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.
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 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!