So, if you are interested in 1700’s underclothes, (you know who you are) you might enjoy the following paper I had to write for school.  If you aren’t interested in 1700’s underclothes, stop reading now or you will want to claw your eyes out by page three.

This actually started out as a paper on 1700’s ball gowns but I realized part way into my draft that if I did the topic so broad my paper would be closer to 30 pages rather then the required 10.

P.S. If you have a write an paper on 1700’s underclothes, you can quote my paper but don’t steal it!  My teacher told me I had to say that.

Live History through Underwear



History can be fascinating, especially when it is brought to life. There are so many alternate ways to learn history rather than just memorizing dates and names. One method of learning and teaching history that has been growing in popularity for some time is history taught through reenactment. Individuals can briefly live the history and by that, learn it more deeply and more completely. An era that is particularly popular is the Georgian or Colonial era. There were so many fascinating and important events that happened in our country at that time, as well as around the world.

One of the challenges for any reenactor is having the appropriate clothing. Researching this information can seem daunting, so many reenactors settle for something that is reminiscent of the era, rather than something accurate. Reenactors should take the time to identify the fabric, colors, patterns, decorations, cutting and sewing techniques, as well as hair styles and accessories to get a complete and accurate re-enactment look for the era they are portraying. One aspect of historical costume that is often overlooked is underclothing. Because underclothes are not as visible as outerwear or fashion dress, their importance is often forgotten. Without the correct underclothing, no ball gown or historic dress will fit correctly or look period appropriate.  Although it can be challenging to accurately recreate Georgian era underclothes, the effort and time expended to ensure the details are correct will be rewarded with a more fulfilling reenactment experience for those who see the costume and those who wear it.

A task that can seem difficult is identifying where to obtain the needed historical supplies. Underclothes of this period contain items, such as boning, that are not in common use today. Not knowing where to purchase these items can make the task of accurate recreation seem impossible, but with diligent searching, resources are available. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has an excellent list of sources that can help any reenactor find the supplies needed for creating an authentic Georgian era underclothes (“History.org: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s Official History and Citizenship Website.”). The Internet can also provide a vast number of historical clothing resources that a single town will never have.

It is very important to study, prepare and be sure that all the details of each piece of underclothing are period correct. Underclothes provide the foundation for any ball gown, and using period correct pieces makes a big difference in the accuracy of the final garment. More underclothes were worn in the 18th century than we wear today. In “Daily Life in 18th-Century England”, Kristen Olsen stated,

“When a woman got dressed in the 18th century, she first put on a chemise, a linen shift that hung to just below the knees. Then she tied a string around her waist, from which hung two pockets, one on either hip. Over the chemise, she wore a set of “stays”—a corset, stiffened by whalebone strips sewn between the layers of fabric.” (Olsen pg. 95)

Each item has its purpose and its own set of requirements to be accurate to the period. Leaving out a piece of underclothing, no matter how seemingly insignificant, will negatively impact the final product. Recreating each item accurately is integral the overall correctness of the costume.

The first piece of underclothing needed for an historic garment is the chemise. This basic garment is very important for the reenactor. Although little of it is seen by others, its accuracy can help the reenactor be in the correct mindset, as well as providing a good foundation for the rest of the costume. In “English Costume”, Dion Clayton gives us this overview: “the Under-sleeve [made of] of linen with lace frills came half-way down the forearm, leaving bare arm and wrist to show.” (Clayton pg. 63). Linen was the most popular choice of fabric for the chemise and unlike most other items in the Georgian period, white was the only color that was an option for this garment.  Selecting a pattern for a chemise is fairly easy, as it was the foundational garment for several century’s, and changed very little in that time. Many patterns can be found online and through historic pattern sellers. A few Georgian era details should be kept in mind when selecting a pattern. Necklines for Georgian era chemises were often adjustable by a gathering string, and the sleeve length should reach the elbow. Any pattern that is used should either have this length of sleeve or be altered to have the correct length. This is not an insignificant detail, the length of the sleeve was important to the finished dress.

An important sewing technique, not used often in modern sewing, but vital for a period correct chemise, is gusseting. A gusset is a triangular or diamond shaped piece of fabric that is added to a garment to add fullness or allow movement without bulk. Both the sides and the underarm of the Georgian chemise were typically gusseted. The underarm gusset allowed the sleeve to fit very close to the arm without restricting movement (Covey pg. 115). The side gussets added fullness to the sides of the garment. The other advantage to this gusseted method is layout of the pattern creates very little fabric waste, something that could be very important in the Georgian era, depending on the wealth of the woman making or having the chemise made.

