Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Undergarments of the Age

Ever wonder what was under those breeches and gowns? Let's chat about unmentionables, an essential part of the wardrobe. These were known as "small clothes" and being seen in them, despite the many layers, was just as if we were caught in our modern day undies, a state of undress!

Men would begin their clothing regiment by putting on their drawers. These were usually simple and made from thin linen. They resembled elongated boxers. Next, a gent might fancy to put his socks on which would be secured at the knee with a garter (a simple ribbon). A shirt that was about knee-length would be tucked into the breeches and between the legs. Voila! Now you are ready to put your clothes on!

Of course undergarments for ladies were a more complicated matter. They served the essential function of shaping women in the fashionable mold that God failed to.
The core piece of ladies' small clothes was the chemise or shift. This was a simple white gown that looks like a night gown. Nothing would be worn underneath the shift. It was thought that the ladies' region needed to be aired out. This made that special time of the month a pretty sloppy event since women would just bleed into their layers. At the time of her death, Marie Antoinette had been wearing the same ragged clothing in prison and her uterus was hemorrhaging (poor thing!). In an effort to appear clean and decent, the doomed queen had saved a new, unworn chemise in her cell, specifically for the day she would be brought to the guillotine.
Petticoats would be put on over the chemise. These were skirts, usually two or more, that were meant to keep the lady warm and the gown flouncy.
Stays, or the corset, would be put on over the shift and tightened to give the torso a nice V shape.
A pocket would be tied around the waist. These could be embroidered with pretty designs even thought they were never seen once clothes were on. They were large enough to hold all the necessities and the modern purse is actually an evolved form of a pocket! But that's a whole 'nother post for later.
Panniers would sit over the pocket on the hips to give the appearance of a slender waist. These came in many shapes and sizes, from a cage-like structure to small pads to flair out the skirt slightly. At the end of the century, false bottom (or bustles) and even false stomachs (a fad Georgiana invented) would replace panniers.
As soon as stockings were put on and secured with garters (ribbons again) a woman was considered...undressed. Well, in a state of undress. She was now prepared to put on her gown!

For good visuals, Dangerous Liasons, Amadeus, and The Duchess show the undergarment portion of the clothing process.


  1. Ah, so that's the reason for panniers..... to produce an hourglass figure! And of course, the corset would make the waist tiny. Who designed these instruments.... an engineer?! :O)

    Poor Marie Antoinette (sp?)!

  2. This made that special time of the month a pretty sloppy event since women would just bleed into their layers.

    I'm curious about the source for that. Not that I have a better or contrary one, I'm just curious because menstruation is one of those topics that it's hard to track down in history (it not being a think women wrote a lot about) and I've always wondered how women dealt with it back then.

  3. Really, they just bled into their layers? The blood would drip down too, so they'd end up leaving a trail of it, surely? I don't quite see G doing that.

    I always thought they made a sort of old-fashioned pad of rags secured in a kind of diaper, you know, like with a belt of sorts.

  4. A friend of mine attended a lecture here in London about a month ago, on the subject of menstruation in history. The woman who gave the lecture is in the process of getting a book published on it in the next 6 months if I remember correctly. I can't for the life of me remember what the title is going to be, but a keep a look out for it!

  5. It's actually up for debate (period management) because historians haven't discovered anything contrary. So in books like Queen of Fashion they will touch upon in briefly. I'm going to have to read that book when it comes out so to see if the author discovered anything!

  6. I read Queen of Fashion, but ended up selling that book (I think I was too disturbed by MA's murder by guillotine to keep it). I don't recall it saying anything about not wearing some protection when closed for maintenance. Will have to go skim it at B&N.

  7. The Museum of Menstruation (yes there is such a place!) also seems to go with the same theory

  8. Some days ago I made a post about menstruation on my blog, it's very short but it was all that I could find of interesting.

  9. i have a lot of trouble believing that wealthy women just bled into their garments. The fine fabrics they wore would've been stained and ruined, even with a couple of layers of linen underneath. Plus, a pad of rags is such common sense that the only reason it's not mentioned is probably that it's an icky topic.

