Join 3,556 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


How to Undress a Victorian Lady in Your Next Historical Romance
July 19, 2011 6:48 AM   Subscribe

Deanne Gist helps romance novel authors learn the mechanics of Victorian era women's underwear.
posted by reenum (95 comments total) 69 users marked this as a favorite

 
I never thought I'd see the day when the Wall Street Journal would get its knickers in a twist about a topic like this.
posted by mauvest at 6:57 AM on July 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


So what you're telling me is that all the boning got in the way of all the boning?
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:59 AM on July 19, 2011 [35 favorites]


Yeah, Victorian women's underwear = de facto chastity belt. No coincidence.
posted by likeso at 7:02 AM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Just the listing of all the layers a lady had is enough to make me go "Thankyouthankyouthankyouforlivinginthetimesoftoday" repeatedly.
posted by Kitteh at 7:06 AM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have no idea how people, both men and women, wore as many clothes as they used to. It's over 90 degrees today and everytime I go outside I regret that I have to wear a long sleeve shirt to work, but people used to wear vests and jackets all the time. It's mind boggling.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 7:06 AM on July 19, 2011


I have no idea how people, both men and women, wore as many clothes as they used to.

They just sweat, and stank. A lot.
posted by device55 at 7:12 AM on July 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Well there was what was required and what was actually worn, also the nice respectable people who would afford all this stuff didn't leave the house in hot weather.

I forget which book it was but there's this turning point when a man is helping a lady out of a carriage and he's shocked and horrified to touch her midsection and it SOFT rather than encased in whalebone and that means he's been talking to a whore this entire time.
posted by The Whelk at 7:15 AM on July 19, 2011 [10 favorites]


The Whelk already sort of said it, but what social classes would've been able to afford that much underwear? I'd imagine that before department stores and mass clothing production each one of these get-ups may have cost, what, a month's pay for a middle-class clerk?

Would women have scrimped and saved just to appear respectable, or was there a certain point where you just did without?
posted by codacorolla at 7:20 AM on July 19, 2011


Hey, those authors look nothing like the pictures on the covers of their books!
posted by chundo at 7:22 AM on July 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


There has been a lot of discourse and research on international restrictive garments for women past and present (Chinese foot binding, Kayan and Ndebele neck rings, American/Western European high-heeled shoes, etc.).

But one of the most insidious: corsets. Here are two crusading articles. The Corset: Questions of Presuures and Displacement (1887) and Toleration of the Corset: Prescribing Where One Cannot Proscribe (1910) by the reformist Robert L. Dickinson, a gynacologist at Brooklyn Hospital. His focus was on the physical deformities and medical conditions for which corsets were responsible.

Ah well. If not clothes, then bodies.
Episode of Nip/Tuck anyone?
posted by likeso at 7:24 AM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Not just affording the underwear, but it's noted that a lady's maid was pretty much a requirement to get into the whole getup. Most people wouldn't have been able to afford that.

Probably a lot of sartorial complexity could be avoided just by putting the characters in the middle, rather than the aristocratic, class.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:25 AM on July 19, 2011


And now we've got thongs and banana hammocks.
posted by punkfloyd at 7:26 AM on July 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


Women saved and reused, you didn't buy a lot of clothes to begin with and there were cheap time and labor saving devices that looked like the more expensive stuff for women without maids .

But yes, the majority of women lived well below middle class standards and wore looser, more old fashioned dresses, simpler blouses, and maybe a girdle. Being encased in a huge birdcage you can barely breathe in was a clear symbol that you where never, ever going to have to do anything more strenuous then get into the thing.
posted by The Whelk at 7:29 AM on July 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


Likeso, those are fascinating links. Thanks!
posted by mothershock at 7:29 AM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Or, alternatively, you could make your female character some kind of dress reform advocate which would have made them seem all dangerously libertine. They rode BIKES for godsakes!
posted by The Whelk at 7:31 AM on July 19, 2011 [6 favorites]


And wore bloomers!
posted by likeso at 7:38 AM on July 19, 2011


Most people wouldn't have been able to afford that.

True, in the sense that there are always more poor people than rich people, but if we're talking about the mid-19th century, any British family who owned a home would have servants - a cook and a housemaid, at least. A lady's maid would probably be the next down. We're talking about a society which basically shipped its rural female population either into mills or into service, depending on the era. So, I think that if you want your Victorian romances to be aspirational (which involves people who either start gilded or end gilded), you're going to have the corset issue at some point.

(Or you could just set it in France. There's a sex-in-a-carriage scene of exactly the type described as impossible in Madame Bovary, which is set in the mid-19th century. The French may well have discovered a number of jealously-guarded technologies to facilitate adultery.)
posted by running order squabble fest at 7:42 AM on July 19, 2011


This little run down of a cartoons gives you a good background on what was thought of " emancipation dress"
posted by The Whelk at 7:42 AM on July 19, 2011


I don't believe it's a good sign when the words "mechanics" and "underwear" appear in the same sentence.
posted by tommasz at 7:48 AM on July 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


Oh and as a dude who does own suspenders, spats, vests and cravats and has worn them outside in the summer, a few things happen very quickly.

You learn the difference between fabrics that breathe and fabrics that don't.

You don't go outside if you avoid it at all.

Some all encompassing clothing is actually pretty cool, you hit a critical mass and you're blocking out heat rather then stewing in it.

