By Caroline Clemmons
Like many other authors of historical novels, I have several books on period dress. I love the names of the fabrics, descriptions of the textures and styles, and enjoy studying the drawings. When I visit a museum, I linger over the displays of clothing. Sometimes I shudder at the thought of caring for and wearing the clothing.
For today, let’s start with undergarments in our quest to understand Victorian fashions. Shh, Victorian ladies were not allowed to mention undergarments. Some ladies even wore a chemise to bathe – on the rare occasions they took a full bath. Outward modesty was desired. That’s not to say there wasn’t a lot of discrete hanky-panky.
For ladies, the undergarments made a great change during the reign of Queen Victoria. At least by this time, women wore pantalets, usually made of cambric with lace or eyelet decoration. Tied at the waist, they were more like two sleeves for the legs. This allowed a slit between the legs so that a woman could urinate without disrobing. Later in the period, drawers appeared with a drop-down “drawer” opening in the back like that on Union suits.
Numerous slips bolstered skirts to give a flowing appearance. At the beginning of the Victorian era, the slips were shirred over a puffed horsehair crinoline frame. By 1869, a wired crinoline replaced the puffed horsehair. The petticoats were worn over the frame. How would you like to try sitting on one of these? And in days with no air conditioning, think how hot wearing all these layers were. No wonder ladies fainted! As I sit writing in my jeans and knit shirt, I can’t imagine wearing anything that uncomfortable. Appearances were of major importance then. Not too different from the anorexic-appearing women on today’s television and in ads, right?
Under a dress with a train, a slip with a train was worn to protect the dress’s fabric from becoming soiled. The slip also added to the flow of the skirt. What a job for the lady’s maid, though, with all those ruffles, pleats, foofraws, and ironing. Whew, thank goodness for permanent press!
An hourglass figure was required to look like a lady, hence the corset. Researchers believe wearing tightly laced corsets actually caused deformity of the internal organs. This is one explanation for many women unable to conceive a child and also for early miscarriages. To reverse the effect of layers of undergarments, the corset was laced very tight. At least it created great posture. Who could slump while laced into a whalebone-reinforced corset? Remember, young girls were required to wear a type of corset for formal occasions, but their corsets were less severe than those for women. Some people believe a woman could not don a corset without assistance. I beg to differ. Women without servants were able to get in and out of corsets. Perhaps they couldn’t lace them as tightly as if they had help, but they made do.
In addition to shrinking the waist, corsets had the effect of pushing the wearer’s breasts up and out. A surprise for me was discovering the “breast enhancer” from the 1880s. Shades of Victoria’s Secret, Batman! This was worn after the demise of the tightly-laced corset. Women have always been concerned with appearances. Don’t you wonder what awaits us in the coming decades?
Above on the left, you see two styles of corsets. There were as many styles as there are bras today. Center, you’ll see the form for a bustle, next to a bust enhancer or “improver,” both circa 1885. Right, is one of my ancestors, Mary Jane Clemmons, wearing a skirt with a small train. Bless her, no wonder she’s standing for her portrait.
My favorite costume resource: VICTORIAN FASHIONS AND COSTUMES FROM HARPER’S BAZAR 1867-1898, by Stella Blum, Dover Publications, 1974
WHAT PEOPLE WORE, by Douglas Gorsline, Dover Publishers, 1951
COSTUME 1066-1990S, by John Peacock, Thames and Hudson, 1986