Monday, March 28, 2011

What About Underpants?

In my dress/gown discussion last week, the question was raised at the periphery about underwear. What, exactly did ladies and gentlemen of the eighteenth century wear in terms of underwear?

The kind we think of today? Zilch.

Ok, let's back up a touch. They did wear undergarments. Women and men both wore long, white, generally linen shifts or shirts, which served as their basic undergarment. Women and men also both wore stockings, which we can consider underwear, too. Women wore stays and an underpetticoat or two--though many underpetticoats weren't really different from outer petticoats and may have been interchangeable among the lower classes. They also added paniers, hooped petticoats, or bum pads, depending on the decade and the occasion.

Some men wore underdrawers, plain breeches-like garments cut to fit under their breeches. These seem to have been optional and little evidence has been found for them outside of the upper class (mostly because not many such utilitarian garments survived, so most evidence we have is tailors' orders--from people who had the money to employ tailors). This is the closest thing we have to modern-day underwear for men or women.

Pantaloons didn't come into fashion until the nineteenth century, so there wasn't really an underdrawer equivalent for women (that I've found any evidence of). Drawers for women appeared in the Regency era, and didn't become popular until later, and on into the Victorian era. Even then, as this post from Jane Austen's World illustrates, they were often essentially crotchless. (There are some fascinating speculations about gender and sensuality based on the "graduation" from wearing full drawers to these open drawers as women reached adulthood during the Victorian era--unfortunately, the article I read is in a password-protected subscription-based website. If you have access to JStor, give it a search.)

So...ummm...how do you deal with all the things that underwear helps us deal with? Well, men would wrap their knee-length shirts under as a buffer between their, ahem, bits and their breeches (and the reason those shirts were so long becomes abundantly clear). For the montly inconvenience, women fashioned belts not too unlike those our moms and grandmothers wore back in the day (and that I'm so glad we've moved past). The one thing I can't quite figure out--drafts. Petticoats are drafty. At cold-weather events, I usually wear an old, worn pair of silk-blend breeches under my petticoats--and am so much warmer for it. I wonder whether women might have come to the same conclusion and copped their husbands' or brothers' worn-out breeches or underdrawers.

So, that's what's up with underwear.

9 comments:

Kat Zhang said...

I always assumed they wore those fancy white bloomer things ;) I checked out that link you provided for the Jane Austen site, and in the comments, someone mentioned she now realized why the can-can was considered so risque back in the day, lol!

Carrie C said...

Great post - and I love the title! :) I wouldn't be surprised if people living sans "underwear" as we consider it would think of our "restrictive" garments as quite horrifying. Maybe going to the bathroom was easier?

dolleygurl said...

Thanks for this post! I can always count on you for something mildly funny but educational!

Connie said...

Honestly, I just assumed they all wore pantaloons or some kind of bloomer thing. Wow.

Isis said...

I have to contradict you a little here. Women of the upper classes wore underpants, though it was not very common. They also seem to have been of two types, sewn in linen or pantaloons in knitted silk. When the Danish princess Sofia Magdalena married the Swedish prince (later king) Gustaf III in 1766 the records of her wardrobe lists a large number of underpants and pantaloons (in black silk). There is also a doll from the 18th century who under her gown wears underpants, shift, stays and pocket hoops.

Singers and actresses also wore underpants, probably to ensure that no one saw too much when they looked up at the stage, so wearing something under your skirts was generally connected with loose morals, as many ladies of the stage was aviable for more or less money.

Of course, this leaves most of the female population completely pantless. :)

When it comes to cut, I have long assumed that they looked like the 19th century pantaloon, with no critch, but in Janet Arnold's book about linen there are late 16th century underpants from Italy, that are cut more like breeches, so the 18th century underpant could probably have loooked like that too..

Rowenna said...

Isis--thanks! I should always preface my remarks that I mainly study English and American Colonial middling sorts...so no pants there :) See, I always knew the Swedes and Danes were smarter than us...no drafts!

chestyleroux said...

ok... so they wore crotchless undergarments... but what did they do, then, for that special 20% (give or take) of their adult lives?

Rowenna said...

Chesty--you know those lame belts and suspended pads from back in the day? Something like that. Or, as one contemporary put it, a "clout"--aka diaper. Yay.

chestyleroux said...

aha! I don't know them, but I can imagine them... oh wait, google...