A Brief Look at Women’s Underwear in the 19th Century

295px-La_Rigolade1909And yes, I realize that there are about a thousand reasons why that blog post title will get me in trouble.

So over the weekend I was working on final revisions of my novella, Sarah Sunshine. Sarah Sunshine is book 2.5 in the Montana Romance series, and as such it takes place in the fictitious frontier town of Cold Springs, Montana in the year 1896. Only by 1896 Montana wasn’t really the frontier anymore. It had transportation and industry like any other spot out west. Electricity and running water were becoming the rule instead of the exception. Everything was modernizing at lightning-fast rates.

Except women’s underwear.

Although that’s not exactly true either. Major changes in women’s underwear—changes that made it resemble the stuff we wear now—didn’t actually start taking place until late in the 1910s, and really more like the 1920s. “Victorian Secret” underwear models wouldn’t have looked anywhere near as sexy as Heidi Klum prancing around in a diamond-studded bra.

No, throughout the 19th century, as in many centuries before, women’s underwear served an entirely different purpose. Up top, it was designed to support and create a feminine shape. That’s where our good old friend the corset comes from. I believe I’ve talked about this before—as have many other historical fashion bloggers—but the corset wasn’t an insanely tight-laced torture contraption that too many people think it was. Corsets were practical garments that, if made correctly, kept everything where it needed to be.

396px-Corset_us188007So what did women wear with those corsets? A variety of things. One was the chemise. A chemise is, to my mind, an all-purpose undergarment. Usually made of light cotton or linen, it was the utilitarian ancestor of those camisole tops that are still popular as outerwear today. The chemise was worn next to the skin, which was convenient since it was easily washable when many of the dresses of the day were not.

A corset cover would be worn over top of the corset in order to protect the clothes from the rigid construction of the corset or to smooth out the lines. I tend to get corset covers confused with chemises. They weren’t drastically different in structure, but they did each perform a specific use. So yes, sometimes there would be a lot of layers for an intrepid hero to sort through before getting to the prize! I’m kind of really happy about modern bras now, as uncomfortable as even they can be from time to time.

Ah, but what about the bottoms? This is where my research led me over the weekend. This is also where 19th century underwear differs the most from modern underwear. Nowadays we like to keep things safe and protected, especially since we wear a lot of short skirts and things that could prove embarrassing if we were to have said skirts blow up in a strong wing, for example. Back in the 19th century and before, they didn’t have the same problems.

The ever-popular open-crotch drawers, circa 1874

The ever-popular open-crotch drawers, circa 1874

The problems they did have was how to conveniently use the restroom without taking off all of those layers of chemises and corsets and covers. There were garter belts and stocking ties to consider in these days too. Simply put, there was no way that you were going to be able to pull any panties down while wearing those clothes.

The solution was easy. No panties. Yep, for a large part of history, women didn’t wear underwear (as we know it) at all. What they did wear were loose garments with no crotches that could be easily whisked aside when nature called. It was functionality over allure in those days. Especially since the odds of your skirt accidentally ending up over your head were small.

Of course, the romance writer in me would like to point out that it would have been much, MUCH easier for a woman to have a quickie in a back corner somewhere without ever having to undress. Granted, in most decades of the 19th century the sheer volume of fabric making up the skirts would have been enough to keep a man from getting close enough to do what he needed to do. … I’m kidding. I’m sure where there was a will, there was a way.

All in all, while I love and adore the fashion of the 19th century, especially the ‘80s and ‘90s, and while I would gladly dress in those styles every day of my life right now, I draw the line at 19th century underwear. The tops were too complicated and I’m not sure how secure I would fee on the bottom. But you never know until you try.

Oh, and just for curiosity’s sake, when I was searching for public domain images to illustrate these points on Wikicommons, I came across this intriguing illumination of a woman in her underwear from 1394.  Not all that different from many years later, eh?

Bible2_medieval underwear

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12 thoughts on “A Brief Look at Women’s Underwear in the 19th Century

  1. Corset cover. Now that’s new to me, and I’ve got quite a few research books on hand. Hmmm. Maybe I just didn’t notice the difference between the corset and the cover. Ha! I love your posts. Always something fun to learn.

    • Thanks Jaye! There’s always something fun to learn every day, if you ask me. 😉 I hadn’t expected to find corset covers when I started researching either, but they do make sense. Especially in those eras where corsets were particularly boney.

    • Ooo! I wish I could go see that! I’ve always been fascinated by costume exhibits. We really do get off easy in terms of informality of the clothing we wear these days. Although I personally think that what we gain in convenience we lose in elegance.

    • Well, as far as I was able to glean from the limited research I was able to do, it looks like corset covers came into fashion about the same time that boning became popular in corsets (whether it was whale bone or metal). The earliest corset covers I found pictures of were from the 1860s. That makes sense to me since that’s about the time that a more fitted bodice was really fashionable. The point of the corset cover was to smooth out the lines created by boning (there’s a dirty joke in there). Hope that helps!

  2. Pingback: History Down the Toilet | Merry Farmer

  3. There seems to have been quite some anti-corset debate from the 1820s onwards. Are there any women (apart from the wives and daughters of certain artists) who openly acknowledged not wearing any corsets at all?

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