Unmentionables (Clothing as history, pt. 2)

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

This Victorian era euphemism refers to underwear—in this case, undergarments of all types.  They can be worn for the sake of modesty, to protect the body, to enhance the outward appearance, or some combination thereof.  From Victorian prudishness to Calvin Klein advertisements, to underwear as outerwear, we’ve come a long way, baby!

“The idea of items of clothing being private or public or that a body can be in an appropriately clothed or unclothed state is a relative concept that differs over time and from culture to culture. No tribal society, unless it has been infiltrated by concepts of western dress, appears to have garments that could be considered as underwear: items of clothing that act as a layer of insulation between the skin of the body and its outer garments. … In Europe and North America underwear appears to have developed in range and complexity as the sight of a naked body moves from being an everyday public occurrence to a social taboo, and codes of acceptable social etiquette and civility deem the naked body private.”[i]

“When did the custom of wearing undies first begin?  Well, the mummified body of Ötzi the Iceman, who died in the Tyrolean Alps more than 5,000 years ago, reveals that he sported a goatskin loincloth under his furry leggings; and, if we skip forward 1,500 years to Bronze Age Egypt, you might be surprised to learn that Pharaoh Tutankhamun was entombed with 145 spare loincloths.”[ii]

Let’s look at some examples of items within our collection.  University Archives and Special Collection holds the Beardsley, Montgomery, and Gordon Families Collection of vintage clothing (MSS 297).  This collection was donated by Evadean Gordon in 2002, begun by her husband’s great-grandmother, Martha Cooper Beardsley (1831-1922), and passed down through the generations to Evadean.  This treasure trove provides a fascinating way to look at history, and blogs on items within this collection, such as swimming suits, hats, and designer clothing have been/will be published here.

First, the chemise…”the basic undergarment worn by women next to the skin from the Middle Ages into the twentieth century.  Until the eighteenth century, chemises were more commonly known as smocks or shifts.  … Linen was the class fabric for chemises, although cotton and silk were also used. … Chemises survived until the 1930s, but they had been steadily losing ground to new undergarments.”[iii]  The chemise seen here dates to 1890 and is made of cotton.  While functional, it’s also pretty with the addition of cutwork embroidery (cutting parts of the basic fabric out and then embroidering around those openings) and crocheted edges of the neckline and sleeves, plus the ribbon.  These 4 images are identified as MSS 297-19-2.

These ladies split drawers (MSS 297-17-3) date to the 1880s and are embellished around the ankles with handmade eyelet trim.  “An undergarment for the lower half of the torso and legs, drawers are a venerable garment designed to protect the outer garments from bodily dirt.  First worn by men, they were known as breeches or braies in the Middle Ages.  From the sixteenth century, the term “drawers” was in use.  … Women began to wear drawers at the beginning of the nineteenth century. …They were not commonly worn until the 1840s, by which time they resembled two long tubes connected at the waistband. … By the early twentieth century, the word knickers had become the preferred term even for women’s open-legged drawers, which were, in any case, passing out of fashion.”[iv] Length varied, but as styles changed, drawers grew shorter.  They were called drawers because they were “drawn on” the body, and the phrase “pair of underwear,” which seems odd to us for a single garment, dates back to the time when drawers were two pieces joined at the waist.  “Where does the word knickers come from? It comes from a novel called History of New York by Diedrich Knickerbocker, supposedly a Dutchman living in New York (it was actually written by Washington Irving). In Britain, the illustrations for the book showed a Dutchman wearing long, loose-fitting garments on his lower body. When men wore loose trousers for a sport they were sometimes called knickerbockers. However, women’s underwear were soon called knickerbockers too. In the late 19th century the word was shortened to knickers.”[v]

