Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Victorian Unmentionables...Oh My! by @cnord2

Cindy Nord, author
Oh My!
by Cindy Nord

Today we call them panties or underpants, briefs or for a few brave souls, a thong or Gee-string. But in the early-to-mid 1800s, modesty and coverage was foremost. 

Fashion pantalettes
The proper ladies of the era called these items her ‘unmentionables’ in a crowd, but behind fluttering fans she knew them by their more authentic word: the split or crotchless pantalettes (two separate legs joined at the waist and left open for hygienic reasons). When we say we’re wearing a ‘pair of panties’—this is where that saying derived. Nonetheless, originating from France in the early 19th century, the feminine pantalettes were designed after leggings or long drawers.  

These undergarments spread in popularity to Britain and America and covered many a fashionable limb. But, according to the Godey’s Lady’s Book in December 1860, a new plainer style of ‘under-garment’ was introduced.

Pantalettes on string waistband
Drawers (so stated because underwear was ‘drawn on’), was gathered to the waistband in the front and pulled through a casing to fit the waist. And throughout the 1860s woman wore these fashionable drawers, at calf-length with a wide open leg and the hems decorated with scallops or elegant embroidery. Still worn open-crotched, these unmentionables were made mostly from white linen or silk and decorated with tucks, lace, and cutwork or broderie anglaise. Secured at the waist with a tie or a back button closure, these garments were always part of the wardrobe and worn for decency’s sake as ladies limbs were never exposed.

French ruffle bloomers
Beginning from simple fashions of the early 1800s pantalettes, by the Mid-Victorian era, drawers had become a work of art. Women found fashion inspiration and patterns from Godey's Lady's Book and Petterson’s, both periodicals featured new looks each month. And ‘underwear’ was no exception. The elegant woman of the time wore about five pounds of undergarments including drawers, camisole, underslip, corset and overslip. During the colder months of winter, warmer undergarments were also added. Many issues during this time period included patterns with measurements, and an illustration of the completed garment.

Camisole & bloomer
But by 1870s, the fashion changed yet again, and the pantalettes/drawers legs were no longer worn as wide, separate tubes. They became joined to prevent chafing caused by damp skin rubbing together. The length also rose to gather just below the knee. Bloomers, worn knee-length, these ‘under things’ were inspired by the harem pants of countries like Syria. The distinguishing difference was the tapered legs. Elizabeth Smith Miller developed this newest garment in the mid-19th century and Amelia Jenks Bloomer, an American women’s rights activist at the time, popularized them. This new style was an attempt to provide “decent” underpants options for women who wanted the ability to engage in more rigorous activities where skirts might be a hindrance.

However, many Victorians did not embrace the style, and the undergarments were nicknamed “bloomers,” after Amelia’s fashion choices. Though bloomers were not well received by most, they did have practical uses, and by the late 19th century, women on athletic teams often wore the knee length pair of bloomers with black stockings as part of a woman’s swimming costume. In context of wearing them for certain sports, bloomers were considered acceptable. They were certainly more comfortable for activities like bike riding.

Ultimately, underpants functioned to preserve modesty, and in a century when people covered their chair and table legs because of their suggestive nature, make no mistake in knowing that there were numerous layers of undergarments worn by a properly dressed Victorian lady. And by far the most important piece, other than the corset which defined a woman’s silhouette of that era, was her ‘underwear.’ Whatever the time period, history has managed to define women’s ‘under things’ by such delightful names as pantaloons, drawers, bloomers or even the comical ‘knickerbockers.’

Cindy Nord is author of No Greater Glory, a Civil War romance with over twenty 5-star reviews on Amazon.  

Reviewer Katherine Boyer writes, "Ms. Nord has a command of the language of the day, just as Colonel Cutteridge had command of his troops. She knows the history of the period. She writes an engrossing story of love between enemies, as opposed to fighting brother against brother."


  1. This is fascinating info. I can't imagine how hot it must have been wearing so many layers of clothing in some of the warmer climates. This also helps me understand why women were so opposed to riding horses astride. I never before considered it might have something to do with their undergarments.

    1. I'm delighted you enjoyed the article, Vickie. The women of that timeperiod wore myriad 'constricting underlayers' in an effort to achieve that perfect Victorian 'silhouette'. And your point about them riding horses sidesaddle is spot-on correct...otherwise they chaffed! LOL. Thanks so much for stopping by to visit. ☺

    2. As a reenactor who's worn the many layers in a humid Louisiana summer, it's not the issue many people think it is. Remember, they didn't know any different. Once that first layer is soaked through they become a sort of air conditioner.

      The REAL problem in hot places were not the undergarments. It was polished cotton. The only time I've ever come close to heat exhaustion was wearing a dress made of polished cotton.

    3. Rachel...I couldn't have said it any better, says Cindy who stood on the field at the 125th Anniversary reenactment in Manassas, Virginia fully clothed from head to toe in brocade in 107 degree weather. LOL.

  2. Oh my! Even more reason to be glad we live in the 21st century and not the 19th. The article is fascinating. I have a journal entry from my great-grandmother who referred to her younger sister's pantaloons that were worn beneath her dress that was about mid-calf length in the mid 1860's.

    1. I couldn't agree with you more, Martha! I'm quite partial to my 21st-century life! Although, as a former Civil War reenactor of 25+ was also most enjoyable to slip away into the Victorian world, if only for a few days each month, to recreate that more colorful era -- corsets & pantalettes included, LOL! And thank you for sharing the info from your great-grandmother's diary. Cherished stories like those help to keep the past alive for us all. Thank you so much for dropping by, Martha. Warmest regards...☺

  3. Cindy, Enjoyed the read and the illustrations were most informative. In my latest book, Wilda's Outlaw, she has to shed layers of her Victorian garments so the horse will allow her on his back during the kidnapping. This after he tossed her into the creek and thoroughly soaked her to the bone. I'm going to send my readers to this post so they can see how funny that must've been.

    1. Velda! So glad you enjoyed my lil' article! And, yes ma'am, making sure our characters are correctly clothed (or in your Wilda's case...unclothed ☺...LOL) is truly what breathes 'historical romance' to life. Delighted you popped in to share...☺

  4. Cindy, you always have great photos to illustrate your posts. I had not seen the illustration you used. Thanks for sharing.

  5. My pleasure, Caroline.....I truly love the Victorian fashions & have a real admiration for the womenfolk of that time period. Thxs for stopping in. ** biggest hugs**

  6. Wooooooooo -- soooo risque, posting these pix! HAHA! love it.


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