You change your clothes at least twice a day.
posted by The Whelk at 7:49 AM on July 19, 2011


The French may well have discovered a number of jealously-guarded technologies to facilitate adultery.

I'm imagining frilly lacey underwear with a bunch of complicated hooks, buttons, and knobs which are all a decoy for the fact that it has snap buttons up and down the side, like stripper pants.

Plus you can use all of the time you spend "getting ready" with your maid to smoke hash and play canasta.
posted by codacorolla at 7:57 AM on July 19, 2011 [8 favorites]


Meh. It's no 15th Century penile exaggerator.
posted by Sys Rq at 8:01 AM on July 19, 2011


There's a sex-in-a-carriage scene of exactly the type described as impossible in Madame Bovary, which is set in the mid-19th century. The French may well have discovered a number of jealously-guarded technologies to facilitate adultery.

Not to discredit Gustave Flaubert's familiarity with high class undergarments, or whatever, but the "Personal Life" section of his Wikipedia article states pretty clearly that most of the sex he ever had was with prostitutes, both male and female, some teenagers, often in the Middle East.
posted by telegraph at 8:06 AM on July 19, 2011


Marge Piercy may have said it best in "The Cast Off" from The Moon is Always Female:

Today let us honor the safe whose door
hangs ajar; the champagne bottle
with its cork bounced off the ceiling
and into the soup tureen; the Victorian lady
in love who has removed her hood, her cloak,
her laced boots, her stockings, her overdress,
her undredress, her wool petticoat, her linen
petticoats, her silk petticoats, her whalebone
corset, her bustle, her chemise, her drawers and
who still wants to! ...
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:17 AM on July 19, 2011 [7 favorites]


Sex, schmex. All that lacing and buttoning must have been a special, fresh hell in an outdoor privy, or even a Victorian water closet, in a flu epidemic. Of course, in those days, "indisposed" = "not dressed," I guess, and you stayed home when even slightly "indisposed." But none of that is ever descriptively covered in your average Victorian era bodice ripper.
posted by paulsc at 8:19 AM on July 19, 2011


So do these complicated, expensive, back-breaking, unwieldly undergarments serve any other purpose than controlling women and making casual sex difficult?

Thank God for the 20s and the 60s, I guess.
posted by codacorolla at 8:28 AM on July 19, 2011


What's most amazing to me is just how long this stuff hung on—all the way through the end of the 1960s—and how recent it is that just wearing underwear and something to support the breasts has been acceptable for non-prostitutes. Even in the 60s, your average woman might wear panties, a bra and a girdle to nip the waist (or a long line bra to do the same in one shot), a garter belt, and a slip to smooth all that out under her dress. The goal for western women's clothing since the 13th century has always been to hide any hint of an actual animal body underneath the clothes, squeezing and molding the flesh into a finished, perfectly smooth cone or wasp waist or whatever was in fashion at the moment. Maybe a little exception for Josephine's court.

It's literally only in the last 30 years that it's become acceptable for women to acknowledge that yes, we have flesh under our clothes. Muffin tops are not so great, but it's awesome that they are allowed.

Also, on Victorian dress, and inconvenience thereof: Mitchell and Webb, Under The Linden Tree With Queen Victoria
posted by peachfuzz at 8:28 AM on July 19, 2011 [6 favorites]


Oh, I am so adding this to the glove box in my time machine.
posted by orme at 8:34 AM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's literally only in the last 30 years that it's become acceptable for women to acknowledge that yes, we have flesh under our clothes.

Well, but then there's the modern-day corsetry equivalent, Spanx, which (unlike the stomach of a person wearing Spanx) has expanded to the point where its empire now includes compression undergarments for men.
posted by mothershock at 8:37 AM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Instead of corsets, we have diets. Still repressing female flesh.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 8:54 AM on July 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


Upper class ladies may have had a personal maid available to assist them at home but what about if you were out shopping or at a ball or the opera? Also what about the lower classes who wore just as many layers and would not have had the benefit of a maid? What did they do? The answer is, those knickers would not have been sewn closed at the crotch seam. This gap was to allow for urination and to deal with other biological needs without having to first remove all your clothes. It is difficult to get your knickers down and impossible to get them back into place under those long body corsets without first taking your corset off. Those of you who may be wondering at how breezy this arrangement would have been need to remember how many layers the women would have been wearing. In any case, this split in the knickers provides very easy access for "romance". (In some of the earlier time periods european women did not wear anything in the way of underpants under their skirts so the victorians were being prudish by wearing knickers at all.)
posted by Gwynarra at 8:54 AM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


In addition to romance writers, this guide will be helpful to the Journal's largely Victorian reader base. I'm looking at you, George Will.
posted by Apropos of Something at 8:59 AM on July 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


Well, but then there's the modern-day corsetry equivalent, Spanx, which (unlike the stomach of a person wearing Spanx) has expanded to the point where its empire now includes compression undergarments for men.
posted by mothershock


the juxtaposition of the commenter's username and the topic on hand (how shall we put this delicately, a post arctic winter potbelly) has just made me realize what will happen when I go home to see mother next week. she of course can still wear stuff from her wedding 46 years ago.
posted by infini at 9:05 AM on July 19, 2011


I have no idea how people, both men and women, wore as many clothes as they used to. It's over 90 degrees today and everytime I go outside I regret that I have to wear a long sleeve shirt to work, but people used to wear vests and jackets all the time. It's mind boggling.

