Saturday, February 23, 2013

Victorian Underwear

These days underwear tends to be a relatively small and brief affair. It usually doesn't cover much and takes seconds to put on in the morning. Back in the 19th century, putting on underwear was a long process, especially for women, and it covered far more area than it does today.

Women's Underwear

The first item of clothing a lady would put on is a pair of drawers. These were usually quite long, to below the knee at the start of the 19 century, then became just above the knee by the end. They were tied at the waist and crotchless, for easier bathroom access. They were considered the most unmeanchonable of a ladies under garments. The crotchless ones caused problems when hooped skirts came into fashion, as if a lady happened to bend over it might cause a glimpse of immodesty.

Next one would put on a chemise, a simple sleeveless dress, made from cotton. This would protect your corset from your skin and vice versa. It also added another layer to keep you warm and for modesty. As lower neck lines became more popular during the mid and late century for evening wear, chemises with lower necklines and straps rather than sleeves came on to the market.


Or if you didn't want to bother with two pieces, one could wear a one piece chemise and drawers combination, as seen above.

Your corset would be placed overtop the chemise or combination garment. This was usually the most expensive of the undergarments and provided women with part of the desired silhouette of the time period. While a good corset, properly worn can provide posture support, lacing them too tightly can cause problems with breathing, and even injure internal organs. Even doctors of the time recognized problems with pulling corsets to tight and over using them, but for many people fashion persisted over common sense. As women became more active in sports during the Edwardian era, they would still wear corsets during these activities. There are stories of bloody corsets being found in locker rooms from the stays cutting into them while they exercised.

During the fist half of the 19th century layers of petticoats were used to create volume and disguise one's legs. When crinoline and hoop skirts came on the market, one would often wear a petticoat under the structural garment, and another one overtop of it. During the 1860s it was fashionable to have your dress slightly shorter to show off the decorated hem of your outer petticoat.

Structural Garments
These included the crinoline, popular during the mid century, and hoop skirts, as well as the bustle. These would go over top the first petticoat, then another placed over top of it to soften the outline under your dress.
Once all this was assembled, you could finally put on your dress! It sounds very time consuming and hot. Great in winter, but not such a great idea in summer. No wonder women fainted! Restricted breathing and multiple layers are a recipe for getting out the smelling salts.

Men's Underwear

Drawers and Undershirts
As you can probably guess, men's underwear was a lot simpler. There wasn't the multiple layers or structural contraptions to be tied to one's waist. Most men's under garments consisted of a simple pair of drawers and an undershirt. Look at these guys hanging out looking comfortable.

Union suits
The other option for men, mostly worn in winter, was the one piece, usually made from flannel. The classic style with the button up flap at the back for bathroom access, was also called a union suit and came in white or the ever popular red. It's interesting to note that some women wore this as well. I can easily imagine the pioneers coming out here to the Canadian prairies in winter and deciding this would be the underwear of choice for them!

Okay there is one piece of structural underwear for men from this era. The jockstrap was invented by CF Bennett of Chicago, for bicycle jockeys in Boston. Apparently riding your bike over cobblestone streets without support can be an uncomfortable experience.

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  1. It would be interesting experience to wear 19th century outfit (with this underwear). I wonder how would it feel.
    Sorry for my poor english ;)

  2. Thanks for the description. Very complete.