Jessamyn's Regency Costume Companion: Underthings

~ Underthings ~

In which we examine corsets, chemises & petticoats, drawers, stockings, & bustle pads.

French corset a la Ninon, 1810, from Nora Waugh's Corset & Crinoline.

Most Englishwomen did wear some sort of corset or other, and your dress will probably look better if you do, too. Even a longline bra, which this model rather resembles, would work.

It's interesting that in some ways it resembles a more modern garment, because it was touted as being healthful and nonconstricting by its maker. With the absence of soft chairs and with posture being of supreme importance, I can see the appeal of this sort of assistance! Also, in an era of very low decolletage, most of us could have used what amounted to a push-up bra.

This illustration is notable for the fact that it shows a corset laced in a crisscross fashion, like a shoe. Up until the nineteenth century, corsets were always laced with one lace, knotted at the top and zigzagged down to the bottom. Crisscrossing was a brand-new idea, and not widely adopted until tight-lacing was revived in the 1820s (because crisscrossing lets you haul in with more even pressure, and less likelihood that the lace will snap).

Although corsets of this period varied widely, they fell into two categories: the "long corset" and the "short corset." This, of course, is a long corset.

1800-20 American corset from Reflections of the Past.

This corset looks rather similar to the above, just a little shorter. Again you can see how constricting the waist is not the point at all--they're going for smoothness of line and good posture. To this end, both this corset and the one above have a front busk, a piece of (usually) wood that ran down a front channel. One couldn't bend at the waist when wearing this, certainly.

The fact that the straps are part of the back and merely hook onto the front is a relic of the eighteenth century--all eighteenth-century corsets were built that way (when they had straps at all). It may be in part designed to allow the wearer to tilt the straps to the sides, getting them out of the way when wearing a wide decolletage.

Carved busk from the Museum of Civilization.
It was a charming practice for young men to carve ornate wooden corset busks as gifts for their sweethearts. Here is an excellent dated example. The ridge down the middle is somewhat unusual; more often they were only slightly curved or flat.

1810-20 corset for sale by Heritage Studio.

Here is a wonderful example of a Regency corset with very clear construction details. The corset is made of cotton twill and hand-stitched with silk thread. The busk slot is two inches wide and 16 1/2 inches long, but according to Heritage Studio, which is offering this corset for sale, a shorter busk appears to have been used, as there is wear in the busk slot just below the bust.

There is no boning but certain areas of the corset, including around the bust, have been reinforced with cotton cording--the raised "waist" is defined by six cords laid side by side. The upper back has slanting lines of double cording--good for the posture. Areas under the bust have been additionally stiffened with quilting. The entire corset is 20 1/2 inches long from top of shoulder strap to bottom edge; the eyelets appear to be bound with thread. Look at the details below of the beautiful embroidery and stitching in the front.

1804 fashion plate detail.

This 1804 plate is entitled "Corset Elastique." Nora Waugh's Corset and Crinoline refers to it as an early use of rubber in corsets, but Willett & Cunnington's History of Underclothes states that "elastic at this period meant stretchable material such as stockinette." They back this up by quoting a reference to "elastic petticoats," which were knitted, and an 1830 reference--well past the Regency--stating that "an elastic stiffening... said to be made of India rubber" had just been invented.

At any rate, regardless of the materials in its construction, this is a good example of a short corset. Very much like a racerback bra, it obviously was designed entirely for bust support, not posture improvement.

1824 plate, "The Ladies Dressmaker," in The Book of English Trades and Library of Useful Arts from the Gallery of English Costume, Manchester.

In this later corset you can see how, as the waist on dresses started to fall, corsets were called on to start defining that waist. Short corsets did it like this--by terminating at the new "waist"--while the long corsets stayed long but began to pinch into the familiar hourglass. A sculpted long corset is the style that took hold in the end. Note the zigzag lacing.

Chemises and Petticoats.

This plate also illustrates the chemise, an undergarment that basically functioned like today's slip. It was important for several reasons: for one it, like a slip, kept flimsy dresses from being too revealing; two, it helped keep skirts in a cone shape, not clinging to one's legs; three, it went under the corset and kept it from pinching; and four, one sweated into the chemise (easier to clean) rather than the corset or dress. Notice that it's short enough to be sure not to show under even an ankle-length gown--and they could be even shorter. The chemise also tended to be finished with a plain hem.

1811 fashion plate detail.

The woman in this plate is lifting up her skirt, thereby revealing the bottom of her petticoat. The ruffle helps give a little extra body to the shape of the skirt, besides looking cute when it peeps out like this.

One could wear just a chemise under a gown, or, when fuller skirts were fashionable, one could add a petticoat. Petticoats were much longer than chemises. They were supposed to fill out the shape of the skirt, so they had to come almost to the hem of the gown, and they were also supposed to protect one's modesty when the skirt was lifted. "A lady with a well-turned ankle should never wear her petticoats too short," said the Beau Monde in 1806. "Cheap exhibitions soon sink into contempt..."