    1. 18th century women should have worn muslin knickers at least. All those rakes about. Looking to get raped. No way.

  10. I'm with the skeptics about this, but a litle looking around does seem to confirm Heather's post:


    Read down to see that the author indicates that women bled less often for multiple reasons listed there. One could easily argue that the real facts have been lost in history, since who would think to detail how they resolved this in a diary?

  11. A book I read once said the same as you--that women just bled without protection--but as it didn't list a source, and the scholarship of the book was generally poor, I found that hard to believe. But hearing it from you and reading the comments here is more assuring. Interestingly, the book added that men considered the smell attractive.

    Tulip, I saw on a reenactor-style show based in 1900 that they used rags in diaper style. "Underwear" was only invented during the Industrial Revolution, apparently, which I suppose is when the diapers began too.

    Paul, I imagine that actually would be something that people would mention. I once read a diary where a man referred to accidentally urinating in his bed because he didn't realize that the bottom was out on his chamber pot. However the 19th-century additions of the diary had edited that part out, and it was only in the 1970s that a historian republished the diary based on the manuscripts. But if the manuscripts had been lost in the meantime, we could only rely on what the squeamish Victorians left in--and menstruation is something that they would probably cut out!

  12. Loved the post! I am longing to read a post from you about eighteen century personal hygiene. My notion about that time is that hygiene was rarer than diamonds.

    It is famous that petite histoire about Napoleon that whenever he was returning from his war campaigns he sent a messenger to Josephine asking her not to was her private parts...

  13. Hmm, I don't know. Maybe the lower classes didn't bother with any sort of protection, but fine fabrics as worn by people with money were expensive and investment pieces (see Lady in Red which notes Lady Worsely's wardrobe was a potential source of income for her and thus kept from her by her husband when she left him) and blood is hard to remove. I strongly suspect people did use some sort of diaper thing (how hard could that be?) even if they didn't mention it.

  14. I'm veering off the historical aspect but menstruation, to some, is believed to be sacred.

    It's posts like these that really bring the day-to-day life in history alive. These are topics that people don't usually mention but often wonder about.

  15. I agree, Lesley. I love the look of the 18th century, but I have a strong feeling I'd loathe the smell! :) And information like this makes it easier to imagine what life would've actually been like.

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  17. Women were so trussed and corseted up top, yet left everything open below. Curious era. The men in Manor House adored the concept of late 18th c.- 19th c. underwear. I hadn't thought that the monthly problem would be tackled by doing nothing. I thought they used linen rags and were isolated, or am I mixing eras up with Biblical times?

    There are so many myths and taboos associated with menstruation - where women were thought to be unclean - that I imagine keeping oneself isolated was one way to deal with a problem as old as Eve. Here's a link to the only article I could find quickly that discusses the use of tampons and other devices and a quote from the article: http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2252/who-invented-tampons

    Women have crafted tampons and pads for their own use for thousands of years. In her book Everything You Must Know About Tampons (1981), Nancy Friedman says:

    [T]here is evidence of tampon use throughout history in a multitude of cultures. The oldest printed medical document, papyrus ebers, refers to the use of soft papyrus tampons by Egyptian women in the fifteenth century B.C. Roman women used wool tampons. Women in ancient Japan fashioned tampons out of paper, held them in place with a bandage, and changed them 10 to 12 times a day. Traditional Hawaiian women used the furry part of a native fern called hapu'u; and grasses, mosses and other plants are still used by women in parts of Asia and Africa.

    Apparently, as time passed, tampons went underground. By the 1930s, when commercial tampons became available, some women were already making their own "out of surgical cotton, cutting strips to size and rolling them tightly for insertion, or they bought natural sea sponges at cosmetics or art supply stores and trimmed them into reusable tampons," Friedman writes. "But these women belonged to an exclusive margin of society; they tended to be actresses, athletes, or prostitutes--all dubious professions, in the eyes of 'respectable' women."

    The more common choice was a pad or napkin. According to Janice Delaney and her co-authors in The Curse: A Cultural History of Menstruation (1988), until 1925 American women "wore a diaper made of bird's eye or outing flannel, which they were obliged to wash and reuse." Burners were available for disposal during travel as early as the 1890s.

