Victorian Underwear by Mary Dutson

Victorian Underwear

Mary Dutson

Meeting of 12th December 2013

Mary arrived again in full Victorian dress with a selection of original and reproduction underwear items plus illustrations. Very little survives from the period and what has is in museums.

- Nightdress: of white cotton with lots of lace (for boys and girls!). Machine lace from Nottingham had been available since the 1700s. The buttons down the front gave access for breast-feeding, not for husbands.

- Steel bone corset: I was ‘volunteered’ to wear this (and my ribs were still aching next dat!). There are stories of young girls having ribs broken in the process of tightening the corset, you certainly have to hold tight to something and raising your arms above your head meant another few inches could be lost. By the 1870s corsets covered the whole abdomen so affected eating and control of wind - the couple of hours after lunch to unlace the corset were essential. Most women were still wearing corsets into the 1930s, especially the working class. Jeff and Diana both remember their mums wearing the pale pink corsets of the 1940s.

- Under chemise: in the 1840s/50s this went under the corset (few survive as the corset is very abrasive). A triangular hole under the armpits was to reduce smells.

- Drawers: went on the bottom half (so called as they were tightened with a drawstring). They were open underneath (bloomers came in later as activities such as cycling and tennis made them necessary).

- Knickers: went over the corset and had slits at the sides to accommodate suspenders. They were very wide and buttoned to the upper garments.

- Stockings: only came up to the knee. Machine made and fake silk were around.

- ‘Onesies’ were quite shocking at the time: a one-piece chemise which buttoned underneath.

- Camisole: was worn over the corset to protect the clothes from hooks etc. Some of these are quite shaped and very pretty. When corsets stopped being worn these camisoles were cut down and a drawstring put in under the bust to create the early bra.

- Petticoats went on next. There was no elastic so a drawstring kept them in place. Early in the period three to six petticoats were worn, then crinolines and bustles came in. These hung off the corset and must have been very heavy, the bustle was basically a wire frame stuffed with horse hair. 1840-65 saw the cage, which meant all the weight was no longer at the back and it was easier to keep you balance but the crinoline cage gradually got so big they could not fit through doors.

‘One on, one off and one in the wash’ was the rule for underwear. Only undergarments got washed, overdresses would just get airing and a brush. CS