What a Regency lady doesn’t tell
In the past two weeks I have had several people ask me about what Regency ladies wear under their gowns (no, do not ask me about what Scotsmen wear under their kilts, my Scottish ancestors would come back to haunt me if I told…). In spite of the very thin materials, such as muslin and silk, used to make Regency gowns, the modest Regency lady wore quite a lot of layers under her gown. The Regency silhouette allowed the shape of the body to show when the wearer moved instead of hiding it under stiff outer garments as was the fashion both before and after the Regency.
The first layer is the shift (also called a chemise, French for shirt, or smock), a garment made of thin, woven linen (or, later, cotton) with a large neckline drawn in with a drawstring and was worn to help keep the outer layers of clothes away from body oils and sweat. The shift is a large rectangle with short sleeves set straight out from the body and gussets under the arms to allow movement. The reason for this unshaped garment is to allow the wearer to adjust the neckline with the drawstring so that the neckline is just low enough to not show above the bodice of the dress. When the neckline changes in this way, set in sleeves, as are used in the outer garment, would not fit properly with all the layers on. In some cases the shift could be gathered up to show above the neckline of the gown, providing more coverage.
Over the shift goes the stays or corset. Most young ladies in the Regency, unlike their mothers in earlier eras, wore short stays. The corset was still worn by those who needed its assistance to keep their figures looking trim, as well as by many older women who had worn a corset since late childhood and now needed the support for their weak backs caused by never using the muscles of their trunk to hold themselves up and their stomachs in.
The short stays were the sartorial precursor to the modern brassiere and were a vest-like garment that laced in the front, supporting and pushing the breasts up in the shelf-like shape that was popular then. Gussets at the top edge of the front of the stays provided shaping and varied in size as modern cup size does in a bra. Boning was sewn into channels at an angle on the sides of the front and under the arms to keep the breasts from moving sideways.
The straps on the stays were wide to be comfortable and, in some cases were merely tied on at the front or back to be more adjustable, but either way, they could be pushed out towards the shoulder however far they needed to be in order to not show under the dress. Some Regency gowns had barely any shoulder to the bodice and the straps would be pushed clear out to the arm and would hide in the sleeve. The straps were, of course, necessary to keep the stays from moving downward, and a horizontal tie was put in a casing just under the bust to prevent the stays from migrating upward with movements such as dancing. The end result is very similar to the modern push-up bra: a bustline that pushed up and in and gave maximum cleavage.
Many people have asked me what kind of underpants Regency women wore. The answer, in general, was none (I know you are thinking of those kilts again!). Just after the Regency (which ended in 1820) and into the the mid-1800s fashions went through drastic changes: corsets came back and waists became smaller and smaller, dresses became fitted down to the waist or hips, and petticoats became larger and more stiff (crinolines) until the advent of the hoop skirt.
By the time Victoria was on the throne the Regency was considered to be a wild and Godless time because the shape of women’s bodies were visible and women’s clothing was thus considered to be scandalous. The hooped petticoat, which very effectively hid a ladies lower limbs (don’t even think about saying “legs”) was a rather hazardous garment, as a gust of wind or a lady sitting down without proper care could cause the hoop skirt to fly up over her head. Needless to say, underpants quickly became de riguer for the proper lady. These garments were called pantalettes and were worn by little girls and very young boys before they became standard for adult women. These youngsters wore short gowns and their pantalettes came down to the ankles for modesty.
The first pantalettes consisted of two separate legs that were tied to the upper undergarments, leaving the crotch open for hygiene. Regency ladies did not wear pantalettes, but when it was cold those who were more concerned with health than with sexual attraction would wear a similar garment made of stockinette, the 19th century precursor to leggings. These stockinette leggings had become possible with the development of weaving machines which made cotton underclothing available at a modest cost. Between 1850-60 there began a movement calling for more rational dress for women and bloomers (full, harem-pant-like garments were worn by some women for activities where their huge skirts were a hindrance. As you can imagine, this was a controversial move and women wearing pants of any kind was considered shocking until well after 1900.
Whether a lady wore any type of leggings or not, she wore stockings which were tied with long ribbons to her stays (either long or short stays). The stockings came up to the mid-thigh and most women wore cotton stockings which we would find very heavy and frumpy-looking for everyday wear. If they were wealthy enough to afford them, they would have silk stockings to go with elegant evening wear.
The next layer would be a petticoat. There is a lot of variation in petticoats- they may be very thin and lightweight or they may be flannel to keep warm in the winter. They could be completely fitted like the bodice of the gown, or could have a drawstring neckline like the shift. They might have a top that consisted of two horizontal flaps that crossed over the stays and were pinned to the stays with straight pins in order to have a tight, smooth top that covered the laces and top edge of the stays. This flap contrivance was sometimes inside the gown instead of the petticoat. Whichever garment it was in, the flaps were sewn into the side seams of the bodice. You would think the straight pins would tear the fragile fabric of the gowns, but they apparently knew how to pin them without sticking pins in themselves or damaging their gown (of course, they did not have to dress themselves- this would be a very tricky procedure to do for yourself and most modern women cheat and use hooks and eyes to fasten the flaps of the petticoats or gowns).
For those who have tried to wear authentic stays and wondered why the bodice of their gowns looked lumpy, it is because you did not have these flaps to smooth out the edges. Petticoats that did not have flaps would have a back opening, closed with hooks. Like Regency gowns, the petticoat has the “shoulder seams” behind the shoulders and the back is shaped with princess seams for a smooth fit.
One optional part of a lady’s dress was a pocket. The pocket as an integral part of clothing is a modern concept, and ladies who wanted a safe place to keep small items would carry a small purse, called a reticule (or ridicule), or she would wear a pocket which tied around her waist under her petticoat. Sometimes a pocket would be sewn inside the petticoat skirt, but they never were open to the outside like modern pockets. A lady would have to leave the room and lift her dress and petticoat to reach the pocket.
At this point, a lady was ready to put her gown on, with her lady’s maid’s assistance. Most gowns buttoned down the back with many, many tiny buttons. The high waists of the Regency styles made the gowns easier to get into, but the bodices of the gowns were very tight to prevent wardrobe malfunctions. There were some gowns which had front buttons, but they were not as common as back buttoning styles.
Once the lady was buttoned up, her maid would slip on her shoes- either very thin-soled slippers to wear in the house or in town where there were sidewalks, or half boots, ankle boots which tied and were designed for more rugged settings- long walks or inclement weather. In towns like Bath, where the walkways were all paved and where it rained frequently, you would see (and hear) women would wear pattens, which consisted of wooden risers which lifted the woman a few inches above the street to keep her feet and clothing from becoming wet and mud-spattered. Jane Austen describes the sound of pattens clacking down the walkways in Persuasion.