  18. Realistically, there probably was no one way of dealing with menstruation, anymore than there is today. Some women might have bled into their clothes, others might have fashioned tampons of some sort, or a diaper sort of contraption. (I know some women today roll up a length of cotton and tuck it between the labia, not exactly a tampon, not exactly a pad. I an see that working fairly well, assuming the labia held it in place without the help of underwear.) I do agree that the risk of staining expensive clothing probably made some upper class women try to come up with a way to avoid it.

  19. Sigh. As long as they did *something*. My sensibilities cannot take the idea of just staining into clothing.

  20. True, but remember...our modern sensibilities are oh so different than 18th-century ones (or those of any era). I don't know the secret of the 18th-century period either, but when you consider that there were at least 2 or 3 layers of fabric between a woman and her outermost layer of clothing, then the idea of "period without protection" is a little less gross. I agree with to-love-a-rose...you probably just did what you had to do...whatever that was.

  21. Well it would seem that the comments made about women not wearing anything during their time of menstruation is true. It's hard to believe....and disgusting to believe. Blech. From "A Visit From Auntie"

    On average, a woman loses about four tablespoons of blood each month. To deal with the mess of it, women used grass, sponges, cotton wads and other absorbent materials to catch the blood. What is hard for us to imagine, however, is that the custom of some in history was to bleed into their clothing with nothing to catch it. In earlier times, open-crotch undergarments allowed secretions to pass away from the body and provided ventilation. It was not all "lavender and lace" under those long skirts! Today's "crotched" underwear is a fairly modern invention.

    Nothing is written about the practices of American pioneer women other than hints about it in diaries where dark colors were recommended for wearing. Therefore, pioneer women may have bled into their clothing as well since they would have done the same as women in their homelands. In some cultures, women still bleed into their clothing today.

    Records indicate that historically, menstruating women left a trail of blood. Factories where women worked used rushes on the floor to catch it. One might imagine that the odor was terrific, but during the 18th century at least, menstrual odor was considered seductive. At certain times in history, odor was evidence of a young girl's ability to have children. At other times, it spoke of a woman's infertility.

    When considering the average woman in early history, poor nutrition, the lack of birth control, and the fact women breastfed their children, make it entirely possible that she did not menstruate very many times during her life, if at all. We must remember that the norm was not even to live until menopause.


  22. Well, this all really soils the 18th siecle, no pun intended.

  23. I might be getting sligtly off-topic for this blog, but I wonder what they did when they reached the Regency. It's one thing to bleed into your clothes if you have on several layers, but all those thin white muslin gowns with just a chemise and maybe a petticoat on underneath? They must have done something.

  24. Good question. I've been reading novels set in the Regency lately though, and the heroines are always adding extra petticoats against the cold (and so could bleed into layers) but the non-virginal villainesses are always next to naked in damped muslin (no bleeding possible).

  25. Before I go on, I enjoyed this underwear post. I love 18th century fashion, and am a American Revelution reenactor (campfollower for the Loyalists). Someday, I may actually go '18th century' as far as undies go, as it would be a helluva lot easier to go in a portapotty. Once you wear all those layers, you understand the wisdom of chamberpots. Granted, whereing stays is not like wearing a corset where you are cinched in.

    But I have a disagreement--Menstrating directly into one's clothes? I know that this is speculation, but I'm not buying it. Even for a poor person, clothing was a huge investment. Bleeding into layers of clothing, especially outer layers that are not often washed, just seems like the silly assumption that all people before the modern era were dirty and knew nothing. Menstural blood's scent may have been considered alluring, but like all blood, when it's old, it smells like rotten meat. Not so alluring. I think many of these "experts" are basing their "facts" because there isn't any record of what they really did (except maybe Germany in the rural areas, as the Museum of Menstration states, and even that seems to be prejudicial information). If you go through to the rebuttal (last long item on that page) from a lady who was told by her grandmother what her family did, I think this is closer to what was done during Menstration.


  26. I would so have to agree with heidilea. I have been expressing the same gripe: clothing costs money and just letting the blood flow into it makes no sense from the financial sense, even if they were that dirty that they didn't care about the smell.