I'm a medieval history reenactor, and I'm about to go camping in Pennsylvania for two weeks (wearing medieval clothing the entire time) during the hottest two weeks of the year. I get this question a lot. It's sometimes a struggle to convince new folks that yes, you really do want to wear "all those clothes".

The truth is, I'm more comfortable in a few layers of linen gowns than I am most modern summer clothing. Not having the sun directly on your skin: good. Wearing fabrics that wick moisture away from your body: good. Having a big skirt that basically insulates you from the worst of the hot air: good. Having your head covered with a white linen veil: good.

Honestly, the worst part of reenactment clothing, for me, is when I have to leave the reenactment site and put on a bra and jeans. I find modern clothing to be much more constrictive, and hot, than period clothing is.
posted by anastasiav at 9:05 AM on July 19, 2011 [9 favorites]


So do these complicated, expensive, back-breaking, unwieldly undergarments serve any other purpose than controlling women and making casual sex difficult?

Tight corsets helped sustain the smelling salts industry by restricting women's breathing to the point that they'd faint pretty much constantly.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:10 AM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Instead of corsets, we have diets.

Exactly. We're all expected to wear corsets made of muscle now.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 9:24 AM on July 19, 2011 [9 favorites]


I'm a medieval history reenactor, and I'm about to go camping in Pennsylvania for two weeks (wearing medieval clothing the entire time) during the hottest two weeks of the year. I get this question a lot. It's sometimes a struggle to convince new folks that yes, you really do want to wear "all those clothes".


I keep trying to bring voluminous robes and cowls back into fashion but it never takes.
posted by The Whelk at 9:26 AM on July 19, 2011


When I was a teenager, I always wished that we had corsets instead of diets -- because putting on a corset would have been a lot easier than making my stout, solid body ever look like the fashionable silhouette.

But yeah, the vast majority of people wouldn't have dressed this way. It's not true that if you owned a house, you would have a lady's maid; lots of farmers in Europe and even more in North America owned houses, and their wives would be lucky to have a scullery maid to do the heavy, nasty work (like laundry). We see lots of "servants" in historical sources, but many of those servants are actually agricultural labourers, like dairymaids. It's true that many middle class such as bankers or lawyers would have had domestic servants, including possibly a lady's maid, but it's more likely that the wife and daughters would have had to serve as their own lady's maids. And lower-middling sorts - prosperous farmers, bakers, shopkeepers - would have had few domestic servants and what servants they had would have been set to the dirtier work like cleaning, laundry, etc. And the majority of the population weren't even as well-to-do as these lower-middling sorts.

Check out the simplicity of this outfit painted by Van Gogh. No hoop skirt, just a petticoat or two, and probably no corset - rather simple stays to hold her breasts comfortable. Respectible people would have still had many layers - shift, petticoats, then dress and then apron -- but as anastasiav points out, that's more comfortable than you think. Also, a lot of these fashions are from Northern Europe - where you have 2 months of slightly warm, followed by 10 months of cold and damp.

A flickr set of women working in the nineteenth century - lots of dresses or blouses that button up the front, skirts filled out with just petticoats, probably stays under rather than corsets - and many stays may not have been boned.

As for the implications for contemporary historical romance novels: well, there is a reason the Georgian and Regency are very popular (no underwear in the former, minimal corsetry in the latter), and those drawers still have splits in them. Also, lots of clothes makes everything much more interesting.
posted by jb at 9:31 AM on July 19, 2011 [6 favorites]


she of course can still wear stuff from her wedding 46 years ago.

Yeah but does she? Cause, you know, that's a little creepy.
posted by The Bellman at 9:56 AM on July 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Sir, will you remove your corset?
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 10:06 AM on July 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


"Sir, will you remove your corset?"

MetaFilter: Your noble restraint has been much appreciated.

(GOD I love Topsy-Turvy.)
posted by The Bellman at 10:17 AM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


As someone pointed out upthread, once you had a certain critical mass of skirts/petticoats, who's to know if you were wearing knickers? I imagine there was a lot of "cheating" in that department.

Of course, in those days, "indisposed" = "not dressed," I guess, and you stayed home when even slightly "indisposed." But none of that is ever descriptively covered in your average Victorian era bodice ripper.

Being indisposed was a major occupation of upper-class women in the Victorian era, and in summer, probably even more so. It's a good excuse for sitting indoors in a tea gown and having the maid bring you cool drinks. And also for keeping out any visitors you didn't want to see.

Of course, in summer you could also go to the seaside, which tended to involve both more informal clothes and cooling breezes, if not much actual swimming.
posted by emjaybee at 10:18 AM on July 19, 2011


"Maybelle undid the lacing that held her petticoats in place and let them drop from around her waist down to her slippered feet, leaving her only in her chemise, corset and stockings. She could feel him tugging and pulling as he worked to undo the long set of laces on her corset."

I love the drive towards historical accuracy, and all the possibilities it brings, but this is just an incredibly clunky pair of sentences. I feel like there should be an accompanying diagram or something.

Actually, can anybody of the romance-novel-reading persuasion speak to how generally historically accurate they are, especially wrt behavior/social systems? I'd always read that fairly meticulous research was done, but my knowledge of both the books and the periods popular for them is limited.
posted by Tubalcain at 10:29 AM on July 19, 2011


The Whelk already sort of said it, but what social classes would've been able to afford that much underwear? I'd imagine that before department stores and mass clothing production each one of these get-ups may have cost, what, a month's pay for a middle-class clerk?

