19th Century "Smalls"
Underwear, that is. Smalls, short for “small clothes,” in the 19th century underwent a change as drastic as conquering the West and building bridges and cities. Of course, these changes reflected the changing status of women and - most certainly - their location: Eastern and Southern ladies wore gowns from Paris, laced-up corsets, and petticoats so bouffant getting through doorways or perching on settees could be problematic. Women walking across the country with a covered wagon had no time for such fripperies.
Even so, a German writer in 1865 noted peasant girls working in fields in crinolines, and one Arnold Bennett captured the hazards in a scene from “Old Wives’ Tale: Two young girls unpack their mother’s new crinoline, and Sophia tries it on. “Her mother’s newly delivered crinoline ballooned about her in all its fantastic richness and expensiveness.... Then Sophia fell, in stepping backwards; the pyramid was overbalanced, great distended rings of silk trembled and swayed gigantically on the floor, and Sophia’s small feet lay like the feet of a doll on the rim of the largest circle, which curved and arched above them like a cavern’s mouth.”
Layers of petticoats meant more washing, so women going West dispensed with all but one layer. The camisole top was de riguer, as was the tight-laced corset, though I cannot imagine how one survived in dust and 100 degree heat trussed up like a turkey. But in town populations, “ladyness”was judged in terms of whalebone and lacings.
One English woman, not tightly laced until she was married, tells in the “Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine” (1868), how she started doing so because her husband was “so particularly fond of a small waist.” Her waist was 23 inches, but she ordered a 14-inch pair of stays and “managed the first day to lace my waist in to eighteen inches.” She slept in it all night and got her maid to tighten it once inch each day until her waist was 14 inches. “For the first few days the pain was very great . . . ”
An interesting footnote to this story is the experiment by Doris Langley Moore, a leading [historical] costume expert, who searched for the 18 inch waist in fashion museums. She measured 1000 women’s costumes from the Victorian period and failed to find any less than 20.5 inches around!
Dr. William Barrylord in his book “The Corset and the Crinoline” cautioned that lacing shoved the organs around, weakened stomach support muscles and induced much “temporary”suffering.
What began in the 1860s as loose, oversized chemises with wide necklines, drawstrings, and wide sleeves, (often in wool for warmth), were worn over large-sized drawers, called knickers, open in the back and tied at the waist with a drawstring.
By the 1880s, corsets became longer and petticoats were “bustled” with twill stiffened with whalebone or stiffly starched ruffles at the back. Quilted petticoats were worn for warmth, many made of red flannel. Later, the “princess” petticoat appeared, combining a camisole or bodice with a petticoat. Corsets were now available in yellow, apricot, and deep blue and were more decorative, often made of satin and lace. “Suspenders” kept up one’s stockings, and these were often attached to a waist belt or even the corset itself.
The camisole was not an effective bust-enhancer, so the French developed pink rubber “poitrines” and women adopted bust pads, celluloid and rubber bust shapes, and “lemon bosoms.” The bustline was a rounded bolster, with no division or “cleavage.” The heavily boned “bust bodice” was the beginning of our modern brassiere.
Invention of the “combination,” combining chemise and drawers in linen, cotton, or even merino flannel, corresponded with the growth in women’s emancipation (Marriage and Divorce Act of 1857 (Scotland); Married Women’s Property Acts of 1881(England) but at first such social progress did not affect women’s undergarments. Tight-lacing, bustles, voluminous petticoats, constricting underwear, and skirts that trailed on the ground coexisted for years with women seeking freedom for higher education and the right to vote. For decades women looked outwardly the same, following established conventions of fashion - slimness, well-developed bustline, small waist, large hips. But underneath . . .
The underwear revolution began mid-19th century with a health craze: women were advised to stop lacing themselves into tight corsets, wear wool undergarments next to the skin, wear only one petticoat, and adopt loose bloomers. Interestingly, in the skirt-and-shirtwaist era, women’s blouses imitated men’s shirts, with high collar and tie. This look was standard until the introduction of oversized sleeves - the “Gibson girl” look. The “walking dress” of the 1880s had become a tailor-made, worn with knickers closed at the back and “sanitary underclothing,” (wool “combinations” next to the skin). Waists were still sharply defined.
By the 20th century, underwear was coming into its own, resulting in 21st century wisps of lace and rayon “thongs” and bikini briefs with matching, wildly colored, minuscule bra-tops. What next?
Source: Elizabeth Ewing, Fashion in Underwear, From Babylon to Bikini Briefs, Dover, 1971.