Posts Tagged ‘Regency underwear’

Copyright (c) Jane Austen’s World. Look at this lovely Regency lady in this image from 1814. Her petticoat peeps under her fashionably short gown, whose conical shaped skirt has been given a definite shape by the undergarment.

1814 Ball Dress, Costume Parisien

At the turn of the century, when lighter cloths were used to fashion gowns and when the dress silhouette was columnar and worn close to the body, the use of a chemise or petticoat was even more crucial, for the thin fabric would cling to the legs and work its way between them without the barrier of the petticoat. A few weeks ago, one of my posts created a stir when I revealed that drawers were regarded as optional underwear for Regency ladies, and readers wondered how a Regency lady could withstand the cold in winter.

Morning Dress, Ladies Monthly Museum.

While bloomers were optional,  a petticoat was an absolutely necessity. Dress fabrics were gossamer thin, and petticoats, made of sturdier linen or cotton, and reinforced with tucks and perhaps a thin line of boning at the hem, served to give shape to the hem of the dress, keeping it away from the feet and body. As skirts rose, the decorative elements of a petticoat peeped out under the skirt. Below, one can see a typical petticoat of the day (with corset on top of it). This one is short, but the tucks are evident.


Without this undergarment, the thin fabric of a ladies gown would hug her body, revealing her legs and her mons of Venus in stark outlines when she moved. Gillray’s cartoon of The Three Graces in High Wind demonstrates how revealing Regency dresses were, even when petticoats were worn.

The Three Graces in High Wind, James Gillray, 1810

Illustrators James Gillray, Isaac Cruickshank, and Thomas Rowlandson relished making fun of the new fashions. In the image below Gillray shows the effects of wearing a gown without underwear and taking the fashion features of décolleté and side slits to the extreme. Rather than creating an elegant effect, the lady resembled a tart.

Boilly’s painting shows how clearly the chemise, which ended above the knees, shows through the thin fabric of this lady’s gown.

Point de Convention, Louis-Léopold Boilly, ca. 1797. Image @ Wikimedia Commons.

This image from the Kyoto Costume Institute also demonstrates the transparency of Regency gown fabrics.

White muslin dress with whitework embroidery, 1810. Image Kyoto Costume Institute.

The unusual (and rare) practice of dampening one’s gown at the turn of the century was most likely followed by light-o-loves, courtesans, ladybirds, cyprians, and women of ill repute. Aristocratic women who were confident in their unassailable status might have gotten away with such licentious behavior on a dare, and their fashion inclinations might have been considered “au courant”, but no proper lady, no young miss on the marriage mart, no merchant’s daughter looking to improve her station in life, would for a moment consider walking out in public without the protection of a chemise or petticoat, much less wet her gown to make it more revealing. While caricaturists showed enormous zest in depicting the new revealing fashions, they exaggerated the trend of these flimsy gowns out of all proportion in their visual commentaries.

Isaak Cruikshank, Parisian ladies in full winter dress, 1800. Image @ Wikimedia Commons.

Addendum: I must add that another primary purpose of these undergarments was to protect the delicate outer garment from soiling. In Regency times people did not wash themselves frequently, and petticoats and chemises presented a barrier between unwashed and sweaty skin and the dress. Since undergarments were made of sturdier fabrics, they could be laundered more often. In addition, people with less means owned fewer gowns and employed fewer servants to do the laundering. Even these ladies owned a number of chemises (usually homemade) and petticoats that could be washed frequently, thereby protecting their every day AND special gowns.

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Copyright (a) Jane Austen’s World. Gentle Readers, The previous post elicited a question about Regency underdrawers or a lady’s unmentionables. My answer was so long that I decided to create a new post from it.

1742 and 1794 fashion silhouette contrast

Drawers, which made their first serious appearance in 1806, and were fashioned after men’s underdrawers, were still optional during 1810. They would be worn more frequently as the century progressed. Underdrawers were considered risque, for the garments resembled men’s pant legs.  Even if the garments were worn, they did not resemble the pretty underdrawers that we associate with the Victorian era.

Image of early under drawers

As you can see in this image, early ladies underdrawers consisted of two tubes of cloth that were tied to the waist, allowing a woman to, uhm, attend to her business without having to remove too many clothes. In an era without indoor plumbing, this must have been an important consideration.

I recently viewed a shameless cartoon by Thomas Rowlandson of a group of travelers (3 ladies and a gent, all family members), who were attending to their calls of nature on the side of the road. Because the image is quite vulgar, which many of Rowlandson’s images tend to be, I will only link to it. From the headdresses that the ladies are wearing, this cartoon was drawn much earlier than 1806. As you can see, no underdrawers obstructed the group from relieving their most pressing needs.

Detail of the Exhibition Staircase, Rowlandson, 1800

Detail of Rowlandson's Exhibition Staircase, 1800

Rowlandson’s Exhibition Staircase cartoon has a given date of 1800. The ladies’ tumble down a steep, crowded staircase forcibly reminds us that underdrawers were still a fashion consideration for the future.

Underdrawers belonging to the Duchess of Kent, 1810-1820. *Image@Regency Society of America Pro Boards

By 1820, wearing drawers was still optional, but by the 1850’s, the caged hooped skirts made them a necessity, for a hoop could be wildly unpredictable. One wrong swinging move or errant gust of wind, and a lady’s most delicate (or indelicate) parts would appear in full view. The 1956 version of The King and I contains one of my favorite scenes in which the King’s wives wear Western dresses for the first time. When the King enters, they immediately drop down to bow to him. Their hooped skirts swung straight up in the air, revealing their bare bottoms and shocking Anna, who had not anticipated such an END (ahem) to her well-meant scheme.

Caged crinoline

Needless to say, by the mid-19th century, ladies wore drawers as a matter of course.

*Regency Society of America Pro Boards

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