I believe that Mary Shelley wore a set of her mother's stays-- still embroidered with the initials MW-- well into middle age. They made things to last in those days.
posted by jokeefe at 10:34 AM on July 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


There was also a lot more home-construction of clothing.
posted by The Whelk at 10:38 AM on July 19, 2011


And recently, on The Hairpin: A Time Before Bras.
posted by jokeefe at 10:44 AM on July 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'm currently in a production of a W.S. Gilbert comedy at the Capital Fringe Festival in D.C. As anyone may be aware, it gets a little hot here in the summertime, and the space we were granted has extremely limited AC and very hot lights. I don't know what magical fibers people were using in the Victorian era, but we're so hot onstage as to be barely conscious. And I'm only speaking for the men's costumes there. I can't imagine what it's like for the women.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:03 AM on July 19, 2011


Navel: Once again, Topsy-Turvy has your answer.
posted by The Bellman at 11:07 AM on July 19, 2011


Actually, can anybody of the romance-novel-reading persuasion speak to how generally historically accurate they are, especially wrt behavior/social systems? I'd always read that fairly meticulous research was done, but my knowledge of both the books and the periods popular for them is limited.
posted by Tubalcain at 1:29 PM


The dress, manners, habits, the roles of servants - these things are meticulously researched. Actual gender relations, class and race relations - not so much, or rather, it's hard for any modern person to actually get their brains into that alien space. But then, who would want to read about a realistic Regency romance, filled with walks in the park and marriage settlements and not much else? Well, except for all the Austen fans - and even then, her characters have to be in slightly unusual situations to propel the plot.

One thing I've noticed that is mentioned a lot in historical romances, and yet I've never seen in actual English history (and I read a lot of agricultural history): the idea that a noble landowner has to supply capital or seed to his tenants. Regency writers like to have that as a detail because then they can have a rich hero who is also seen to be generous, but as far as I've read/seen in sources, seed and other supplies were paid for by tenants, whether copyhold or leasehold; landlords just received rents. Now, on their own demesne farm (directly managed land) they would buy seed and hire labourers, etc, but most landlords seem to have just rented out their demesne land too.

Now that I've written that out, it seems like a silly pedantic point (like my similar complain about having droughts in North-West England in the 1300s) -- but really, it's that I feel like the economic attitudes of the upper-class characters are way too idealised. They are all perfect, paternalistic landowners who care so deeply about their tenants - and the whole massive inequality of the system is rarely addressed.

I actually would like to see more 18th-19th century romance novels with working class characters - I'm bored of the beau monde and started out that way. But then, I was always a Catherine Cookson fan.
posted by jb at 11:55 AM on July 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


I always like to recomend The Crimson Petal And The White cause it's kind of an anti-romance novel. It's starting premise is "Oh you want a bodice ripper about a prostitute and a rich man? Here's some back-breaking poverty and descriptions of genital sores and oppressive gender roles! Enjoy!"
posted by The Whelk at 11:58 AM on July 19, 2011 [7 favorites]


I recall a post -- probably here on the Blue -- about the common practice of an early morning enema for Victorian ladies. The clothing was such a hassle that if you had to drop a deuce it would take forever to get undressed, so women would just get a morning cleanse to avoid the problem. Plus, how embarrassing if you were calling at a friend's house and had to excuse yourself to shit -- the maidservant would have to carry out a chamberpot full of your steaming load! Apparently peeing was much easier -- just a little slit in the undergarments, or you just piss yourself and wash up in the evening.
posted by Saxon Kane at 12:23 PM on July 19, 2011


For what 'disreputable' women wore under their dresses, you can hardly do better than the Irish author Merriman's 'The Midnight Court'

Another thing, previously on MeFi, when I still was lurking, there was w wonderful post about what European and American women did about menstruation. There was a link to a website called Museum of Menstruation. Some of these Romance writers would be shocked at what was and worse what was NOT done.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 12:34 PM on July 19, 2011


The Whelk you are thinking about The Summer of Katya, a deeply disturbing story by famed espionage author Trevanian
posted by supermedusa at 1:32 PM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Plus, how embarrassing if you were calling at a friend's house and had to excuse yourself to shit -- the maidservant would have to carry out a chamberpot full of your steaming load!

Chamberpots were generally only used overnight, in your "chamber." Not sure what pre-indoor plumbing privies were like, but they had them.

If you were corseted in, I can imagine that you wouldn't be able to eat much at any rate.
posted by emjaybee at 2:23 PM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


chamber pots were also used at dinner parties - If I recall correctly, women would probably retire to another room to use one, but men on their own would just go behind screens and piss or -- after the 3 or 4th bottle of port - forgoe the screen entirely.

I had heard - but don't have a citation - that at the court in Versailles, women would just slip a chamber pot under those massive skirts to go.
posted by jb at 2:42 PM on July 19, 2011


(saw the bit about men pissing behind a screen on Regency House Party - heard about the 3-4 bottles - or more - of port in an academic paper about drinking and manliness.)
posted by jb at 2:43 PM on July 19, 2011


Versailles was poorly serviced by lavatories, with more then a few quickly constructed outhouses . There were galleries that were supposed to always reek of piss.

And yes, you could be judged by the quality of your chamber pot, it was another thing to show off, so to speak.
posted by The Whelk at 2:52 PM on July 19, 2011


Having a big skirt that basically insulates you from the worst of the hot air: good.