  27. And they cared about smell too. Some people wore perfumes, plus hair powder, and they washed regularly (just not necessarily in showers or bathtubs).

    Someone must have written it down somewhere. You'd even think Samuel Pepys would at one time or another have written about it ("and there was a big puddle on the chair when my wife stood up, which was humiliating for me" etc).

  28. Very interesting subject -- one which I could see going either way, though I am hesitant to believe the au-naturale route was used when Neoclassical fashions arrived on the scene.

    I really wanted to comment about this line:

    "They served the essential function of shaping women in the fashionable mold that God failed to."

    Loved it!!

  29. Yes, Heather has a fantastic turn of phrase. :)

  30. I've posted this question to the yahoo group 18th century Woman, catering to reenactors and historians. Here's a couple responses I got:

    "I've posted before about that murder case in the Old Bailey archives, where a woman was convicted of knife murder because of menstrual blood stains on her shift and apron, but no blood on her outer clothes (she testified that she had worn her apron tied "under me next my shift" if I remember the quote rightly), and experimenting showed that with a drawstring apron I could tie it on and pull the apron between my legs and loop the end over the apron strings like the old pad-and-belt arrangement. Did all women do this? Probably not, but at least one did. And any evidence is probably gone to the rag man."

    And another, that unfortunately, can't be documented to a person right now:
    " At the 18th century site where I work (Claude Moore Colonial Farm, www.1771.org) we have a few such "rags" to take out and show inquiring visitors.

    We learned of them from a symposium at George Mason University-- I think it was 2006 or 7. A woman there had for display all sorts of medical instruments, including a cloth of soft linen about 12" square, with loops at two opposite corners. I WISH I had gotten her name, so I could have more solid documentation! But, she was working with archaeologists at an 18th century house, and discovered a cloth stuck inside the wall. It had some blood on it. The male archaeologists couldn't figure out what it was for... but she could! She figured out that if you fold 2 diagonal corners in, making it a sort of pointy rectangle, then the 2 loops are at opposite corners and you can string them onto a piece of linen tape to tie around your waist. Ta-da! And, if you need extra absorption, you can stuff the inside (as you're folding it) with wool or more fabric or something.

    Now, as I said above, I really wish I'd gotten her name so I could have more concrete documentation! It is possible that all this conjecture is wrong. But, to us it makes sense-- especially with the older type of menstrual pads that my mother showed me, before the peel 'n stick variety came along: a long pad with 2 hooks, to be fastened to an elastic band around your waist."

    The second response was by the lady who owns Ageless Artifice, a cosmetics company who reproduces them from age-old recipes, including 18th century ones! Minus the white lead, of course.

  31. Oh, the relief! Thank you, heidilea. :)

  32. "Small-clothes" did NOT mean underwear, it was a late 18th-century euphemism for knee-breeches, as these OED entries show:
    '1. Breeches; knee-breeches. (Cf. SMALL n. 9a.)
    1796 J. HUNTER Trav. 297 The immensity of their breeches, (for, in spite of the fashionable phrase, it would certainly be a perversion of terms to call them small-clothes). 
1812 W. COMBE Syntax, Picturesque xx, One who was in full fashion drest,..His small-clothes sat so close and tight . . '
    'Smalls 9. pl. a. Small clothes; formerly, breeches; now, underclothes.
    1837 DICKENS Pickw. xvi, A difficult process it is to bow in green velvet smalls. 
 . . 1943 N. COWARD Middle East Diary (1944) 80 Their mothers stood nearby washing out a few ‘smalls’ in the shallows . . '
    ‘Unmentionable, a. and n.
    . . b. n. pl. Trousers. (Cf. INEXPRESSIBLE B. 2.) Also, underpants, and (chiefly joc.) underwear, esp. women's.
    1823 London Mag. Oct. 433/2 Liston, in a pair of unmentionables coming half-way down his legs. 
. . 1930 Amer. Speech V. 497 Silk nighties, panties, and undies in general..these articles were consistently grouped in the common speech as ‘unmentionables’.
    ‘‘Inexpressible, a. and n.
. . 2. pl. (colloq.) Breeches or trousers. (Orig. euphemistic: cf. ineffables, inexplicables, unmentionables.)
    1790 WOLCOTT (P. Pindar) Rowland for Oliver Wks. 1795 II. 154 (Farmer) I've heard, that breeches, petticoats, and smock, Give to thy modest mind a grievous shock, And that thy brain (so lucky its device) Christ'neth them inexpressibles, so nice. ‘
    ‘ineffable, a. (n.)
    1. pl. Trousers. (A humorous euphemism: cf. inexpressibles, unmentionables.)
    1823 New Monthly Mag. VIII. 337 Our lower garments, or Ineffables, sit but awkwardly.’
    ‘inexplicable, a. (adv.) and n.
    2. pl. A vulgar euphemism for ‘trousers’: cf. inexpressibles.
    1836-7 DICKENS Sk. Boz III. 257 He usually wore a brown frock coat without a wrinkle, light inexplicables without a spot.’

