October 24, 2008

A Mention of Unmentionables

by Kathleen Y'Barbo

Have you ever wondered how women of the 1800s managed to look they way they did despite dry cleaners or department stores? Imagine trying to pull off the wasp waist of the 1950s or the S-curve of 1900 without the proper girdle or corset. Translate this to the 1800's and you can imagine a time when Victoria was the Queen of England instead of a place where women shop and men just feel embarrassed. To say the statement began with what was all under is not an understatement (try saying that 3 times quickly).

According to Sharon Gooley, expert on antique clothing, the secret to a woman's outfit was not the clothes she wore but what she wore beneath the clothes. Indeed, a nineteenth century woman often wore multiple layers beneath her frock to achieve the desired silhouette. Often her undergarments alone would weigh 10 pounds or more.

Let's examine what a typical woman of the 1800s would wear from the inside out:

Before the layers of undergarments could be piled on, a proper lady would don her chemise. The chemise (later known as a shift) was a garment worn directly over the skin. Looking much like a modern woman's cotton nightgown, the chemise was usually made of white or off white cotton or wool, though chamois was sometimes used in cooler climates. The main purpose of the chemise was to create a layer between the body and the clothing, which was often difficult to keep clean. While the chemise absorbed sweat, the clothing over it would remain dry.

Along with the chemise, some women wore drawers. Starting in about 1840, straightleg drawers were popular. A pair of straightleg drawers were just that: two legs attached to a waistband that either tied or buttoned (sounds a bit drafty to me). Because the ankle was considered a risque body part to expose, these often were long enough to protect the woman's dignity. During the Civil War years, knickerbocker drawers became popular. These were more like the bloomers (though they were not referred to as such by the women of that era) of today though they were much longer and came in close at the knee.

Next came the petticoats - plural. In the 1840s and '50s women would have worn up to 7 at one time to give the desired effect of a full skirt (which gave the waist a smaller appearance). Cording at the hem made petticoats stiffer and, thus, adding to the impression that a woman wore multiple layers of petticoats. When hoop skirts came into vogue, the number of petticoats was greatly reduced, though there were still rarely less than 2 worn at any time. The first petticoat was donned beneath the hoop skirt to cover the limbs (a lady would never refer to them as legs), with a second one placed over the hoops to avoid those embarassing hoop lines (akin to a modern woman's concern of panty lines).

Layer number 4 is the corset, also in white or off white and stiffened with whale bones in the earlier part of the century and metal in the latter part. Corsets were often donned from the age of 3 or 4 for medical reasons. According to the experts of the day, a corset encouraged good posture and thus good health. Say what you will about what appears to be an instrument of torture, but I once attended an event where participants were encouraged to try on one of these fearsome items. The consensus was this garment provided the dual miracles of a drastically reduced waist and reduced back pain. When one considers the work some women of this century performed, it's no wonder they would need an item for back support. The fact that it gave them back their figures and turned the gentlemen's heads was, no doubt, a bonus.

And lest you think of Scarlett O'Hara's tight lacing as the norm, doctors actually warned women about the dangers of lacing one's corset too snugly. Rather, a properly fitted corset should support the back and bust while allowing the wearer to breathe normally. And as a quick aside, should a woman feel her bust a bit inadequate, the 19th century version of the Wonderbra was available in something called an artificial bust enhancer which was tucked into the corset in the proper place(no explanation necessary, I'm sure).

Atop the corset came a corset cover, again of simple construction and generally modest fabric. Its purpose was, as with the hoop skirt, to avoid having the lines of the corset show. This sleeveless garment usually slipped over the corset and chemise and buttoned or tied in the front. For those of you who are counting, this is layer number 5 (number 6 if you've chosen a bust enhancer as a part of your wardrobe).

Now comes the bustle. Depending on the year it might be a large lobster-like contraption that tied on at the waist and across the hips. In a different era, the bustle looked more like an inverted hockey helmet that folded to allow the wearer to sit without crushing it.

Is it just me, or are you exhausted thinking of how much effort went into getting dressed? For more information on period clothing, here are a few great sources:

Research books (except where indicated all are from Dover books): HARPERS BAZAAR 1867-1898; FULL COLOR VICTORIAN FASHIONS; VICTORIAN COSTUME FOR LADIES – (Stenik) (published by Schiffer); CORSETS AND CRINOLINES –(Waugh); HISTORY OF UNDERCLOTHES – (Cunningston)

Period patterns and fashion plates: Petersons and Godeys Ladies books


Rachel said...

I'm a vintage dancer, a re-enactor and a former tour guide. I can attest from experience that is VERY time-consuming to get dressed in a hoop. My Civil War gown takes no less than 3 people to get me in and out of it. This is why wealthy ladies had so many servants. It took every one of them to get you dressed.

Petticoats were also worn in the 1830's and that's where the 19th century bell look began. In that decade showing one's ankles was not risque, but the norm.

Tina Dee Books said...

Oh my! I am so glad we don't have to put on all that!

But I do admit I have wanted to wear period dress a time or two. Some very pretty gowns, but they couldn't possibly be comfortable, could they?

Thanks for the great post, Kathleen!



Kathleen Y'Barbo said...

That's right Rachel. As with any century, the styles and sensibilities of the wearer changes frequently. Thus in one decade ankles would be scandalous while plunging necklines would not and then the trend would reverse. Ms. Gooley stated that often styles of the young would reflect a lady's intent not to look like her mother (think of the Roaring Twenties as opposed to turn of the century ladies). Funny how the more things change, the more they stay the same. :D

Vickie McDonough said...

Ai yi yi, makes me tired and just to think of wearing all those clothes. Can you imagine how hot it must have been wearing so many clothes in the sweltering heat of the South? No wonder those gals had to rest every afternoon--it was probably just so they could get out of their clothing. I'm so glad that women can wear pants these days.

Thanks for the fascinating post, Kathleen.

brendalottakamaggiebrendan said...

Informative post, Kathleen. Makes me so happy that we don't wear all those underthings anymore. I'd have the vapors here in the Atlanta, but I loved the beautiful feminine clothes that we used to wear--something to be said for that.

Mary Connealy said...

Kathleen, thanks so much for writing this. I was wishing I had kept carefuller (word?) notes on the victorian woman's dress.

Thank you, love the pictures.

Molly Noble Bull said...

I had a hoop shirt that I wore over my evening gowns. If you visit my website, you can see me wearing it on my wedding day.