Victorian Underwear: A Quick Photographic Journey Through A Very Long Time in the Changeroom

I love this photo of my 3X great-grandmother, Eliza Sarah Johnson (1836-1910). There is no reason to have it here in this post about underwear other than my loving it; unless of course, I were to ask you to wonder what was beneath her dress. But that is entirely inappropriate. She doesn’t look at all like the sort to find that in the least amusing. She looks fairly dour and care-worn, as she might well have been. Like many Victorian mothers, she knew something about loss. 2 of her 10 children died in infancy (she was luckier than most) and she was widowed at the age of 38, when her husband died en route to Australia. Perhaps he was investigating a new life for the family. Perhaps he was on the run. She looks proud though does Eliza, and I like her.

But I digress. Despite slight misgivings about mentioning her unmentionables, if you did wonder what was underneath her dress, I can tell you that Victorian women wore rather a lot of underwear. There were the drawers, the chemise, the corset, the corset cover, the bustle, the hoops, the girdle, the crinoline, the petticoats and the underskirt.

I have spent the week absolutely mesmerised by the photos of Victorian underwear in the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and wanted to pass on a few.

Drawers and Chemises

You started with drawers and a chemise. They were worn against the skin to protect it from the scratchy metal and bone structural elements that came next. Drawers were two separate trouser legs sewn together at the waistband only; like chaps. They were not routinely worn until the crinoline came into fashion, when wardrobe malfunctions were likely to ruin a girl’s reputation.

 Chemises were simple slips made of either cotton or linen.

Corsets

I’m guessing the corset went on next. They are beautiful things, although I’m fairly certain Eliza wouldn’t have thought so, what with their rib-crushing boning. Once on, you could choose to cover the corset with a cotton corset cover, which protected the dress you would put on in an about an hour’s time when you were done with all this underwear.

Bustles

Bustles came in different shapes and sizes. Some just covered the posterior, others were voluminous. It all depended on the fashionable silhouette. One of the bustles in the Met’s collection appears to be made of rope or rattan – two hot-dog-shaped rolls bent into a U. One was made out of horse hair. *scratch scratch*

Petticoats and Underskirts

Victorian women often wore several petticoats and underskirts. They vary from functional to decorative; voluminous – to cover crinolines and hoops – to form-fitting.

Crinolines and Hoops

By the time that Eliza’s picture was taken in 1890, crinolines and hoops skirts had all but been superseded by sturdy bustles. They are lovely to look at though. The top picture is a crinoline (or probably more appropriately a crinolette), the bottom a hoop.

And with that, you were finally able to put your clothes and jewellery on, do you hair and pinch your cheeks. I am quite exhausted at the thought.

As a last thought, if you have a moment this weekend when you question the propriety of that decadent dessert or a second helping of hearty winter food (it’s very cold in Jo’burg), here’s a photo of Queen Victoria’s underwear (recently put up for auction) from The Mail Online.

Go on, have that pud.

If you want to lose yourself in the Met’s underwear collection, here’s the link. You won’t surface for days!

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7 thoughts on “Victorian Underwear: A Quick Photographic Journey Through A Very Long Time in the Changeroom

  1. No wonder they fainted in hot weather. But how did they do any work?
    As for your granny x3’s expression, she may have just beef fed up with waiting for the photographer. My mother always claimed I never smiled in family photos, and tried to embarass me in front of a boyfriend I brought home by hauling out the family album. I was smiling in every one because – allegedly – the photographers spent so much time making me smile my siblings were on the verge of thumping me. Pictures do not tell the truth. Well, not all of it.

  2. Whatever happened to just pulling on a jeans and a shirt? Whoever had the time to put on all these clothes just to sit and home and drink tea?! Even the men had similar endless garments, so it’s not just a ladies thing. Thanks for all the forbidden details. 😉

    • I’ve actually just ordered myself a bustle dress and a corset. (I have no idea where I think I’m going to wear this outfit – the school run, business meetings, quiet Sundays at home- but I am ecstatic at the prospect.) I ordered a merry widow corset though. It’s elasticised and the boning isn’t too restrictive. I’ll let you know if I’m swooning by lunchtime though!

      Thanks for stopping by.

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