I'm a man, but want to know how the big skirt works to insulate one from hot air. Is it cool under the skirt. Does the fabric make the temperature under skirt to decrease? I must know.
posted by reenum at 3:48 PM on July 19, 2011


I'm a man, but want to know how the big skirt works to insulate one from hot air. Is it cool under the skirt. Does the fabric make the temperature under skirt to decrease? I must know.

If you have good insulation in your house, it will keep your house cooler by keeping hot air outside in the summer (and, of course, warm air inside in the winter). The insulation acts as a barrier between the two temperature zones.

In my experience wearing historic clothing, big skirts (particularly Victorian and Tudor era big skirts with some structure to them, but earlier clothing styles as well) do this exact same thing. Get dressed in the cool morning, and you're less hot and sticky in the big dress for the entire day. Stand next to a hot, hot fire? (as you would if you were cooking, for example) and your outer skirts heat up but your legs stay (relatively) cool). The structured skirts of the later (tudor/regency/victorian) periods are particularly good because they actually hold the fabric out and away from your legs.
posted by anastasiav at 3:57 PM on July 19, 2011


Are there similar clothes for men? I need to investigate this further.
posted by reenum at 4:46 PM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


The outfits of desert nomads and the like would fit the bill, as would kimonos, but my attempts to abolish pants in menswear have been met with nothing but ice and hostility.
posted by The Whelk at 4:47 PM on July 19, 2011 [6 favorites]


I have briefly worn period outfits -- the most authentic was probably a 17th-century costume -- and I found them surprisingly comfortable. In fact, the least comfortable outfits I've ever worn weren't period at the time -- they were from the '80s and '90s.

The dress, manners, habits, the roles of servants - these things are meticulously researched. Actual gender relations, class and race relations - not so much, or rather, it's hard for any modern person to actually get their brains into that alien space.

This is precisely what I love to do, and it's why I treasure historical fiction, write historical fiction, and yet read relatively little of it. Historical romances -- no way nohow, at least not the kind that are sold and shelved as such. The Crimson Petal and the White, though, that is indeed a fine work.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:23 PM on July 19, 2011


I do Civil War reenactments and dress in authentic reproduction clothing that I have made myself. From the skin out I wear 100% what a working class woman would have worn in 1861.

My corset is not tight enough to impeed my breathing, it is there to support my bust and also give me some support for all the heavy petticoats. With a corset the weight of the underskirts is distributed vertically along the boning instead of just cutting into my hips and waist.

I spend hot summer days sitting in all those layers and I have to say that I don't get too hot and I get heatstroke very easily. I also don't sweat too much and I don't smell at the end of the day. The more petticoats you wear (I wear at least three when I'm being lower class and a hoop when I'm going for a slightly higher working class image) the more they stick to each other and create a nice little bell for your legs. When a breeze comes by I have my own little air conditioning system for my legs. I also sip a lot of water or lemonade and use a hand fan.

The ladies of the time would change their underclothes (the chemise [the "shirt" they wore under the corset] and drawers would be made of cotton or linen ) every single day and would wash before they put clean clothes on. Maybe not a full bath but at least the smelly areas would be taken care of. They'd also have pads in their arm pits in really warm weather to keep their dress from getting sweaty. These pads would be changed regularly.

You also have to keep in mind that upper class ladies would change clothes at least twice a day. There would be a morning dress which was more casual, an afternoon or "Day" dress to wear when visiting, shopping, or receiving guests, then they would put on a more formal dress for dinner. If there was a ball or an opera to go to then they'd change for that as well. This gave ladies many opportunities to change any garments that might start to smell and to wash and powder body parts as well.

The lower class ladies probably had two dresses, one for church and dressing up and one for everyday (really poor ladies might just have one.) Once the church dress got too worn (if she could afford it) then the woman would replace it with a new dress and the church dress would become the working dress or be remade into a dress for a daughter. Washing these dresses would wear them out faster so all the many layers would help keep all the body dirt from getting on the garment. Aprons and pinafores would keep the outer dirt away.

By the 1860s corsets had a busk in the front which allowed a woman without a maid to get herself dressed. I had to have somebody lace me into my corset for the first time, now I just have to undo the front panel to get in and out.

Ladies dresses except for ball gowns fasten in the front. I have no problem getting myself dressed. If a lady was able to go to a ball then she had somebody who could lace her into her dress. Even lower class women rarely live alone. At the very least she would live in a boarding house and could get one of the other girls to lace her in.

Little girls would probably sew their own corsets. They would start out with something without bones called 'stays' they were like tank tops that laced or buttoned up. They could be as thin as two layers of fabric quilted together and had buttons along the waist for the little girl to button her petticoats onto. Again, it helped distribute the weight. As a girl got older and started needing the support she would make another stay and add some boning. Don't forget that sewing was one of the few things a girls was expected to do well. By the time a teenager needed a full boned corset she would most likely be an accomplished seamstress. Upper class girls may have, of course, bought theirs or had them made by a professional.

The kinds of corsets meant to dramatically define the waist didn't come around until late in the Victorian Era, before that support was the idea.

******

Before I started wearing Victorian clothes I too thought that our ancestors must have been crazy and that "if they'd just had the technology then they'd dress this way too."