The petticoat usually ended in a ruffle at least, and a nice one had some sort of embroidery or openwork. Fabric stores sell three-inch-wide ruffled eyelet that would make an excellent trim for a petticoat.

Petticoat, c. 1820, from the Gallery of English Costume, Manchester.

Unlike our current idea of a petticoat, which starts at the waist, in these high-waisted times the petticoat often had a little bodice attached to it, so that it hung from the shoulders. According to Willett & Cunnington's History of Underclothes, "the bodice was of coarser material, and the upper third of its skirt was opened down the sides to form a flap in front (to enable the garment to be put on), which was then fastened by tapes round the waist. The bodice was tied or buttoned in front..." In later years, as with this example, it became more like a regular gown.

That this is a later example is also clear from the multiple rows of cording, which served to hold the skirt out in a bell-shape. Gone the Grecian-column aesthetic!

Knitted silk drawers, 1810-1820, from the Nordiska Museet.
Drawers and Pantaloons.

The History of Underclothes states that drawers began to come into fashion about 1806. At first they were a direct imitation of men's undergarments, and as such, rather risque! --At least for adults. For fashionable little girls, long, lacy pantalettes became standard wear, and are regularly seen in fashion plates filling the space between the skirt, which ended at the knee, and the ankle.

This picture shows a pair made of knitted silk that tie on at the waist. Most, however, were of cotton or linen fabric.

Lawn drawers worn by the Duchess of Kent, c. 1820, from the Gallery of English Costume, Manchester.

These drawers, made of lawn, are from about 1820, and show how the undergarment was gradually more feminized. Completely split through the crotch, they lace neatly around the waist and are nonetheless discreetly baggy.

Although the fashionable often dispensed with petticoats in the early Regency, it's important to remember it was these same fashionable who began wearing drawers or pantaloons. In other words, everybody was wearing something underneath her gown. So make sure you do too--your skirts will hang better and swing more gracefully for it.

Pantalettes of 1834 from the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Although dating to well past the Regency, these pantalettes are typical. Unlike the shorter drawers shown above, these were designed to be seen when a skirt was lifted overmuch, and were thus both much longer and prettily trimmed. These have rows of tucks, but they often had lace. When Princess Charlotte, a trend-setter, sat down and stretched her legs, her pantaloons showed. "Your drawers are much too long," the Lady de Clifford told her. "I do not think so," replied the princess; "the Duchess of Bedford's are much longer, and they are bordered with Brussels lace." "Oh," answered the Lady de Clifford, "if she is to wear them, she does right to make them handsome."

The legs of these garments were often actually separate items, like stockings. This example buttons together at the waist, but early ones often were tied on. This was not a very sturdy arrangement, as one woman found out the hard way in 1820: "They are the ugliest things I ever saw: I will never put them on again. I dragged my dress in the dirt for fear someone would spy them. My finest dimity pair with real Swiss lace is quite useless to me for I lost one leg and did not deem it proper to pick it up, and so walked off leaving it in the street behind me, and the lace had cost six shillings a yard..."

English stockings, c. 1800, in the L.A. County Museum of Art.
Stockings and Garters.

Stockings were worn up to the thigh and tied with garters just above the knee or sometimes just below. These stockings are knitted in blue and white silk. Stripes on any and all garments were extremely popular in the 1790s; these date from around 1800, something of a last gasp for stripes.

The book Four Hundred Years of Fashion says of the Victoria & Albert Museum's collection, "Examples from the first half of the nineteenth century, both in cotton and silk, are of a finer gauge [than before]. The majority are white, then the fashionable colour, and are either plain or knitted in a lacy openwork stitch with self-coloured embroidery."

Detail from an 1804 fashion plate.

If you look carefully, you can see the dark band of a garter showing through this thin chemise. Many fashion plates show this stocking design, with contrasting triangles ascending the instep and "outstep," so to speak.

Pale solid-colored stockings were also worn. In 1803, the Chester Chronicle complained that "the only sign of modesty in the present dress of the Ladies is the pink dye in their stockings, which makes their legs appear to blush for the total absence of petticoats."

Early nineteenth-century bustle pads from the Gallery of English Costume, Manchester.
Bustle Pads.

Bustle pads went in and out of fashion during the Regency according to the style of gown. They were definitely still worn with the full-skirted gowns of the late 1790s, diminished with the more columnar styles of the early 1800s, and returned as skirts began to bell out again in the late teens.

Bustle pads could be separate, tied-on objects, like those shown here, or small squarish pillows the size of a fist sewn into the back of a gown. Use sparingly--with a high-waisted gown, it's easy to look humpbacked!

[ back | home | what do you think? ]

Copyright 1997/98 by David and Jessamyn Reeves-Brown. All rights reserved.
Note: to the best of my knowledge, all images used are in the public domain
or used with permission. Please contact me if I am infringing on your rights.