From Shoulder to Toe: Undergarments

As I said in my previous 19th century fashion post, my focus will be on fashions in Europe. With undergarments, however, there probably wasn’t much difference between those in Europe and those in the US.

Regency Style 1813


Undergarments worn by women have, for the most part, always depended on their outergarments. Of course, cultural and social mores have had an influence, but the fashion of the day determined what was worn underneath. In the 19th century, women’s fashion went through vast changes, and none more dramatic than the Regency or Empire style at the turn of the century. As costume historian Elizabeth Ewing states in Dress & Undress:

Accepted types of petticoats, corsets and smocks were discarded along with all known styles of outer dress. High heels, elaborate headdresses, hats and hair styles all disappeared from fashion. . .  Instead the vogue was for slim, high-waisted muslin or cotton gowns, clinging to the figure and worn with the minimum of underclothing, sometimes with only flesh-coloured tights beneath them. (p. 52)

So let’s start with those tights, shall we?

Stockings/tights were made of silk, wool or knitted cotton and secured with garters.  At this time period they were mostly white. Later in the century, stockings were more elaborate with embroidery and contrasting colors.  A few women wore white cotton

1880s "drawers" Illustration from

drawers or pantalettes over their stockings and these became more common as time went on and fashion changed. (Little girls, however, wore them regularly.) Tied at the waist and open at the crotch, pantalettes were trimmed with lace and generally knee-length to ankle-length. The illustration at left is from later in the century, but it shows the basic construction of drawers.

Over these articles women wore a cotton shift or chemise, which could also be knee- or ankle-length. Next came the corset or stays. With the new style, a cinched waist was no longer important. Some women abandoned the corset completely, but a type of short corset, as shown in the illustration below, was developed. But for those whose figures needed a little help with the slim dress style, Ewing writes, “a long corset, reaching down to the hips, instead of

1811 Chemise and short corset

ending with tabs just below the waist, was a notable feature of underwear from about 1800 to 1811.”

Entire books have been written on the use of and changes in corsetry in women’s fashion, and I can only touch on it here, but an interesting development was the addition of cups.  Ewing writes:

Introduced at the same time (1800-1811) were corsets which had cup-shaped bust sections inserted into them instead of merely pushing up the bosom or flattening it, as had previously happened. Then, as the Regency style went out of date, curves were aided by the addition of below-waist gussets in corsets. (p. 57)

For anyone who doesn’t know what a gusset is (I didn’t!), it’s a triangular or diamond-shaped piece of cloth inserted in a garment to strengthen or enlarge it. So, there you have it. Atop all of this, many women wore a sleeveless petticoat with a scooped neckline and a hem embellished with lace or ruffles since it was meant to be seen. If a lady wanted to keep her dress out of the muck, she simply lifted it and her modesty was protected by a pretty petticoat.

By 1820, the dress waistline had slowly lowered until it reached the actual waist. Corsets became indispensable once again and tight lacing was standard, despite doctors’ condemnation and social critics’ protests. Full skirts were back. According to Ewing, “The fashionable outline was, year by year, becoming more closely waisted, more full in the skirts, and under these skirts went not one but several petticoats, under ones of flannel or plain cotton, with the final one probably embroidered or lace-trimmed, but at this time puritanically white.”

My previous fashion post looked at a woman’s silhouette from 1850-1899. Included is a discussion of crinoline, half-crinoline, bustles and corsets that were all a part of women’s undergarments for the time period. If you’re interested, you can find that information here. One thing I didn’t cover in that post was the development in the 1870s of suspenders (or garter belts) to hold up stockings. Ewing explains:

At left: Harness-type suspenders, 1880. Right: Suspenders on corset belt, 1886. Dress & Undress by Elizabeth Ewing

They were originally attached to a separate kind of harness and later to a belt, both worn over the corset, and it was not until 1901 that they were attached to the corset. They were a double boon, not only replacing restricting garters but also anchoring the corset so that it could be longer and more shapely. Eventually, too, suspenders made it possible for the corset to be less constricting. As they kept it in place and prevented it from riding up, the waist did not have to be so desperately tight in order to achieve this result.

As in other historical periods, 19th century women had to wear a whole lot more clothing than men did. Come back tomorrow for a brief (ahem) look at men’s undergarments in the 1800s.

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