|Cindy Nord, author|
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.
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."