It’s Hidden History month here at Paper Lantern Writers and one of my first thoughts was “Let’s see what kind of under garments women from the past used to hide under their clothing!”
You might think you know about historical under garments, but do you really? Do you know the difference between stays and corsets, or how to support a bustle, or what a bum roll is? No shame if you don’t; I had no idea what a bum roll was, and now it’s one of my favorite phrases!
Even if you’re entirely up-to-date on the women’s unmentionables of the past five centuries, I think you’ll enjoy the links below.
ONE CAVEAT: My historical focus has always been on American and European history and these links, illustrations, and videos follow my focus. If you’ve got historical undies info from other cultures to share, please add your links in the comments section below.
Here’s what women hid up top:
The chemise was a simple linen or cotton shirt (without collar but with sleeves) which was worn next to the skin. Many women and women slept in their chemise and then wore it throughout the day. The chemise is the only undergarment for women until the advent of stays.
Stays were vertically reinforced with bones (such as whalebone), and worn over a chemise and around the torso. The boning created a specific elongated shape, but without the body-hugging ferocity of a corset. Stays were worn from the late 16th century (when they were known as “a pair of bodys”) until the end of the 18th century.
Worn over a sleeveless, low-necked chemise, a corset encircled a woman’s torso and was tightened with laces to prevent movement, mold bodies into the shape of a fashionable silhouette, and sometimes, support breasts. Corsets replaced stays around the end of the 18th century and lasted into the early 20th century. Multiple re-inventions of the corset are still worn today. As the shape of women’s outer garments changed over the decades, so did the corset underneath.
Sometime during the 19th century, women took to wearing low-necked, sleeveless (mostly) cotton tops over their corsets to hide the corset from view and smooth the corset lines. Corset covers could either mold directly to the shape of the corset or cover the corset loosely and be tied at the waist.
During the early 20th century, the chemise, corset, and corset cover trio generally gave way to the brassiere, a minimal concoction of fabric and ribbons that covered and sometimes supported breasts. In the 1930s, the name was shortened to bra.
The breast-flattening bandeau came into vogue in the 1920s when necklines lowered and a smaller-breast silhouette was preferred.
Here’s what women hid down below:
Sometime during the early 19th century, women began to wear thin, loose open-crotch drawers underneath their chemises. These drawers were tied around the waist and ended above or below the knees. The open-crotch? It made peeing easier, faster, and definitely less messy.
The skirt-like petticoat tied around the waist and was long enough to cover the drawers and most of the stockings. It was the one undergarment that was often visible (accidentally or not) and the bottom hemline was often ornamented with ruffles, ribbons, and embroidery.
Combinations were a one-piece garment consisting of a camisole (a short, sleeveless chemise) sewn to the drawers. They were popular in the mid 1800’s.
One-piece step-ins or teddy bears were shorter than 19th century combinations and very popular starting in the late 1920’s.
The modern girdle shaped a woman’s lowered half, often taking inches off of her silhouette. Women began to wear girdles around World War I and of course, it was always either/or corset or girdle.
While not quite undergarments, stockings made of wool, cotton, or silk were worn under petticoats and skirts.
Throughout the centuries women used these items (not quite garments, maybe we should call them tools?) to shape their bodies to meet fashionable expectations:
But enough descriptions!
Let’s watch some women putting on their historically hidden undergarments! Here’s a sampling of some of the wondrous youtube videos dedicated to women getting dressed in historical garb, most of which have ads you can skip.
1500-ish England: Dressing up a Tudor lady (Henrician period).
1530 England: Dressing up a Tudor woman, middle class.
1600 Florence: Dressing a Rennaissance Queen. Marie di Medici gets married. Undergarments (including a farthingale and bum roll) start at 1:40.
1665 Netherlands: Getting Dressed in 1665 Delft. Features a long sleeved chemise.
18th Century England: Getting dressed in the 18th century. Includes shift (chemise), stays, petticoats, roll, stockings, and garters.
1740-1800: France/England: 60 years of Stays: Trying on All My 18th Century Stays. Exhaustive!
1810 England: Getting Dressed – Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra. A video suggested by our own PLW Regency Romance novelist Edie Cay and featuring the short, more flexible stays of the Regency period.
ALSO in the Regency period, see these links: Corsets and Drawers: A Look at Regency Underwear.
1850s England/America: Getting dressed: 1850s evening attire. Two words: crinoline cage!
1887 England: Dressing up in a Second Bustle Era, circa 1887. It’s bustle playtime!
1880’s England: Dressing up a Victorian Bride. Includes a bustle pad, and flounced petticoat.
1880’s England: Dressing up a maid, 1880s. A blouse takes the place of the corset cover. A practical decision for a maid!
1909 England: Dressing in Edwardian Clothing: Undergarments and Layers of 1907. Fabulous close-ups of an S-bend corset, ventilated hip pads, corset cover, and petticoat.
1914 London: Dressing up in a 1914 fashion. My favorite of all of these.
1920’s London: How to dress-1920s. Colorful slips and stockings via the Museum of London.
1930’s: Getting Dressed in the 1930s. Girdle! Garters!
1950’s: Getting Dressed in the 1950s. Side-zip girdle!
Women’s undergarments…hidden in history no longer!
Ana Brazil writes historical crime fiction celebrating bodacious American heroines. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, the Historical Novel Society, and a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers.
Ana’s award-winning historical mystery FANNY NEWCOMB & THE IRISH CHANNEL RIPPER is set in Gilded Age New Orleans. Her upcoming October 17 2023 release is THE RED-HOT BLUES CHANTEUSE, a Viola Vermillion Vaudeville mystery set in 1919 San Francisco.