Underclothes were not devoid of decoration in the Georgian era and the chemise is no exception. The elbow length sleeves peeped out of the sleeves of the dress and were decorated. A common decoration for the chemise sleeve cuffs was detachable lace ruffles. They were “detachable so that they could be moved to different chemises” and so that they could be “cleaned separately without damage” (Bender). Lace was quite expensive at the time, so being able to use the ruffles on more than one chemise would be important to all those except the extremely wealthy. Also, there was often decorative stitching around the neckline and the shoulder seams of the chemise. Despite its humble position in the pile of underclothes, the chemise could be quite beautiful and was important.

The most useful piece of a Georgian gown was the pocket. In an era where purses were not yet in use, they were essential for any woman. These pockets are not what a person used to modern pockets would expect; they were not part of the gown, but worn over the chemise, under the hoops and tied to the waist by a tape. The pockets were accessed through slits in the petticoat of the gown. Pockets were made of all types of available fabrics and in all colors. Remnants of fabric from any other sewing were often used. Although they could be any shape, pockets were often a chantered rectangle, with one end slightly larger than the other. Although unseen, pockets were often heavily embroidered as a hidden testament to the skill of the sewer. Georgian ladies would sew flowers and vines and many other motifs into their pockets. The historic pockets that can be found today are a beautiful reminder of a dying skill: having a beautifully embroidered pocket in a reenactment gown adds a secret touch of history to it.

One of the most important pieces of underclothing in a Georgian era is the piece that gives the torso structure. For the Georgian period there are two choices: jumps, or stays, known modernly as a corset. Stays would be more correct for a ball gown, as jumps were more casual and provided less structure. Jumps would be used at times when more freedom of movement was needed or more comfort desired. In an interview, Jan Walker, a seamstress specializing in historic reproductions said,

“You must understand the difference between the way we fit things now and how they fit things then. This largely depends on the corseting. If you don’t have the correct corset it won’t ever be right. You must really study the period. Do what they did. You can’t get by with something modern. You must make the corset; you can’t just buy one from Macy’s and think it will turn out right.” (Walker).

Although of dubious reputation, stays are essential for any Georgian ball gown. Fainting was often blamed on corseting due to the restriction wearing it cinched too tight could cause in breathing. However, fainting is not necessary or likely, if proper care is taken. If worn correctly and not overly tightened, the stays will not be uncomfortable or damaging. Without stays, no Georgian ball gown will fit correctly, the bust will not be in the correct place, and the overall shape will not be era-typical. The correct construction of the stays or jumps will be essential to the proper fitting of the final gown.

Stays are constructed in four layers: the outside, the lining and two center layers that hold the boning in its place. The outside of the stays can be any color and any fabric that was available at the time. Brightly colored stays were popular, as the top of the stays were sometimes seen; they were often coordinated with the ball gown. The interior two layers should be made of the stiffest linen available and the lining should also be of linen, but it can be a softer weave. The bones themselves were often carved of whalebones, but as that is no longer obtainable, wood or straw is an authentic alterative, and metal is also a reasonable replacement.

Boning, a skill rarely used in modern clothing, is essential in creating stays. This can be difficult to do. Akiko Fukai tells us, “Since a man’s strong hands were needed in order to stitch whalebones into stiff materials, corsets were mainly made by tailors” (Fukai pg. 127). With sewing machines and care, anyone can make a corset, despite what the seventeenth century guild of tailors thought. Following the pattern, tubes or bone casings will be created by rows of parallel stitching. It is very important that the rows of stitching be straight or inserting the boning will be impossible. After the bone casings are created, the bones are pushed into the casings. The ends of the casings are closed by a fabric tape binding. The top layer of the stay could be sewn along with the middle two layers to show the boning or laid over afterwards to hide it. The lining was added last to create a relatively smooth interior.

Patterns for making stays are easy to find, but unlike the chemise, the stays patterns changed drastically though time. A Georgian stay can be identified by the scalloped bottom edge, wide neckline and “V” shaped alignment of the front boning. Later stays had more vertical boning and began to developed cups for the breasts. Stays can be with or without shoulder straps but were most often made with removable straps tied on with ribbon. Stays ranged from plain unadorned fabric to extensively embroidered creations. The richer the woman, the more likely she was to have heavily decorated stays that matched whatever gown she wore.

