To celebrate National Underwear Day on 5 August, Karen Bowman journeys through 300 years of unmentionables.
So…5 August 2018 is National Underwear Day… a full 24 hours to contemplate how undergarments down the centuries have pushed, pulled and bullied our bodies into an altered state of reality, if not always being able to shape our expectations.
The Georgians were made gorgeous by their underwear. Corsets not being the sole preserve of the female, gentlemen turning a fine leg could tie on a set of false calves beneath their stockings when dressing to impress. Yet, however secretly placed, enhancements could not be relied upon to stay-put, tending to migrate, with disastrous consequences. Leg-related wardrobe malfunctions were common. One young beau, having secured the affections of his lady love, waited until she was at her toilette preparing for a night of passion, then removed the appendages and hid them under the pillow. So worried was he that his deception would be noticed he fretted throughout the whole experience. The next morning neither party came away satisfied in either thought or deed.
Nor were women blameless in their falsehoods. The absurd fashion for ‘paniers’ saw women in the mid eighteenth century become almost as wide as they were tall. Both full blown petticoats or smaller collapsible side paniers tied over each hip attracted biting social comment. Doorways were negotiated sideways, carriages entered into carefully, chairs had to be arm-less and companions had to walk slightly before or behind. Dancing was by no means an intimate affair.
Eventually width gave way to the rounded symmetry of cork rumps. ‘Bum-shops’ sprang up all over London, encouraging ladies of all incomes to ‘get your false bums here’. It only added to gentlemen’s confusion as to what real women looked like. The December 1776 issue of the Weekly Miscellany expressed a husband’s bewilderment at recognising his bride the morning after his nuptials, and questioned whether he should be granted a divorce on the grounds that she was not the same person!
Crime featured large in the wearing of Georgian underwear. Ladies pockets, were tied about the waist and contained life’s little necessities, such as coin and handkerchiefs. With shared rooms and little privacy, personal treasures were secreted between gown and petticoats. Enter the ‘pickpocket’ and ‘cut-purse’ who would dip their hand past strategic slits in the seams of skirts to reach valuables. That or knock a woman to the ground, and cut her pocket strings while she was in disarray.
The Victorians, by contrast were made modest by their underwear, though no less ridiculed for its absurdity or the promotion of discomfort and crime. Before the first ‘cage crinoline’ (1856) women wore layer upon layer of petticoats for shape. The extra weight, doctors advised, was the cause of lumbago, hernia, stiff joints, varicose veins and heat exhaustion. Unlike previous centuries where only upper classes wore such underpinnings, the appeal of the crinoline was universal. Sheffield, at the height of the crinoline’s popularity, was producing enough steel to equip women with 1⁄2 million hoops in one week.
One quality petticoat was enough to soften the cage ridges, but such billowing skirts necessitated the wearing of ‘drawers’, up until now, not generally worn. Death by crinoline was an occupational hazard. Large skirts brushed against open fires, turning women into fireballs, snared the wheels of handsome cabs and became entangled in machinery. In 1860, the textile firm Courtauld’s instructed their workers ‘to leave their hoops at home’. Four years later newspapers reported crinoline related deaths as 2,500 in London alone.
Ingeniously fitted out with pockets and hooks, female shoplifters found there was no end to the size and weight of objects that could be hidden successfully. Having left a drapers shop, Margaret Toole was arrested with nine black silk mantles and two coloured silk dresses beneath her skirts. Similarly, Eliza Dreser had a set of steel fire-irons suspended from her waist! With only a short slide from shoplifting to smuggling, one woman was found to have 5 pounds of cigars, 9 pounds of tobacco, a quantity of tea and a bottle of gin, all concealed about her underwear on a trip from Holland.
Bustles offered similar opportunities for crime. In 1886, upon apprehension by the police, three poachers were found without their ill-gotten gains and set free. When their wives came home later, it was with 27 rabbits discreetly distributed equally between them in their bustles. The bustle was also commercially viable, one newspaper featuring the ‘hand bag’ bustle designed to contain brushes, cosmetics, tooth preparations and night raiments for a lady’s temporary absence from home. In September 1888, an address given by Charles Dickens saw one woman’s new fangled ‘inflatable bustle’ explode, much to her surprise and shame. In defence of the underwear one woman made a point in 1888 by declaring, “I wear a bustle and believe in it. I wear a large bustle and I am proud of it. I wear a steel ribbed, brass riveted, burglar and rust proof bustle, and it is a joy beyond compare.” What more can one say!
Corsets ensured a handspan waist but at a cost. Tight lacing produced head-aches, giddiness, pain in the eyes, ringing in the ears, consumption, derangement of the circulation, palpitations, loss of appetite, squeamishness, depraved digestion, and what what no self-respecting Victorian woman wanted – a red nose!
Oh, and if you ladies ever wondered why there is a small bow stitched between the cups of your bra? It refers to when stomachers or stay busks were slipped down the front of a corset for rigidity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A small piece of ribbon was attached to the top to help remove it easily. Our little ribbon-bows are a direct link to those times – a reminder to be grateful that our modern notions of restrictive and uncomfortable aren’t a patch on those of yester-year.
Karen Bowman’s latest book, Corsets & Codpieces, chronicles the sartorial history of outrageous fashions, from those who wore them, newspapers that featured them, politicians who legislated against them and, as in the case of ‘monstrous’ crinolines, the husbands and fathers who had to pay for them! Find out more about Karen and her work on her website.
- 1.The Bum Shop, Corsets& Codpieces © Library of Congress
- Dandies Dressing, Corsets & Codpieces
- Georgian side panniers © Tessa Hallmann
- Victorian bustle, Authors own collection
- Victorian corset, Corsets & Codpieces © Library of Congress