Underwear in the 18th Century.

As The Costumer’s Manifesto say:

Many authors of modern historical Romances have a way of meticulously costuming their 18th Century heroines for their activities in the ballroom and drawing rooms, but conveniently forgetting the awkwardness of such attire in the bedroom. In order to live up their racy titles and covers, Romantic fiction portrays 18th Century passion as occurring as rapidly as if every dress seam was merely closed with Velcro, and corsets were fastened with zippers.

This is obviously not a good thing, so here is a short run down of what 18th Century ladies and gentlemen would be wearing underneath their gorgeous outer clothes, and what that means in terms of bedroom activity.

Ladies first, naturally:

The basic undergarment is a shift (aka a ‘chemise’ if you’re French, or a ‘sark’ if you’re Scottish.) A woman in her shift is ‘undressed’ for the purposes of the 18th Century. Though covered, she would no more walk about in it than a modern woman would walk to town in bra and pants.

The shift comes to somewhere just below the knee – short enough so that it does not show under any of the petticoats. Nothing is worn underneath except for stockings. Knickers did begin to come in towards the end of the century, but were regarded as being for prostitutes and women of loose morals only.

Stockings are not the sheer, lacy-topped things we are accustomed to in the 21st Century. They are knitted like hiker’s socks. In the best cases, however, when they are knitted of fine silk, they can be fine as a thick pair of modern tights. They are put on like modern stockings, but there is no suspender belt to keep them up. Instead, garters are tied around the leg just below the knee, and the top of the stockings can be folded down to sit comfortably on top of it. This means that in practice ladies’ stockings look like knee-socks.

Once she’s got her stockings on, the next thing a lady would put on would be her shoes. It’s much easier to do it at this point, while she can still bend in the middle!

Next comes the first of her petticoats (pleated skirts)

Then on top of the first petticoat comes the stays (corset)

(These stays by http://www.TheStaymaker.co.uk).

These are laced up the back, ideally by someone else. If the laces are long enough, you can put the stays over your head while loosely laced and then tighten them up yourself, but it’s much harder to make sure the lacing is evenly tight throughout. An upper class woman will have a lady’s maid to do this for her, a lower class woman will either have to do it herself or have a mother/sister/daughter do it for her.

A woman wearing a single petticoat and stays over her shift is regarded as being dressed. That is, a working class woman who had no outer garments would not be chastised for being indecently dressed if that was all she wore. It would be a mark of extreme poverty, though, not to have at least one outer layer.

If the lady is upper class, she may now put on hoops or panniers, to give her that fashionable galleon in full sail look:

If she wears panniers, she’ll tie her pockets underneath them. If not, the pockets tie on directly over the stays. The pockets are little bags tied onto a ribbon which ties around the waist. The lady will be able to reach them through slits made in the sides of her upper petticoat.

They are very capacious. She could easily carry a little dagger in one of them without disturbing the line of her dress at all.

On top of that goes a second petticoat, with the slits lined up above the slits in the pockets.

On top of that goes a fichu – a large square neckerchief folded into a triangle with the point down the back, which protects the gown above it from the unwashed skin beneath. It also conceals the cleavage, for modesty, and protects the lady’s assets from the vulgar tanning effect of the sun.

On top of that goes either a gown or a short jacket

In this case the gown is being worn on top of a petticoat made of the same material as the gown. The ruffles are sewn onto the sleeves of the gown and are not part of the underclothes.

The gown will be pinned shut, possibly over an embroidered stomacher

The whole dressing process takes at least three quarters of an hour – more, if the lady is wearing higher status clothes. So it goes without saying that she will not be willing to undress lightly.

The Gentlemen

The gentlemen get off fairly easily. Their basic undergarment is the shirt

This – like the woman’s shift – comes down to roughly knee-height.

Unlike women, a man may wear drawers under his breeches – cut and shaped like the breeches, but made of thin linen. (Still trying to find a picture of these. I know I’ve seen one somewhere!) Gentleman’s stockings are rolled as far up the leg as they will go (mid thigh) and secured with a garter around the knee, just as women’s are, but their breeches will stop the top part of the stockings from rolling down.

The gentleman then tucks his shirt between his legs and puts on a pair of breeches:

Breeches can be fly fronted (as these are) or drop fronted. In both cases the front of the breeches can be undone without undoing the waistband. In addition to being buttoned at the waistband and fly, they are also buttoned or buckled at the knee, often tight enough to pinch and restrict movement.

A gentleman wearing shirt and breeches is considered to be undressed. Though modestly covered by modern standards, by 18th Century standards he is considered to be in his ‘small clothes’ – his underwear. If he wants to take off his tight, movement-restricting coat anywhere where he might be seen, even in his own house, he will replace it with some other piece of outerwear such as a banyan (kimono-style dressing gown).

With his breeches and shirt on, he then ties a neck-cloth such as a cravat around the neck. On top of his breeches goes a waistcoat (with numerous buttons, all done up) and then a frock coat. The frock coat is cut in such a way as to pull the shoulders back and give an upright posture.

This young man has rolled his stockings over the cuffs of his breeches rather than wearing them underneath – that’s a fashion from early in the century.

But though restrictive, the gentlemen’s clothes are easier to get on and off than the ladies’. They probably could strip off with relative ease if they wanted to. Evidence suggests, however, that generally they didn’t care to:

Pornographic prints from the 18th Century almost always depict the people who are having sex as at least partially clothed. But 18th Century porn is a whole new post. I can recommend

if you want to delve into that a bit deeper. If not, there is an interesting sample, very much not safe for work, here:

Naval Naughtiness

I haven’t gone onto wigs and powder, cosmetics, or hats, because that seems like a subject for another post too, but here is a gorgeous snippet from ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ which demonstrates the process of getting dressed in such a way as to show that the clothes themselves have a slightly pornographic appeal.