Victorian Ladies Underwear

Victorian Ladies Underwear

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proof of global warming

While far from accurate, this comic image about global warming, illustrating the shrinking of ladies’ undergarments is hilarious. I found it on Pinterest, Facebook, and various sites on the internet. Like the origin of “O.K.” (coming up next!) we might just need to agree someone started this (picture). It belongs to someone under copyright–but it’s been shared and forwarded and reused until no one has any idea to whom it belongs.

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LADIES VICTORIAN UNDERGARMENTS

Women wore a great deal beneath their gowns in the Victorian Era. Corsets and corset covers. Chemises. More than one petticoat. Bloomers. Bustles or crinolines. Bust improvers or bust ruffles. Garters. Suspenders. Hose supporters. Safety belts. I’m sure I’ve forgotten something. Compared to women today who wear panties (usually) and a bra (or not), it’s remarkable how much women used to wear when ‘properly’ attired.

BACK TO PANTIES

In recent blog articles, I’ve covered several Victorian Ladies’ Secrets: hair augmentation, padded hips and breasts, curling irons, and feminine hygiene. Some of these contraptions (like the harnesses worn to manage posture as well as keep stockings and ‘security belts’ in place) make more sense when ladies undergarments are viewed in context.

The closest thing to today’s panties are yesteryear’s bloomers.

DRAWERS a.k.a. Bloomers

Drawers (ladies underwear) were advertised in the Montgomery Ward Catalog of 1875. This early mail-order catalog did not have pictures, but mentioned Drawers for sale:

Ladies Drawers. Montgomery Ward 1875

Ladies Drawers. Montgomery Ward 1875

Prices were essentially the same 20 years later (1895 Montgomery Ward Catalog), but engravings (cuts) illustrated the available products.

Cotton Drawers. Montogmery Ward Spring and Summer 1895

Cotton Drawers. Montgomery Ward Spring and Summer 1895

Cotton Drawers.Part 2. Montogmery Ward Spring and Summer 1895

Cotton Drawers.Part 2. Montgomery Ward Spring and Summer 1895

Ladies Summer Drawers (form-fitting) and Tights. 1897 Sears Catalog

Ladies Summer Drawers (form-fitting) and Tights. 1897 Sears Catalog

FABRICS

You’ll note in the two Montgomery Ward Catalog segments, above, ladies drawers were fashioned out of cotton, Egyptian cotton,  jersey ribbed (knit), muslin, lawn, Merino, cambric–as these are both spring and summer editions. I understand winter drawers were often made of woolen flannel. I can’t imagine wearing wool against my skin, but apparently women used to do so.

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DESIGN

Ladies drawers were made with either a waistband and button closure or a drawstring. Both fasteners were beneath the corset when fully dressed, so undressing, removing the corset, and lowering ones drawers in the outhouse would have taken the better part of an hour. To remedy this problem, the crotch seam was left open (though finished, as a placket or at least a hemmed edge).

Girls not only learned to pull up their skirts and hold them out of the way, they figured out how to keep their underthings dry and unsoiled. Upon completing ones business, all that was required to right ones garments was to fluff things back into place. Can you even imagine how the process of emptying your bladder would have been a nightmare at the height of hoop skirt widths in the 1860’s?

widest hoops ever

The open-crotch drawers worked with ‘safety belts’ during menstruation even though the belt was worn over the drawers and likely over the corset.

Cotton Drawers 1890, Pinterest

Cotton Drawers 1890, Pinterest

Drawers 1840 from the Metropolitain Museum of Art via Pinterest

Drawers 1840 from the Metropolitain Museum of Art via Pinterest

White drawers, shows open crotch construction. Sears Roebuck catalog of Spring and Summer, 1897.

White drawers, shows open crotch construction. Sears Roebuck catalog of Spring and Summer, 1897.

SHAPE

It’s apparent, from images of items for sale in the 1890’s, that ladies’ drawers could be very loose in the legs (doubling as a petticoat layer and reducing bulkiness–perhaps in hot weather?) or quite slim-fitting (see the jersey ribbed offering, above). By the length of the inseams, it’s evident some were mid-thigh length while others were knee-length or longer.

white drawers. Sears Roebuck 1897 Part 3

white drawers. Sears Roebuck 1897 Part 3

white drawers. Sears Roebuck 1897 Part 4

white drawers. Sears Roebuck 1897 Part 4

COLD WEATHER UNDIES

Like men, women wore Union Suits when the weather suggested and their dress styles permitted. In an era without central heating, open carriages, and walking most places inside town, it made good sense to layer up and keep warm. Winter petticoats were often made of cotton flannel or wool flannel and well-to-do ladies wore plenty of them on the coldest of days. Beneath all those layers, female Union Suits were today’s equivalent of long (or thermal) underwear.

Winter Underwear part 1. 1897 Sears Roebuck

Winter Underwear part 1. 1897 Sears Roebuck

Winter Underwear part 2. 1897 Sears Roebuck

Winter Underwear part 2. 1897 Sears Roebuck

Note: Union Suits were also a summertime thing–but had short sleeves.

Ladies Summer Union Suits. 1897 Sears

Ladies Summer Union Suits. 1897 Sears

MEDICATED UNDERWEAR

Medicated Underwear, 1897 Sears Roebuck and Co. Spring and Summer Catalog

Medicated Underwear, 1897 Sears Roebuck and Co. Spring and Summer Catalog

Why were these “medicated underwear” touted as having benefits for rheumatism? The use of radium in everything from food and water to toys and novelties didn’t begin for another decade… Any ideas?

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Up Next!

Is it Okay to use O.K. in Historical Fiction?

Is It Okay to useIs it Okay to Use O.K. in Historical Fiction?

and on Memorial Day–

Victorian America Observes Memorial Day

Victorian America ObservesVictorian America Observes Memorial Day

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Old West Bath Tubs The Necessary (a.k.a. the outhouse) How Did Victorian Stockings Stay Up? Victorian Era Feminine Hygiene Corsets in the Era: Yes, even Maternity Corsets Pencil Skirts, Victorian Style Victorians at the Seashore Victorian Hair Augmentation Victorian Curling Irons  Lady Victoria(n)’s Secret L-O-N-G Victorian Hair Mail-Order Catalogs: Timeline & Truth Mail-Order Catalogs in the Old West The Old West: Dental Floss & Toothpicks Old West: Toothbrushes and Toothpaste P.S.: Old Laundry Implements…On Vacation 19th Century Washing Machines Warsh: Grandma’s Receet (Washing/Laundry, Granny’s Recipe) Stetson’s Boss of the Plains vs the Bowler Victorian Fashion: New Colors


Copyright © 2016 Kristin Holt LC

4 Comments

  1. Thanks for another informative article, Kristin. Each of the historical articles you post makes me happy I wasn’t born in the 1800’s but they give me a better understanding of the historical fiction I enjoy reading. Please keep writing more of these posts.

    Reply
    • You’re most welcome, Marianne. So glad you’re enjoying. Thanks for making regular visits!
      Warm regards,
      Kristin Holt

      Reply
  2. Kristin, this is a very helpful article for those of us who write in this time period. I writer 1870-1890, so this applies to my heroines. I knew about the slit in the drawers but wasn’t familiar with women’s union suits. Thanks.

    Reply
    • Hi Caroline,
      I’m so glad you found the article helpful, with a bit of new information. Isn’t research fascinating?
      Thank you for stopping by and commenting. I appreciate it!
      Warm regards,
      Kristin

      Reply

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