Similar to drawers, but full body for warmth is this wool men’s union suit (MSS 297-27-1 and -2) from J.C. Penney’s, dating circa 1870-1900.  While this particular one is for a man, the origin of the union suit lies with the desire to reform women’s clothing.  “Remember that the fashionable woman of the 1880s wore too much underwear; it restricted her and weighed her down. It could be too hot in the summer and not warm enough in the winter. … The many skirt layers created bulk at the waist and the weight of the clothing was unevenly distributed. If the excess bulk were removed, then a woman would not have to resort to tight-lacing which, according to many health experts, greatly damaged women’s internal organs and caused disease. One of the first reform undergarments to be promoted in America was the “emancipation union under flannel” patented in 1868. This union suit combined a knit flannel waist (shirt) and drawers in one. The combination, as the union suit was often called, was continuously improved by various knitwear companies and reformers in America. Susan Taylor Converse of Woburn, Massachusetts, designed an improved version in 1875 and named it the Emancipation Suit. A gathered section across the bodice freed the breasts from compression, and sets of buttons at the waist and hips helped suspend several layers of skirts. The Emancipation Suit also could have been purchased as two separate parts that buttoned together at the hips. The Emancipation Suit was endorsed by the New England Women’s Club, one of the earliest organizations to advocate undergarment reform.”[vi]

Here are some examples of those petticoats that women wore.  Petticoats were originally “a skirt-like garment worn with a jacket or a gown from the sixteenth through to the eighteenth century.  From the end of the seventeenth century, most women wore open robes that needed the addition of a petticoat to make them decent in the front.  Quilted silk petticoats were favoured for informal wear, but for dress occasions, petticoats were often elaborately trimmed to match the gown worn above.  Since the nineteenth century the petticoat has been a woman’s undergarment only. … [They] were used to hold out a woman’s skirts or to provide extra warmth.”[vii]  Today a petticoat is usually referred to as a slip.

This wool challis petticoat (MSS 297-22-3) from 1890 has two tiers of ruffles at the bottom. “The supple, lightweight woolen fabric called Challis was first woven 170 years ago in the city of Norwich, northeast of London, and gained immediate popularity among Victorian ladies and gentlemen. Men used it for coat linings, neckties, and fancy waistcoats, and women wore dresses and shawls of challis because it so wonderfully combined the qualities of firmness and resilience with softness (the word challis is a corruption of the Anglo-Indian word “shalee”, meaning soft) and lightness.  Challis was easily cared for, draped well, and was comfortable for almost any climate.”[viii]

The petticoat seen to the right (MSS 297-22-2) also made of wool challis, dates to 1890.  Notice that its skirt is much fuller, allowing for the creation of a bell-shaped silhouette.  This effect created by the 10-inch sewn-down pleats at the top.  This fullness also allows for the addition of a bustle, the idea being to show broader (“more feminine”) hips and the waist correspondingly narrower.  A bustle is a stuffed pad that tied around the waist and hung atop the hips.  As you can see from the large illustration with the three women, the effect of the bustle varied with time and with the style of the dress itself.

Bustle Pad, made from linen and stuffed with horse hair. Victoria & Albert Museum (T.57-1980).  Image found here.                
Bustle Pad, 1873. Image found here.

Three styles of bustles. Image found here.

White cotton petticoat with lace trim and silk ribbon, circa 1880-1900. MSS 297-19-1
Red nylon slip with lace on bodice and hem, circa 1940s-1950s. MSS 297-26-9
Catherine de Medici in the 1550s. Original portrait in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. Image found here.

One item of underclothing that raises much interest and controversy is the corset.  “Fashion history reveals the first recorded corset originated from Crete in Greece, worn by the Minoan people. Images on ancient pottery show both women and men sporting form fitting belts and vests with leather rings or straps that constrict and shape the waist. Culturally, this showed a women’s ideal shape, accentuating the beauty of her curves and often exposing bare breasts. Both Minoan men and women wanted a small waist. As children, both genders wore a girdle around their waists that was tightened as they grew in order to stop growth in the waist area.”[ix]  Fast forward to circa 1500 and Catherine de Medici.  “The life of the wife of the king of France, contrary to our expectations, was not easy: seen as a foreigner and criticized for her appearance, it is said that she invented the corset just to reduce her “curvy” waist, then imposing it to all the other women of the court.”[x] 

“17th Century corsets were made with linen and boned with reeds, bents or whalebones. Here the neckline of the corset ranged from high neck to very low. When a prominent bust was desired by the women, then the corsets were made to accentuate the bust and put more emphasis on the decolletage. … During this time, corsets were transformed into a fabric bodice and it was mounted on a heavily boned lining. The front of these corsets was contained with a long pointed busk. From other records, it is seen there were some health concerns for young girls that began with the tight lacing.”

