Friday, 15 April 2016

Undressed - a brief history of underwear

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Before 1800 underwear for the "lower body"  was not commonly worn so it could get rather chilly in the nether regions in the Regency period. One certainly would not want to do a "Marilyn".

Drawers had been associated with women of low virtue such as prostitutes and dancers but in 1804 The Chester Chronicle noted that "drawers of light pink are now the ton amoung our darling belles" but many women resisted wearing them until much later. It was more convenient for ladies to only wear stockings and petticoats under their skirts.

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Ladies who wore the very sheer garments of the Empire dress period found that there could be problems with their buttocks being visible or even worse their dresses being caught between them. They soon adopted flesh coloured tight fitting pantaloons for modesty.

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The word Pantaloon comes from Pantalone – a character in Italian comedy. He wore garments that came down to his ankles (when most men wore ones only to the knee).

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When women started to wear drawers (the word drawers was invented because underwear was drawn on) they came to just below the knee but from 1828 with the shortening of skirt lengths they wore longer garments with frills at the bottom called pantalettes.

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By the 1840's only girls not women wore pantalettes.

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The word pantalettes became shortened to pants. In the USA women's underwear are called panties, which is obviously a diminutive of pants. However the word panties has never been common in the UK.

So why do we say a pair of pants? It is because in the early 19th century women's underwear consisted of two separate legs joined at the waist. They really were a 'pair'.

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Elizabeth Smith Miller invented a type of long, puffy pants that were gathered at the ankles. Worn with a short (knee or calf length) dress, and made famous by Amelia Bloomer who is shown above.  Soon long underwear had another name - bloomers.

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With the onset of the cage crinoline which could easily be lifted up to reveal all, as Nicola found out, it became an absolute necessity to wear bloomers for privacy and also warmth.

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These linen bloomers were designed for Queen Victoria at the end of the 19th century. They have now been given "national designated status" by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, an award exclusively given to items of both national and international significance.
The bloomers are stored at Kensington Palace in West London and form part of the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection which is composed of 12, 000 items that were all once worn by royalty and courtiers from the 17th century until the present day.

With a 50-inch waist Victoria's  underwear was embroidered with a small crown and the initials VR, and also have a number to ensure they could be kept track of when sent to the laundry.
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Victoria's bloomers are extremely plain and made of a soft, fine cotton and sewn by hand, with fine attention to stitchwork the minute sewing would have taken days.

Like other ladies of the Victorian era, the Queen wore open-crotch underwear whose separate legs were joined by a draw-string at the waist.

When you are wearing a chemise, a corset, a bodice, stockings, multiple petticoats, a dress and various other layers of clothing, in the days before the invention of elastics, your drawers had to be tied on to your waist under your corset. If you needed the loo the legs needed to be separate otherwise you would have had to get undressed.

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Where does the word knickers come from? Apparently it comes from a novel called History of New York by Diedrich Knickerbocker (it was actually written by Washington Irving). In Britain the illustrations for the book showed a Dutchman wearing long, loose fitting garments on his lower body. When men wore loose trousers for sport they were sometimes called knickerbockers. Women's underwear were soon called knickerbockers too and by the late 19th century the word was shortened to knickers.

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It appears to us that even if you wore drawers, bloomers or knickers in the 1800's it would still be chilly in the nether regions !!!

A Date For Your Diary
If you are interested in the history of underwear the V & A have an exhibition starting on April 16th 2016 and running to March 12th 2017. You will be able to discover the evolution of underwear design from the 18th-century to the present day.

"Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear" features over 200 examples of underwear for men and women, highlighting the enduring themes of innovation and luxury. From the custom-made, such as a rare example of home-made ‘stays’ worn by a working woman in England in the 18th-century, to pieces by current designers including Stella McCartney, Rigby & Peller and Paul Smith, the exhibition explores the relationship between underwear and fashion. It covers notions of the ideal body, and the ways that cut, fit, fabric and decoration can reveal issues of gender, sex and morality.

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