Thursday, July 24, 2014

Diane Scott Lewis: Undergarments Revealed-what did people wear under their clothes in the 18th century?

In my research for my eighteenth-century novels, the most difficult but interesting task was to find out what people wore under their layers of finery.

Starting in the seventeenth-century, people were desperate to throw off the plain, ugly garments of the Puritans, and now produced underclothes with a sexual allure.

A man’s shirt became ruffled and more visible, with puffed sleeves tied in ribbons, to show him off as a fine gentleman.

Women’s dresses became less rigid, and cut away in front to flaunt pretty petticoats. The petticoat, often several of them, was worn to give the outer gown a better shape. It was often of embroidered or ruffled material in bright, attractive colors.

Beneath their dresses, next to their skin, women wore chemises or smocks made of Holland, and heavily perfumed to diffuse body odors.

Sleeves were long and sometimes trimmed in lace. In the 1660’s dress sleeves were shortened to reveal the evocative chemise. Silk and linen were also popular materials because they harbored less vermin than wool.

With the extreme d├ęcolletage of the gowns, corsets or "stays" had no shoulder straps. The corset was heavily boned with a long busk in front and was laced tightly at the back.

Drawers, what we know today as underwear or knickers, were worn by French women, but there’s no evidence that Englishwomen wore such an item in this era. Although a country race where women ran to win a new smock said the girls wore half-shirts and drawers. So it is still a mystery.

In the eighteenth century the hoop came into fashion again, reminiscent of the farthingale of the sixteenth century. These pushed out dress skirts and the women walked holding them to one side like a bell to reveal their fancy under-petticoats, and the shape of their legs. This must have been dangerous considering the women wore no knickers. The hoop or pannier, especially in Court dress, pushed the sides of gowns out to ridiculous proportions where women had to walk sideways to fit through doors. Later in the century, panniers became narrower and the corset lighter, lacing in the front as well as back.

Men still revealed their fancy shirts by leaving their waistcoats unbuttoned to attract the ladies.

Men’s drawers are another mystery. Some reports have them wearing such items—a loose fitting garment that tied at the waist and on each leg—but other sources say that men wore long shirts that covered their privates in their breeches. Breeches had linings of detachable washable material, which no doubt served the purpose of drawers.

During the French Revolution after 1789 the classic style pervaded, and women discarded their corsets and confining gowns for simple, high-waisted Greek style chemises. Many women dampened these dresses to show off the fact they were naked beneath. It would take the stringent Victorian age to turn fashion to a more modest level and bring back restrictive undergarments.

Information garnered from my own research and The History of Underclothes, by C. Willett and Phillis Cunnington, 1992 edition.
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