Now I have more respect. Every piece of an outfit has a specific purpose and none of it is superfluous. It really does all make sense.
posted by TooFewShoes at 6:23 PM on July 19, 2011 [204 favorites]


Yeah you don;t really *get* why you need two undershirts and suspenders until you're sweating and you have actual heavy-duty suspenders that actually hold up the pants and create that air layer between your shirts and vest. Its "Oh wait there's a REASON its like this"

That and changing clothes more often. When I was more hardcore in the summer I'd go through 3 almost-full outfit changes if needed. kept the wear on the clothes down.
posted by The Whelk at 6:32 PM on July 19, 2011


What's this rot about having to unlace the corset all the way? Don't do that, you'll only have to spend hours re-lacing it (and even longer trying to even up the ends and make sure you've got a parallel closure)!

Just loosen the laces enough that you can unfasten the busk at the front (bottom first, then downwards from the top, leaving the central fastening for last) and remove it. Loosen the lacres a little more before you try to put it back on again.

Tch. The quality of smut peddlers these days is atrocious.
posted by subbes at 6:53 PM on July 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


the later (tudor/regency/victorian) periods

Pedantry: The Tudor period = 1485-1603.
posted by Saxon Kane at 7:57 PM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's the Tudor/Stuart/Interregnum/StuartAgain/Georgian/Regency/Georgian-Williamy/Victorian period. aka everything between the medieval period and the 20th century.
posted by jb at 8:09 PM on July 19, 2011 [5 favorites]


He, I models I know called it 'Retroland" meaning anything from the 1860s to the 1960s.
posted by The Whelk at 8:14 PM on July 19, 2011


Cause both rockabilly 50s girls and Gibson-turn-of-the-century girls would get called to the same shoot, cause it asked for "retro"
posted by The Whelk at 8:15 PM on July 19, 2011


Georgian/Regency/Georgian-Williamy

"Hanoverian" saves a little time.
posted by running order squabble fest at 8:17 PM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


TooFewShoes, thank you, that was really interesting.
posted by jokeefe at 8:52 PM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Whelk - I love that book so much. The BBC adaptation wasn't half-bad, either.

One undergarment-related thing I remember from the book - higher-class prostitutes dressed similarly and as fashionably as any Victorian lady, but the fastenings on their myriad undergarments were on the side or in front, rather than in the back, to facilitate dressing and undressing quickly and without the help of a maid.
posted by cilantro at 4:18 AM on July 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


I have to say I am loving the discussion here and am learning so much about garments and undergarments.

In high school, we went on a trip to the Loire valley in France and got to see Chenonceau and Chambord. I forget which one, but at one of them, the tour guide mentioned that there weren't (m)any bathrooms, so most guests just found a dark corner under some stairs to go about their, erm, business.
posted by jillithd at 3:01 PM on July 20, 2011


The BBC adaptation wasn't half-bad, either.

What? Where? When? I need to see this.
posted by jokeefe at 4:21 PM on July 20, 2011


Last year! I only saw the first episode But it was ....good. I was suspicious of the casting but damn they got How whiny and annoying William was.
posted by The Whelk at 4:25 PM on July 20, 2011


Who played Sugar? So many questions!

Also, I will be scouring the interwebs tonight for a recorded copy of some kind. Thanks!
posted by jokeefe at 4:26 PM on July 20, 2011


I never lose an opportunity to link to this trapeze disrobing act, filmed by Edison in 1901. The corset worn here is an underbust corset which is very clearly undone from the busk in front before being thrown in some guy's face.
posted by Pallas Athena at 5:54 PM on July 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Who played Sugar?


Romola Garai


I thought she got it, Sugar is kind of an alien and she hit all the "I don't really understand how humans work" notes. At least the episode I saw.
posted by The Whelk at 6:02 PM on July 20, 2011


But William and Agnes are so Dead on it's SCARY.
posted by The Whelk at 6:03 PM on July 20, 2011


Good lord people, a corset isn't a cage. I wear corsets a lot - both contemporary cuts and Victorian reproductions. Sure, there are some things that are trickier to do, but there's a lot of nonsense in this thread about what wearing one actually feels like.

Firstly, breathing is not a hassle. If you're laced in properly you can breathe just fine. I can dance all night in a corset that drops my waist by about 6 inches. Young ladies at balls would dance with an equal vigour for just as long in corsets less constricting than my tight-lacers. And I'm talking about corsets with contemporary steel bones. Whalebone is a lot more prone to conforming to the user's body than steels, but even my modern numbers have been sculpted by wear to favour my body. I imagine that there are circumstances when fainting may happen - for example, new corsets can take a while to flex to the body and can put pressure on the ribcage, and if I forget to drink enough water I can get a bit giddy, not to mention the fun effects of the menstrual cycle on a woman's blood pressure - but I have a hard time believing there was a widespread epidemic of fainting ladies in corsets. Too many working class and middle class women out there doing hard labour in mills and in the manors of the wealthy had to get through a 14 hour day to afford to fall over every time they had to take the stairs! There's also a world of difference between classically made corsets in natural, breathable fibres and ones made of polyester and PVC. My only fainty moments have been in my PVC number after dancing too much with not enough water, and I'd have been fainty in PVC after heavy activity anyway.

I can also eat just fine. Admittedly we're talking small meals of maybe a cup at most, but I'm not starving to death. Eating a few little nibblies now and then - i.e, tea, brunch, all the little social meals a visiting lady would be expected to take - and I'm more than fine. And I'm going to be frank here - taking a crap is also not a big deal, though cleanup afterwards requires a bit of skill.

