Readers have different qualifications on what makes a historical fiction book “good.” As a writer, I worry about pacing, punchy dialogue (or punchy characters! Ba-doom-doom-cha!), an immersive setting—and one other, tiny, little thing. Historical detail. Not just if that boat sailed on that day, or if there was a full moon or no moon—that, to me, is nice if I can get it right, but I will change it if it fits my story. For A LADYS’ REVENGE, I did actually research a specific boat, with a specific crew, and a specific cargo, which you can read about in my author’s note at the back of the book.
But the one detail I’m really proud about is the historical clothing. Specifically, historical underwear. I know, I know, is that really critical? Well, for women, underwear changed drastically during the 19th century. For this short blog post, I want to give you the inside scoop on Bess Abbott’s undergarments. I mention them in the book, but I purposely left it breezy, so a devoted reader (okay, a gigantic history geek like me) might pick up the thematic changes of Bess based on her bra.
There is so much general misunderstanding about women’s undergarments, and modern public often believe that everything pre-1920s means a corset. And not just any corset, but they picture Vivian Leigh in Gone With the Wind get cinched in for a six inch waist, or whatever absurdity. But that isn’t how corsets or their precursors, referred to as stays, worked. Sure, in some time periods, women did that, but in previous time periods, corsets and stays were meant to be the framework for the clothes to hang on the body. Remember there were no zippers! And given that clothing was expensive and meant to last for years, people wore shifts underneath stays/corsets to absorb sweat and odor, because those were easier to launder, and it kept a barrier between the more expensive elements of dress.
I learned a great deal about undergarments from a class in The Regency Fiction Writers Academe called “How Clothes Worked” given by Isobel Carr. The Regency Fiction Writers offer classes every month for both members and non-members, and on top of that, their monthly meeting is also a lecture on some historical aspect. It isn’t just Regency period, and has expanded to include not just Western, but global influences during the larger Georgian period. I highly recommend the group. These authors know their business!
I was in edits for THE BOXER AND THE BLACKSMITH when I attended “How Clothes Work.” Because Bess is already in her late thirties by 1817, doesn’t follow fashion, and doesn’t have much wealth, I knew she would be stuck in the fashion of her twenties—meaning more turn of the century styles.
At that time, women wore a fitted undergarment that snugged the breasts in place—also comfortable for her because of her profession as a boxer. Bess Abbott bands her breasts in the ring—which would have been fitting more with the previous idea of stays. The banding was my own invention, but I justified it as an author because modern readers might not understand what Bess wore to a fight. Indeed, contemporary fight commentators had various ideas about it, and they were actually standing there. I think because those commentators were men, they had no idea what kind of undergarment situation might be happening up there. Most seem to be…distracted by the idea of women fighters. At least the sources I have found.
engraving circa 1819
But by the time the true Regency hits, the ideal female body shape has changed once again, and slimmer dress lines and a separated bust is de rigueur. Instead of the older style of bra which was a smoosher, the new style of bra was a lift-and-separate concept, which you can tell in portraits of the period. By the end of THE BOXER AND THE BLACKSMITH, Bess has borrowed some gowns, and gotten some new underwear, feeling more feminine and desirable for the first time in her life.
I wanted to show that despite her ability as a professional athlete, she still desired to be feminine. (Which, of course, is in contrast to Jack About Town in A LADY’S FINDER, who is of a small stature, and desires to be androgynous.) By the end of THE BOXER AND THE BLACKSMITH, Bess has gotten comfortable in her new bra, signaling a thematic shift from her dislike of her own body to acceptance and pride in her strength and her shape.
And lest you think men were immune to the ideas of corsetry and bustles, here is an illustration from that infamous Regency era cartoonist, Cruikshanks. A dandy, in case you were unaware, was a man who was heavily engaged in fashion. A man who might say, wear a waist slimmer, or calf pads, or butt pads, given that means breeches and trousers were quite form-fitting.
Contemporaries often refer to Beau Brummel, the epitome of a Regency dandy, who would dress in with the curtains open, so passersby might watch. He would sometimes take over two hours to tie his cravat to satisfaction. Silhouettes changed for both men and women in the early 19th century.
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Edie Cay writes award-winning feminist Regency Romance about women’s boxing and relatable misfits. She is a member of the Regency Fiction Writers, the Historical Novel Society, ALLi, and a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers. You can drop her a line on Facebook and Instagram @authorediecay.