I was actually invited to the preview of the V & A exhibition: Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear to review it for my local Archaeology and History Society Journal – which I’ve done. But I also wanted to take the opportunity to study Regency underwear with a view to writing a blog or two about it. Amongst other things, I wanted to find out the difference between stays and corsets.
1780s stays and hoop
The linen shift, which was easily washed, provided a hygienic barrier between the skin and the stays which created a rigid foundation for the gown. The top layer was wool, linen and canvas, and the lining was glazed linen. The glazing, which was non-absorbent, meant that dirt was less likely to stick. The structure was held in place by whalebone. You can see that the breasts are flattened rather than supported, and it’s not surprising that actresses in historical roles have frequently complained that stays are uncomfortable.
A working woman’s home-made stays – 1760s
This was one of the most fascinating objects in the exhibition – mainly because of its rarity. The stays are made with wooden busks (slats) padded with wool for comfort, and the lining is cotton. I’ve no idea how the owner put them on but she must, surely, have been able to do so by herself. They, too, look uncomfortable - there’s very little give and take. Bending must have been hell.
New style corset, 1800 (* see below)
By 1800, things have changed. The garment above is a completely different animal. For a start it’s more delicately-fashioned and, dare I say it, sexier. It’s made of cotton, linen and whalebone but now there’s silk and lace, too, and there are added gussets to support the breasts. This garment is about enhancement of the female figure, rather than control. It also has a new French name – corset.
Twenty years later, the corset has moved on again. It is more sophisticated. There are quilted gussets to support and lift the breasts which are separated by a central busk (a flat piece of wood) which also flattens the stomach. It laces at the back – so its owner must have had a maid or helpful sister (or lover) to do it up. Gussets over the hips allow for curves. The waist is only 48 cms (19 inches) and there are some alarming X-rays nearby which show just what damage a tight corset could do to the internal organs.
There was also a helpful note nearby which explained that front fastening corsets only came in in 1829 and weren’t common until the 1850s. *This gives the new 1800 style corset an extra frisson of interest: it laces up at the back but the decorative front silk lacing hints that, shockingly, it just might undo there, too. (The possibilities here I leave to your imagination.)
Bust bodice, 1820-30
I was intrigued by this cotton bust bodice. It is home-made for a high-waisted dress to allow for breast-feeding – you can see the button at the base of the V. It looks astonishingly modern.
The dressing-gown above is also designed for easy breast-feeding; there are hidden vertical openings down the bust. It’s rare to see a female dressing-gown of this period and I was pleased to see this one; I doubt that a normal dressing-gown would differ much in style. It’s good to know that the young mother still wanted to look becoming and the garment has its share of frills and lace.
Transparent muslin dress 1800-5
I loved this simple, yet elegant dress. It is exactly the sort of dress that a daringly fast Georgette Heyer character might wear – Bab Childe in An Infamous Army, for example. It is instantly obvious that it needs a silk petticoat and drawers to make it at all respectable. It is also, surely, best suited to someone young and slim.
Jane Austen’s letters to her sister Cassandra frequently mention the buying of lengths of muslin. For example, on 18th April, 1811, Jane is in London. She writes Cassandra a somewhat incoherent letter:
I am sorry to tell you that I am getting very extravagant & spending all my Money; and, what is worse for you, I have been spending yours too, for in a Linendraper’s shop to which I went for check’d muslin, & for which I was obliged to give seven shillings a yard, I was tempted by a pretty coloured muslin, and bought ten yds of it, on the chance of your liking it; but at the same time if it shd not suit you, you must not think yourself at all obliged to take it; it is only 3/6 pr yd, & I sd not in the least mind keeping the whole.
What one would not give to see the resulting dresses for ourselves!
The V & A’s new exhibition, Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, sponsored by Agent Provocateur and Revlon, is on until 12th March, 2017. www.vam.ac.uk/undressed . It was a most enjoyable and revealing experience - in every sense of the word.
All photos taken by the author