By the 1800s the corset took on a new shape and was used to emphasize the hourglass shape with a very small waist. Corsets were made in beautiful colors with silks and satins and included garter clips at the bottom.      Image found here.

While the corset clearly narrowed the waist, a lot of what we are told about tiny waists is based on the illusion provided by the outer garments.  Wearing a farthingale (an undergarment that creates the extra wide hips seen below here), or a bustle as discussed earlier, would make any waistline look tiny!  “Studies of costumes at the Smithsonian, Colonial Williamsburg, and other museums provide the evidence. Curator Linda Baumgarten’s measurements of 18th-century stays and gowns show waist sizes ranging from about twenty-one to thirty-six inches. Author Juanita Leisch’s personal collection of garments from the Civil War era shows a median waist of around 23-25 inches. Scarlett O’Hara and her 18” waist aside, few women except teenagers (like Scarlett, who is 16 when the novel opens) had unusually small waist measurements.”[xi]

Much has been made of the danger and damage caused by corsets, but that has also been debunked. “Recent research has challenged the ‘corset myth’ that such garments were dangerous, and it now seems many women wore them without obvious health complications. Historians have traditionally decried corsetry by citing complaints made about the fashion by Victorian writers and doctors, who feared that the crushing of the ribs with whalebone stays inevitably could cause irreparable damage to the body, not least because adapted models were even worn during pregnancy. The critics’ list of potential ailments included: bruising, shallow breathing – so that just climbing the stairs was enough to bring on dizzy spells – muscular atrophy in the abdomen and back, reduced natural fertility, and, in the rarest and most severe cases, organ failure. These alarming consequences were probably from over-tightened and ill-fitting corsets, and were likely rare in occurrence.”[xii]

I hope you enjoyed this dive “under cover!”  Stay tuned for more blogs on a variety of topics,  celebrating the riches found in University Archives and Special Collections. 

Resources Consulted

Baclawski, Karen.  The Guide to Historic Costume.  London: B.T. Batsford, 1995.   General Collection GT507 .B33 1995.

Black, Renata.  “When Was Underwear Invented? A Brief History of Undergarments.”  Eby.com, September 1, 2021.

Cox, Caroline.  “Origins of Underwear.”  Love to Know website.

Deczynski, Rebecca.  “A Brief Evolution of Underwear.”  Good Housekeeping magazine, August 5, 2014.  

Fryxell, David.  “The Revealing History of Underwear.”  Family Tree magazine online.  

“History of Corsetry.”  

“A History of Women’s Undergarments.” Everyman Theatre website, October 6, 2017.

Jenner, Greg.  “From loincloths to corsets: a brief history of underwear with Horrible Histories’ Greg Jenner.” History Extra, the official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed, February 10, 2015.  

Lambert, Tim.  “The History of Underwear: Early Underwear.”  Local Histories website, April 5, 2021.

Paleari, Laura.  “The History of Underwear: Between Past, Present, and Inclusiveness.”  Italian Reve, June 11, 2021.

“Revisited Myth # 59: Women had very tiny waists during the “olden days.”  History Myths Debunked website, September 27, 2015.

Schoeny, Marlise.  “Reforming Fashion, 1850-1914: Politics, Health, and Art.”  Historic Costume & Textiles Collection, Ohio State University, 2000.“Wool Challis.”  Website for the Ben Silver men’s apparel store in Charleston, South Carolina.

“Wool Challis.”  Website for the Ben Silver men’s apparel store in Charleston, South Carolina.

i Cox

ii Jenner

iii Baclawski, p. 62-63

iv Baclawski, p. 92

v Lambert

vi Schoeny

vii Baclawski, p. 161

viii Wool

ix History of Corsetry

x Paleari

xi Revisited

xii Jenner


This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.