The Importance of Foundation Garments: A peep up the skirts of Georgian London
Any girl worth her salt knows underwear is of vital importance. I am not particularly interested in fashion, as anyone who has ever met me will be able to testify, but I am interested in daily life and the observations of costume in this post are based on my knowledge of Georgian London as ordinary working wear has not survived in any great quantity. Beautiful silks and tabbies in patterns too complicated to be easily changed with fashion were packed away and passed down to others and have now made it into museums, but ordinary wools, linens and cottons were eventually cut down for smaller sisters, babies and eventually, rags. If you know more about 18thC fashions than me, please do comment and correct any inaccuracies.
The female inhabitants of London in the 18thC had the top half sorted as far as underwear went. They wore a calf-length shift of fine linen which could be of elbow or 3/4 length on the arms. Over that went stays. Stays were usually made of calico and 'boned' to stop them buckling when one bent down. Some of them are only boned on either side of the laces to prevent tearing (more usually for younger girls, or pregnant women) and serious tight-lacing was more common during the Victorian period, and stays can be tightened or loosened within reason. Constant lacing throughout childhood, even of a modest sort created an enviably defined waist and inch measurements for young women were often in the low twenties. I doubt working women such as shopkeepers and housemaids laced themselves up very tightly, but firmly enough to give support (and they also do marvels for the posture and general shape). Stays are remarkably form-fitting and surprisingly comfortable, without the lumps and bumps created by bras. If you were reasonably well off, a petticoat would have gone over the shift and the stays. If you worked inside, it could be pretty; if you worked outside, it would be shorter and plainer, and so out of the worst of the filth, but washable if it did get soiled. Over the top went the gown. It might be cut away to show the petticoat, or it might not. Or you might wear a masculine style jacket and a skirt. For a long time, women tied a fat cloth sausage, known as a bum-roll just beneath their waists and put the skirt on over it. This made the skirt full without thick layers beneath, and hid the shape of the hips. A maid or a food retailer would then have an apron tied about her waist with the front flap pinned firmly over her chest. Various accessories such as shawls or a gauzy fichu could be used to fill in a bold neckline during the day, or in modest company.
The majority of stockings in London were hand-knitted until the end of the Georgian period. The machines were large, complicated and breakable and in the end only marginally more productive than a good hand-knitter sitting at home, who could produce about one pair a day in wool or silk. Stockings were tied up with garters, usually a silk ribbon or a wool band with a little give in it so that it could be tied tight. I have tried tying stocking both above and below the knee. Above the knee is prettier, but gravity is a nuisance and they usually sag. I'm fairly sure most women would have worn their stockings gartered below the knee, especially those who walked a lot. Men who wore their own hair long instead of a wig (notable exceptions being Frenchmen, who wore their hair cropped fairly short and almost always went without a wig) would use garters, a token from a wife or girlfriend if they had one, to tie their hair back.
We have reached the one garment for which there is an alarming lack of 18thC evidence: knickers. Charles Ist wore pants, both long and short, depending upon the weather, as did Samuel Pepys. Apparently, things were different for the girls. Titillating pictures of the 18thC reveal the coquette raising her skirts to reveal nothing beneath. Many costume historians are certain women wore nothing beneath their shifts. Well, I don't agree. Little girls wore knickers, boys and men wore knickers; why on earth wouldn't women wear knickers? It's not as if they were worried about VPL. Agreed, it's a fine and dandy principle, rendering every lady an available little minx, but commando is not a practical daily option.
Pretty, long knickers exist from about 1800 onwards, usually without a gusset, although lots of material so that when you were wearing them, they didn't actually look 'crotchless'. It also meant you didn't have to fumble about around your waist for the drawstring ribbons in a dim bog-house. I think these are the most practical possibility for women during the 18th century, although I am also fairly sure that young couples of modest means probably had 'linen' that they both wore, particularly during the cold weather. All linens were boiled with a soap mixture to remove stains and keep them nice and white. All but the poorest people could afford a large enough pan and some soap to boil their linens, which is as effective a way of cleaning them as any other. I take exception to the accusations of poor hygiene in Georgian London and the assumption that we only achieved any notion of personal hygiene with the invention of anti-perspirant and showers. More on laundry, bath-houses and Georgian deodorant next week.
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