decorative.

Stage 10: the bodice

Lastly, Mireille eased herself into her bodice and showed us the false curls which would enable her to put up her hair in a fashionable chignon with ringlets hanging down. The hair-style is not too dissimilar to the antique Roman style fashionable in 1812. Plus ├ža change…

You can see that with so many separate garments, even the simple act of sitting down could be a problem. This was why, Mireille explained, a gentleman pulled out a lady’s chair in the dining-room. His job was to give her the space to manoeuvre all her petticoats, crinoline and skirt into position so that she could sit down; and for that she needed both hands. The gentleman then gently pushed the chair forward so that she could sit safely – without, we hope, landing her on the floor.

It was a fascinating demonstration and Mireille’s explanations were equally interesting. All the same, I found myself thinking: thank goodness I live in the 21st century.

All photographs by Elizabeth Hawksley

Elizabeth Hawksley


Amanda said...

A fascinating post, Elizabeth. Thanks! How did she manage to lace the corset at the back? Did she have strings at the front that, if pulled, automatically tightened the lacing at the back or did she have to reach behind her and do it like that?

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

She reached behind and tightened the lacing by feel. I imagine that girls like the Bennet girls would either have done each others lacing, or maybe a maid did it. I know it's not the same, but one usually manages to do up one's bra by oneself!

Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory said...

Wonder Elizabeth, thank you, a very informative post. When I was researching for a recent book I learned that there was a (very) short period in early 19th C England when it was fashionable to go without a corset, or stays, but not many ladies did. Dancers did leave off the corset so they could move more easily, which may help to explain why so many gentlemen enjoyed going to the theatre!

Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory said...

Elizabeth and Amanda, I had wondered about this, too, since not everyone could afford a maid - especially ladies fallen on hard times. And as a writer of romance it is nice to know that a girl might elope or run away and still be able to present a satisfactory appearance :-)

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you, Melinda/Sarah for your interesting comments.

There is a perceptive comment in 'The Handbook of English Costume in the 19th Century' which throws light on your point about no stays at all. 'Each feminine fashion may be said to have an 'optimum age' - and age to which it is particularly suited ... In the Regency, we might put it at 17; by the middle of the century it had advanced to perhaps 35.'

How true!

Jane Jackson said...

A fascinating post. It was lovely having the photographs showing the seperate layers.
Wasn't there a period when corsets were laced at the back to the desired shape, but had hooks at the front so a woman could put them on and take them off on her own?

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Fascinating post - thanks for sharing all the photos and details. It's much more elaborate than I'd imagined!

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you for your comment, Jane. It's not my area of expertise but I think that the lacing was always adjustable, possibly because the practicalities of tight-lacing meant the wearer of the corset always had to start from something reasonably comfortable. I could see that Mireille had to pull the corset together quite hard in order to do up the front hooks. If the back was already tightly laced, it would be impossible.

My book on Working Women's clothes of the period isn't very clear, alas, but I think a working woman probably wore something like a liberty bodice which gave her a bit of support without being too uncomfortable.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you for dropping by, Rosemary. I'm pleased that you enjoyed the post. I think the number of garments a woman had to wear must have made the whole ensemble very heavy - especially if it were winter when she wore an extra red flannel petticoat over the two white cotton ones plus the crinoline.

I take my hat off to those Suffragettes who managed to demonstrate and break windows wearing all that clobber!

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