They are also a hell of a lot more comfortable than you'd think. There's been mention of how the spread the weight of a heavy petticoat and crinoline over the whole of the ribcage; they also spread the weight of the bust over the same sort of area and are just divine on one's back. They are unbelievably supportive. Seriously, nothing improves your posture like a corset. I often wear corsets in lieu of a bra because I'm a tad top heavy and it's whole worlds more comfortable than a bra could ever be. I've cooked and cleaned house in corsets and it's not as hard as you'd think. Hell, I'd live in one if it didn't make my work uniforms look seriously odd.

tl;dr: Fainting not a big deal, crapping not a big deal, eating not a big deal, actually comfier than you'd think.
posted by Jilder at 7:26 PM on July 20, 2011 [10 favorites]


Oh! Also, not all corsets are the same. The stays worn by the working class were still sturdy as hell, but not as heavily boned. Older upper class matrons would have hellaciously heavy boning. Young ladies of fashion lace according to the silhouette that's fashionable, and like young people everywhere are willing to suffer a bit for fashion.

Incidentally, I suspect "being hard to have sex in" is as much a feature as a bug when you're talking about a period in time when a women's virtue was her most precious asset and her personal autonomy is heavily controlled by men. Young women moving into service in mills and in the homes of the rich would have been well served by that nice shell of armor.
posted by Jilder at 7:31 PM on July 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeah there is a really big difference between a corset laced all the way super-tight and something put on quickly or half-way or with give. I imagine the tightness of one's corset was mostly female status gaming for Certain Ladies.
posted by The Whelk at 7:52 PM on July 20, 2011


Finally, someone to look at the Journal's etchings.
posted by klangklangston at 8:55 PM on July 20, 2011


This thread is one of the reasons I love this place.
posted by rtha at 9:53 PM on July 20, 2011


I compare wearing my corset to a combination of a sports bra and a back brace. I sometimes wear it to do housework because I like it so much.

Those who complain about wearing an uncomfortable corset probably don't have one that fits correctly. It really needs to be custom made to your measurements, preferably by somebody local who can try it on you during the construction.

I got lucky and found a great shop on Etsy that made just what I needed to my specific measurements. I don't know this lady personally but she was a dream to work with and she does more than just Civil War stuff. I'm eyeing the black brocade corset for everyday wear. For those who are curious this is the one I wear. It has hook and eye fasteners instead of a busk to allow a little more movement at the waist (and to keep costs down.)
posted by TooFewShoes at 10:51 PM on July 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


Oh yeah, couple more things.

1) Like Jilder, when I'm wearing my corset I tend to graze rather than eat a full meal. I also avoid soda because that makes things quite uncomfortable. I have really low blood pressure and tend to faint easily. So far I've never fainted in my corset. As I tried to write above I get heat stroke very easily as a rule but don't have any problems overheating in all my many layers.

2) The underwear for ladies that covers the butt were called drawers and they have a split crotch. Makes going to the bathroom in a giant hoop skirt much easier.

There is no need to remove a corset for sex. There is really no need to remove any clothing at all. A lot of lower class women didn't even bother with drawers. So prostitutes, especially cheap ones, probably didn't do much more than hike up her skirts in a back alley somewhere. This is probably why Jack the Ripper's victims were found mostly dressed even though Jack was probably posing as a John.

3) Lower class = the very poor

Working class = anyone who had to work for their money. Everyone from Doctors to fishermen and Bankers to Farmers were working class. Just because someone belonged to the working class didn't mean they couldn't be very rich. This class held most people.

Upper class = Titled nobility. Landowners who rented to tenants. Sometimes the clergy was included in this class. Just because somebody belonged to the upper class didn't mean they couldn't be quite poor. The ladies in Sense and Sensibility come from the upper class but rely on their relatives to live.

These classes were more fuzzy in the US since we have no real nobility. Instead we had plantation owners and Robber Barons.
posted by TooFewShoes at 11:11 PM on July 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


TooFewShoes - I respect your comments on corsets, but I fear I have to add some corrections regarding conceptions of class in England in the 18th and 19th centuries.

first of all - professions like doctor, lawyer and also the richer merchants are often called "pseudo-gentry" by historians because, while they may not have been landlords, they could called gentlemen, they associated with and married into the gentry (both small parish gentry like the Bennets from Pride and Prejudice - Elizabeth's uncle was in trade - but also bigger gentry). Clergy were also in this grey area. They may have been "working" for a living, but working with their brains and thus gentile. This all makes more sense when you realize that a great many of these educated professionals and merchants were the younger sons or from lesser branches of landed families. No one from the 17th-18th century would have ever include a lawyer or doctor as "working class" even if the phrase had existed then; just by having that level of education they were gentlemen.

The phrase "middling sort" first appeared in the 1650s, and was used to distinguish those who were not poor and yet were not landed/gentile -- this included middling to large farmers (though once they were a certain prosperity, a farmer might rather be a gentleman or even an Esquire, as with some large farmers I've seen in my research), but also tradespeople like bakers or shopkeepers or master craftsmen. This phrase "middling sort" eventually morphed (and changed in meaning to indicate more the pseudo-gentry of earlier times) into the "middle class" of the late 18th and early 19th century - but all along, the implication is that the middling sort were hardworking (unlike the rich) but also respectable and prosperous (unlike the poor).