  33. I forgot to thank you for a consistently interesting and entertaining website, which I have plugged on the Patrick O'Brian [Aubrey/Maturin] Discussion Forum: http://www.wwnorton.com/cgi-bin/ceilidh.exe/pob/forum/?C850e5a913KHc-7192-1208-90.htm

  34. Women of the era did not "just bleed into their clothes". How could they? It would stain their expensive fabrics and ruin their gowns! A well-established theory by most of the women I have talked to is that women wore "pads" made of old linen rags that tied around the waist with strings or tapes. a surviving original "pad" was discovered in a historic house that was being renovated. It consisted of a 12" square of fabric that had loops on two opposite corners for a string to be laced through and tied about the waist. The men who were working on the project didn't know what it was, but the sole woman who was there could identify it easily.

  35. This is so fascinating! I'm of the camp that there's no way women of any age and social strata would have just bled through into their clothes. probably mostly because clothes were expensive, like everyone else has said already.

    The no underwear thing was probably because of the need for ease in going to the bathroom. A woman could just stand with her legs apart and go over a chamber pot without removing anything. She may lift her skirts a little to protect against splashing, or maybe have an chamberpot that was set up higher?

    I think that the "clues" that indicate that they did just bleed into their clothes, like wearing dark colors or extra layers, simply was a guard against leakage. I mean think about it, an all cloth barrier between a woman and her clothes...there's bound to be some leakage and slippage going on. We're too used to the safety of tampons and pads, and even those leak sometimes!

    I would think the later pioneer women in the US probably suffered from this a lot...Think about it, they're bouncing around in covered wagons for miles and all they can think about is how to clean their rags and whatever got stained by the leaks in the middle of nowhere. It was best to wear dark colors on those days, and there's no way they just bled through. Think of how much they would have to work to clean everything!

    I do however have to feel sorry for these women when they were bloating and cramping and have to wear corsets! Ugh!

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  37. Just in case anyone is still wondering, I've read they used small sponges, much like we use tampons today. Seeing as natural sponge was known about in those days [it was already being used as a form of contraceptive by prostitutes] it makes sense. Also for the regency women there was a different form of corset, sitting differently over the hips it would allow for an easier use of a sanitary belt, which held wadded cotton tightly against the bottom area.

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  40. In reply to Anonymous who stated women loose only 4 tablespoons full of blood per month. Lucky women ,who ever they are.I report on the many I have spoken to who bleed for five days quite heavily and later in life experience lumps of their uterus coming away. I can not see ladies who have had children, with the afterbirth blood flow carrying on with their work with blood dribbling down their legs or being soaked into their skirts. The hooked up cloths were used even after the second world War. Sanitary protection for women was not a priority.

  41. I agree with Avril. Four tablespoons?! I have heard that before but I don't know any of those women! As for them bleeding into their clothes, for women who do lose more than 4 tablespoons,(and I think that's all of them really!),what about bleeding onto the furniture? Even through all those layers of clothing a heavy flow could make it's way through the clothing to the furniture, which was expensive. Elaborate sofas and tapestry chairs? Surely they didn't just bleed on to those.