Jumps were more casual in when they were worn and construction. Women wore them at home for their daily life and then would change into stays for social situations. Jumps had the same basic shapes, colors and fabrics as stays, but were quilted rather than boned. They were often tied closed with ribbons in the front, as well as being laced up in the back. Even though they were a more casual garment, no less attention was taken in the decoration of jumps. The quilting that gave them their structure was often patterns of flowers and vines or anything beautiful the lady making them desired.

The distinctive hip shape of Georgian dress is made by a pannier, which is a boned cage that attaches to the waist. Surprisingly, panniers of this time are not the long, ankle-length cages we typically think of. Olsen tells us,

“From 1713 to the 1740s, another style was also popular: the “fan hoop,” in which additional tapes attached the front and back of the hoops, flattening them and pushing them out to the sides. In the 1740s to 1760s, the hoop became almost rectangular and very wide, and then began to disappear except at Court.” (Olsen pg. 96)

Panniers from this period extended from the waist to just past the hip. This widening at the hips only is a great tool in identify the year of a dress or pannier. Panniers were typically made of wood and any available fabric tape, but could also be made of whalebone or cane.

Although patterns for crinolines and hoopskirts abound everywhere, specialty historic pattern companies are the only resources to find patterns for panniers of this period. Sewing a pannier is relatively straight forward when you have all the appropriate supplies. Patterns will not be as helpful in understanding pannier construction as looking at historical relics. Many museums, as well as online museum collections, have panniers from this period available for viewing that will provide a greater understanding of how the tape holds the boning in the correct locations and creates the desired shape. Unlike almost every other piece of clothing in a Georgian era costume, panniers tended to be unadorned. Although the tape was sometimes colored and on the rare occasions the ribs of the pannier itself were painted, (“Panniers | French | The Metropolitan Museum of Art.”), the pannier stands alone as the plain piece of dress. A petticoat, additional to the one included with the skirt of the dress, was sometimes used in conjunction with a pannier to prevent the boning from showing through the dress. At other times the pannier had padding added to it to be sure that the bones did not show through.

A decency skirt was sometimes worn under the pannier.   This skirt was narrow and gathered at the waist. Its purpose was to keep a woman modest if she were to tip over; the wider the pannier, the more likely this was to occur. This was necessary, as no underwear like the modern kind was worn in this period. Many anecdotes about hoop petticoats “exaggerated its size and described the difficulties with which women sidled into rooms and struggled into coaches.” (Olsen 96) If the reenactor wants to embrace this Georgian lack of underwear, the size of the pannier should be considered carefully and a decision made to have a decency skirt or not based on the frequency and type of use the costume will get.

The last piece of underclothing a Georgian era woman would wear was socks. Worsted stockings were the most common. Knitted silk or cotton was what was preferred by those who could afford their greater expense. Even on their socks, Georgian era ladies liked to have elaborate decoration.   Women very often had “colored clocks, triangular decorations widest at the ankle and narrowest at about mid-calf.” (Olson pg. 99) The colors for socks spanned the rainbow. Red or green were very popular colors with the upper classes, and working-class women often wore blue. These socks were not stretchy like modern socks or stockings so women would tie or button them with ribbons to keep them up. Even these ribbons were embroidered and decorated.

This may seem like a great deal of clothing to modern minds, and this has only been a discussion of the underclothes. The masses of embroidery, the special sewing skills, the fine fabrics, all help create a feeling of sumptuousness that was so important to women of that era. Even the poorest of women would embroider their pockets and use the best ribbons they could find to hold up their socks. It’s amazing that so much care was taken with mere underclothing. Reproducing that care and that feeling adds so much to the reenactment experience. It helps the reenactor get a real sense of what it must have been truly like to live in that time, to be those women. The reward of all this labor, fabric, embroidery, and skill is in creating something that brings history to life.

Works Cited

Bender, A. “How to Make an 18th Century Chemise.” How to Make an 18th Century Chemise. 1 Jan. 1997. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.

Clayton, Dion. “English Costume, V.4. – Full View | HathiTrust Digital Library.” Adam and Charles Black, Vol. 4. 1906. Web. 4 Nov. 2014. Pg 61

Fukai, Akiko, ed. The Collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute – Fashion – A History from the 18th to the 20th Century. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2006. Print.

“History.org: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s Official History and Citizenship Website.” Source List : The Colonial Williamsburg Official History & Citizenship Site. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.

Olsen, Kristen. “Daily Life in 18th-Century England.” ABC-CLIO EBooks. Greenwood, Ch 7. 1999. Web. 5 Nov. 2014.

“Panniers | French | The Metropolitan Museum of Art.” Panniers | French | The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.

Walker, Jan. Personal Interview. 11 November 2014


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