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Wednesday, July 25

The Truth Revealed: What Do Regency Ladies Really Wear Under Those Thin Yet Elegant Empire Dresses?

I found many fascinating facts in the Jane Austen Handbook: A Sensible Yet Elegant Guide to Her World. One that most particularly piqued my interest was that ladies generally did not wear drawers in Jane Austen's day. I wondered about that statement. Then I viewed the following hand colored etching attributed to Thomas Rowlandson.

This caricature depicts the staircase leading to the Great Room at Somerset House in Pall Mall, which was where the members of the Royal Academy exhibited their paintings. The stairway to the Great Room was steep and long, and undoubtedly tough to negotiate during crowded days.

Rowlandson's caricature speaks to the popular perception that there were two kinds of viewers who came to Somerset House: Those who wanted to see the paintings and sculptures, and those who came to ogle the ladies whose legs and ankles were exposed walking up those prominent stairs.

In Rowlandson's cartoon, the ladies tumble down in a domino effect, revealing much, much more than a neat turn of ankle. I adore the details in this scene: The rakes ready to take their visual fill of the unfortunate situation, while elegant ladies tumble haplessly, limbs akimbo and tender parts exposed. Interestingly, the ladies are wearing stockings but not much more beneath those gauzy muslins. Rowlandson proves Margaret C. Sullivan right and I am happy for it.

(Thomas Rowlandson, The Exhibition Stare Case (c. 1811, hand-colored etching; etching may be by Rowlandson, although the coloring is not).

The Romantic Cosmopolitanism: The 12th Annual NASSR Conference: "Eyes on the Metropole: Seeing London and Beyond", By Sharon M. Twigg and Theresa M. Kelley


Icha said...

Oh, my...

They don't even wear petticoats or whatever that undergarment called? Gosh, and they wore thin muslins!

Hark, the wind is coming! Be prepared, ladies!

Damselfly said...

There have always been some form of bloomer type thing (also something that looked a bit like a jock strap, that covered the front but not the back...but I'm not sure the date on that garmet). There has also always been vanity. It's seems to me likely that when these women were wearing more silky, light weight fabrics which would have shown every bump underneath they opted out of the puffy, lumping it seemed truely uneccessary inside a warm assembly hall.

Ms. Place said...

Icha and damsel, this was news to me too. I had assumed ... though if you look closely at several illustrations by Thomas Rowlandson and James Gillray there are illustrations that show ladies with drawers (see my post on A Lady Gets Dressed, April 23) and ladies without drawers, as in this instance.

Silent-Porn-Star said...

Hello Ms Place et all :)

Been following part of this conversation a bit and tho Ms has instructed me to follow to another post (which I shall), I do believe that 'nudity' here is actually a subjective thing, or a comparative thing. I will make more posts on this (for the artist and the fashion of this period fascinated me), and I do so enjoy this research sort of debate :P

Mags said...

Hey! I just found this. Rowlandson rocks. I was at the Philadelphia Museum of Art a few years back and just happened on an exhibition of 18th and 19th century prints--including quite a few Rowlandsons and Gillrays. What a lovely and unexpected treat!

As to Going Commando, my research indicated that some women wore various kinds of drawers in the Regency period, but they were considered kind of risqué. These often were flesh-colored knitted drawers, like modern leggings, which were worn under a diaphanous gown to give the appearance that they were nude under the see-through gown. See, risqué. Jane would never have held with such goings-on, of course. There were other kinds of drawers, but they were not common.

Generally the underthings worn throughout the period were the chemise, which was a knee-length tunic, either with short sleeves or sleeveless, the main function of which was to keep sweat and oil from skin off the corset and gown to keep them clean (cheaper to purchase and easier to launder a chemise than a gown); the corset or stays (long or short); and a petticoat, which could be a full gown and was part of one's outfit and meant to be seen (thus it is not really shocking for Miss Bingley to point out Elizabeth Bennet's dirty petticoat to her brother) or a waist-petticoat, like today's half-slips but of course full-length. For day wear, a woman might wear a chemisette, which is like a dickey, under a low-cut dress, as a lady did not display her bosom in daytime. The use of several different chemisettes could give a gown different looks.

In the late Regency and into the 1820s, drawers became more common, usually made of two individual legs tied at the waist or some kind of open-crotch configuration so that a woman could relieve herself.

In the 1830s, women sometimes wore bloomers with the shorter-length gowns that became popular, but drawers did not become really prevalent until the 1850s and crinolines--because they could blow up over one's head and give everyone a show!