"Working class" isn't a phrase I've seen before 1800 - the big distinction made before 1800 was between those who owned their own land or business - however small - and thus had some independence (they were their own boss) and those who were dependent on wage labour. Even through the 19th century, arguments were made against giving the vote to wage labourers in many constituencies because they could be just told by their employers how to vote.

Mainly the class divisions went like this

c1500-1800- nobility (titled landlords), gentry (untitled landlords), and the penumbra of non-landlords who were still called gentlemen (lawyers, doctors, richer merchants)
and everyone else - but among the everyone else, villages or towns were divided into "better sorts" and "lower or poorer sorts" - lots of hierarchy in there.

after c1650 - those village "better sorts" - as well as all those better sorts in the growing towns - have a new phrase for themselves "middling sorts"

the division between capitalist and aristocrat in the 19th century was largely in Marx's head - aristocrats invested heavily in capitalist projects, while major capitalists married into gentile and titled families and were also granted titles (thus Whitbread, "the Brewer Earl").
posted by jb at 12:12 AM on July 21, 2011 [10 favorites]


for a neat look at one man's divisions of classes in about 1688, check out Gregory King's tables.

Like I said, "working class" wasn't used much until the 19th century - but the "laboring classes" of the 17th and 18th century would only really include "common seamen" and below - along with maybe artisans and poorer tradespeople. Naval and Military officers were, of course, gentlemen - I've also seen merchants, surveyors and large farmers called "gentlemen" in 17th century documents - the divisions were fuzzy.
posted by jb at 12:22 AM on July 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


oh, and as I've pointed out elsewhere, the laidies in Sense and Sensibility were not poor except compared to their expectations. They had £500 a year; labourers at about that time would have had about £20/year.

Also, the English aristocracy has never consisted primarily of titled men except in Regency Romances; remember, only the eldest ever got a title - every younger son was officially "common" (aka gentry) and so a great many extremely prominant families were untitled (or titled but not peers - like baronets and knights). it's best to think of the titled aristocracy as just the top icing on a very thick landed fruitcake.
posted by jb at 12:30 AM on July 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


tl dr: when it appeared in the 19th century, "working class" didn't mean people who worked for a living, but people who worked for a wage, usually with their hands. (I don't know where Bob Crachitt would have been - working with his mind, but for a piddling wage. But clergymen with their livings and lawyers with their fees or merchants or bankers with their profits were definitely not "working class".

sorry - this has probably been way too long and pedantic. I've just done a lot of thinking and writing about class, particularly c1500-1800.
posted by jb at 12:39 AM on July 21, 2011 [5 favorites]


Of course, in summer you could also go to the seaside, which tended to involve both more informal clothes and cooling breezes, if not much actual swimming.

I was facinated to learn in Wales about the existance of Bathing Machines, which allowed women to go swimming without being seen (except for the head bobbing above the water). That must have been a lovely feeling on a hot day!
posted by saucysault at 9:32 AM on July 22, 2011


I am always a fan of jb's comments, but the phrase "a very thick landed fruitcake" is today's Awesome MeFi Moment.
posted by catlet at 1:10 PM on July 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


If you're interested in bathing machines, saucysault (almost eponysterical!), you may also be interested in this item of clothing.
posted by subbes at 7:56 PM on July 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sort of related: The Ladies of the 17th Century Were Way More Hardcore Than You.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 1:20 PM on August 8, 2011


I too have been fairly comfortable in a corset at an event (all day, even), but there's a big difference between the way most modern ladies wear corsets, and the way Victorian women wore them. They had health problems for several reasons:

1) Victorian lacing was way more extreme. There are modern women who are into waist training, or have a naturally hourglass figure, and can lace their corsets very small. But for most people, a 4-inch reduction is all that's recommended, and most modern corset patterns have been modified to reflect this. Victorian women were at about an 8-10 inch reduction from what their waist would have been. Try making a 19" loop in a measuring tape to see how freakishly tiny this is, even for a petite woman.

2) Victorians started young. Girls began wearing boned corsets in adolescence, and the constriction of the abdomen often meant that their reproductive organs never developed properly, which lead to problems when...

3) Pregnant women wore them, often well into the third trimester. There were special pregnancy corsets, but they were still corsets. I don't think I have to explicate all the ways in which this was very, very bad, but the number of women who died in childbirth is partly attributable to corsets.

4) And this is the biggie. They wore them all the time. Not for a photoshoot or a show or a re-enactment, but 12-24 hours a day, all day, starting at age 12 or so, and for the rest of their lives. Many women slept in them. They only took a real break when they were ill, or in the last stages of pregnancy. Victorian women's skeletons show constrictive deformities to the ribs and pelvis, so there's objective evidence that corsets were damaging.

It's true that poor or rural women often wore less constrictive stays, but if you worked in a fancy house or a trendy shop, you were expected to be tightly corseted. Being working-class didn't always mean freedom from tightlacing, though it was more extreme for rich women. I believe the antebellum American South had the most extreme corsetting--that scene where Mammy is lacing Scarlett down to an 18-inch waist is pretty accurate.

I got a lot of this info in college, specifically from Prof. Laurie Wilkie of UC Berkeley. And a very detailed corset pattern that I sewed back in the day.
posted by Nibbly Fang at 11:09 AM on August 10, 2011 [3 favorites]


« Older Olly Moss designed two Captain America prints in t...  |  In September of 1848, Charles ... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments