Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Regency-era Lady's Prodigious Layers of Clothing

by Wanda Luce

Poor darlings!  What a production it was for a lady of the Regency Era to go from bare skin to polished enchantress.  Knowing what must go under that elegant outer gown just makes me itch and turn in my skin. Such a binding set of underclothing must have made escaping it at night a great thing.  Or, maybe I am just a typical 21st century woman who finds modern day clothing too restricting.  Well, since you and I are involved in this article for the sole purpose of exploring those far more dreadful early 19th century underclothes, I suppose we might as well get on with the investigation.

The very first layer donned by the fashionable women of the Regency Era was the chemise, or shift.  It was a thin, full-length cotton garment with short, tight sleeves, a low neckline, and a plain hem . Our present day slip is very similar, though unlike the chemise, a slip is worn under the other layers of undergarments.  A chemise provided a barrier between a woman's body and the other layers of clothing and absorbed perspiration.  This first layer bore up under washings with the most stringent soaps and were often boiled to achieve a high level of clean as well as to remove any stains or discoloration.  The transparent muslins and silks of the era were intended to flow elegantly around a lady's form, but without the help of a chemise or shift, society might have been granted far too immodest a display of her private "attributes."  In my Regency-era novel, Lydia, my heroine goes for a swim in a private pond wearing only her chemise.

Once the chemise was in place, a woman slipped into short stays, a corset that extended only a short way below the breasts.  Those who hoped to appear thin wore long stays.


Lastly came the petticoat, a long, sleeveless garment with a scooped neckline. It was anchored at the back with hooks and eyelets and was often embellished at the hem.  Petticoats were intended to be seen, since a lady often needed to lift her outer dress to protect its far more expensive and delicate fabric.

Drawers, or underpants, were not in common use at this time, though some did wear them.  They buttoned at the knee and were open at the crotch.  Quite a drafty bit of nonsense if you ask me!  Well, the advent of the modern toilet was yet a way off, so the logistics of squatting over a chamber pot necessitated certain "concessions" in the clothing line.  To our modern-day sensibilities and cultural delicacies (if we have any left) makes the idea sound rather obscene--but so it was.  However, consider; while women were anchored lock, stock and barrel inside so much fabric, at least they enjoyed the cooling free breezes underneath it all.  I cannot quite reconcile their rigid morality with the concept of a completely exposed &$%@(*.   Oh well, a great many things in history make very little sense by today's standards.

Although I cannot bear the thought of wearing all that rigamaroll, I often envy those ladies that they got to wear such wonderfully feminine clothing. Were I to dress in that way today, the local sherriff would most likely offer me a kind escort to the "sanitarium."

For those who would like the experience of dressing like a lady of the ton, several present-day organizations offer Regency-era balls.  How I would love to step back in time and mingle, just once, at a London-season ball with the most illustrious members of the "upper ten thousand!"  How fun it might have been to be a Miss Elizabeth Bennett.

 Hope you will take a minute to hop over to and read the blurb about my Regency-era romance, Lydia, and some of my weekly excerpts from my present historical work-in-progress.  Thanks.


  1. And here I lament the fact that I have to put on so many things in winter! Thank you for a fun and instructing post!

  2. Always interesting! I think that's the first example of the short stays that I've seen.

  3. Wanda, this is so very helpful! I love reading things like this that will help me to building my Regency world a little better. A few months ago on one of my historical groups, we were discussing this very topic. I'd heard a long time ago that women wore nothing but thigh-high stockings and their shoes under their chemise. (grins) We debated back and forth, until someone finally found the answer. Like you said, drawers were used, but not a lot wore them. The reason? Because it was scandalous for a woman to wear drawers. Scandalous to cover their nether regions? lol Anyway, it was a comical conversation, that's for sure!


  4. Thanks for your comments. Isn't it a hoot that women of that day ran around without drawers. That picture of them had me in stitches!

  5. Thank you for posting this wonderful information. When I wrote my Regency romances (A Lady's Point of View and five others), the Internet wasn't around. How I would have loved to have this resource!

  6. I find the way full dress was done back then for the upper class almost stifling, but I suppose it was better than the earlier Georgian or the later Victorian which were far more complicated.

    Thanks for sharing.

  7. Enjoyed the discussion, won't complain about my pantyhose quite as much from now on!

  8. In my research, I have also come across pantalettes and a bustle pad for the Regency era. Has anyone else heard of such a thing? I'm going to have to do more searching on that.

    I loved your article, Wanda; The info was presented in such a cute fashion.

    I'm grateful for no stays, but it might have been better than today's tourniquet. I am not sure.

  9. Debbie, the bustle pad was sew into the back of the bodice to support the pleats of the skirt.
    Some ladies went without undergarments and damped down their dresses to add to their allure. It proved fatal in some cases.

  10. Wonderful- then I don't have to remove the bustle pad from my work-in-progress! I really need those pantalettes, too! Thanks.

  11. I strip my bra off the moment I hit my bedroom door when I return home each day. I cannot even imagine what it must have been like to wear a chemise and stays and petticoats and drawers. I am inching in my own modern clothes just thinking of it, although I do love the gowns. This is a great post. I especially love the first painting.

    Lisa Follett

  12. Just looking at the tight fabric about the women's shoulders and chest makes me want to wave my hands above my head just because I can.

    Thank you for a wonderful article, Wanda. Definitely something to keep in mind for my Regency novel whenever I eventually finish it. :)

  13. Excellent article! I'm going to bookmark this to come back to later when I'm editing and revising my WIP. I actually have a female POV in this one, so the clothing might come up.

  14. Ah yes, Lisa, that is what the tourniquet is called.

  15. Regency corsets are very comfortable and give you great posture. It's a small price for not being able to see your knees. Compared to other historical periods women really didn't wear a lot of clothes then and they were fairly easy to get in and out of. I find with putting on my Regency stuff that most of the time is spent arranging shift and corsets so that they don't stick out of the top of your gown.

  16. What a wonderful, well researched post! Yes, definitely one of those "I'd love to visit, as long as I can come home to my comfy jeans and T-shirts" kind of dreams. ;-)

  17. Thanks to Wanda Luce, author of the Regency-era romance, Lydia, for sharing this informative article on A Regency-era Lady's Prodigious Layers of Clothing.

  18. Thanks very much for your wonderful post. My time is 17th Century, and I read once in Samuel Pepys' diary he climbed some stairs from the river where a lady slipped an fell in front of him. Her skirts went up, and showed the whole world her nether regions. She did not wear drawers. Samuel Pepys also recorded in his diary he would watch his wife dress. When she put on her drawers, he knew she would not frolic with her dance instructor.

  19. The surprise is not how encumbered with layers of clothes Regency women were, it's that they didn't all succumb to pneumonia.

    Britain is a cold, damp, wet country. We have summers. About once every four years. But there's a reason many Brits wear tweed year round and/or always keep their padded waistcoat nearby. The place is bloody cold!

    Added to that, 200 years ago, the houses weren't heated, as we understand heated. They weren't insulated. The windows were made with very thin glass, and probably didn't sit well in their fittings.

    In perhaps 90% of houses, bedrooms wouldn't have been heated--that means sleeping and dressing in a chamber which is probably 40 degrees F. And you'd be able to see your breath as a plume of mist in the mornings.

    In the big houses, yes, they would have had fires in the rooms--but the reception rooms all have those very tall ceilings, so the top half of the rooms might have been heated very well. Unfortunately, most women dwell nearer the floor than the ceiling.

    The men had it better. Their waistcoats might have been of wool or moleskin or corduroy. In colder weather, they might wear two waistcoats, or one quilted waistcoat. And of course, their coats were of good English wool broadcloth or flannel. Buckskin breeches are good for cutting out the breeze hitting one's backside. Men's stockings were knitted wool and they wore boots. (Not unlike today...)

    But the poor females. Three layers of finest muslin or silk or linen? There's nothing to keep a body warm in that.

    Fortunately many women would have worn a wool petticoat in the winter--made from a fine woven wool, similar perhaps to Viyella. They may also have worn round gowns in the winter of wool--again out of a fine woven wool. And shawls. The Empress Josephine wore two Kashmiri shawls in winter--having been raised in the West Indies, she felt the cold extremely.

    Of the warmer clothes a woman might possess--her spencer jacket or her pelisse--these might well have been made of wool. Sadly, she generally removed them in the house. Only her riding costume--which alone would have been made by a tailor, not a seamstress--would have been made of the same high-quality (read warm)English wool as that of menswear of the era.

    Makes me cold just thinking of it!

  20. Beautiful blog and post! How far we have fallen in our dress! I know that there were LOTS of layers before and it was cumbersome HOWEVER they look STUNNING!!!
    If you get a chance today, I would love to extend a hand to you and your friends to join my Jane Austen Contest! We have wonderful prizes and it begins today here are the blogs participating! Hope to see you there!

  21. I think there's a minor misconception about how restricting Regency era clothing was. In many respects, it was more restricting than clothing is today. I am not arguing that point; however, the stays worn during the period allowed for far more movement than anything in the previous 2 centuries or the century that followed. Even though the fashionably low necklines were covered by scarves and chemisettes during the daytime, there was less fabric in the garments around the neck and shoulders, allowing for a larger range of motion. The materials used were often light and easy to move in as the ancient greek form presented in statuary became popular. Games such as battledore and shuttlecock (sort of an early form of badminton) were popularized and required motion in the arms and the legs, as did archery, a popular past-time among the more affluent. The most confining aspect of the clothing was actually the materials from which it was made. Affluent ladies were constricted by the delicacy of the fabrics of gowns and shoes more than the actual garments themselves.

    I personally find my period stays to be a heck of a lot more comfortable than most undergarmets I wear now. Bras don't really sit comfortably and I certainly never forget I'm wearing one. Sports bras are murder. On the other hand, I have no problem wearing my chemise and short stays for the entire weekend- yes, even when I sleep- when I go out to living history events. Not to mention, I have yet to "fall out" of a set of stays, or have them twist or ride up and down. The same cannot be said for the modern bra.

    As for so many layers, there really aren't that many. My typical daywear has 4 layers when it's warm out- chemise, stays, petticoat, and dress- not including aprons, shawls, and pelise depending upon the situation. When it gets cooler there's a second petticoat, and spencer for sure, which could be made of just about anything. I personally have spencers made of silk, cotton, linen, and corduroy. In that respect, there are many options. I also have a wool cloak and 2 rettincoats- a light wool and a silk. Josephine made shawls hugely popular. I cannot tell you how many I keep, both for warmth and decoration, and how easily changing one out can change the look of an outfit.

    The amazing thing about the Regency era was the shear diversity of dress. I currently have 3 distinct Regency era impressions- a washerwoman, a lady of the town, and I'm in the process of working on a couple of gowns appropriate for functions in the French Imperial court. Each of them consists of different layers and materials. To throw a bone, the warmest is certainly the washerwoman (when I'm not wet, at least) simply because the shortgown and jacket are both long sleeved and the jacket is wool.