Feminine Lingerie Dresses

As spring transitions toward warm summer weather, our wardrobes shift to accommodate. I can imagine the same type of change happening around the turn of the 20th century; women updating their wardrobes with new dresses or making adjustments to the dresses they already owned.

White cotton or linen dresses were fashionable during late spring and summer in the late 1890s all the way to the late 1910s. These dresses were made of gauzy muslin and decorated with a lot of embroidery and lace to create a frilly look. They were called lingerie dresses, and, according to Survey of Historic Costume, were called that because the “fabric and decoration so much resembled women’s undergarments of lingerie of the period.”

Lingerie dresses have always fascinated me. A delicate dress of white would be hard to keep clean, so lingerie dresses were worn by those who did not have to engage in daily labor, mostly the upperclass. Lingerie dresses were intended to be day dresses — worn to garden parties, while promenading, or other social events.

Stripping the color allows me to show students how the silhouette subtly changed during this time. To the untrained eye, maybe these dresses all look the same. But if you look closely, you can see that the volume of the skirt, particularly at the back of the skirt, minimized gradually. The silhouette changed from an S-like shape, to more upright and tubular (which leads into the boxy cut of the 1920s). The decoration moves from a ruffly, Art Nouveau style to something more akin to the sleekness of the Art Deco.

dress, 1902-4 from Metropolitan Museum of Art | dress, 1903 from Metropolitan Museum of Art

dress, ca. 1905 from Metropolitan Museum of Art | dress, ca. 1905 from Metropolitan Museum of Art

detail of back of dress, 1907-8 from Metropolitan Museum of Art | dress, 1908-10 from Metropolitan Museum of Art

Lingerie dresses evoke romanticism and femininity. And so they were adopted by suffragists campaigning for the right to vote in the 1910s. Suffragists wore lingerie dresses in order to show that women did not want to shed their role as feminine nurturers even though they desired voting rights.

Women were encouraged to wear lingerie dresses while marching in parades to create unifying visual appeal. They must have looked beautiful and impressive marching together in a sea of white. This is probably my favorite element of lingerie dresses — their relationship with feminism.


  1. Terri says:

    What a wonderful history lesson! I am forever thrifting very fine cotton nightgowns…with very fine little embellishments. While I actually sleep in them, I often wish I could wear them out into the world. I must have had a primal memory of the suffragettes!

    • jacqueline says:

      What decade do your nightgowns mostly come from? Unfortunately since moving to North Dakota, I haven’t find anything worthwhile when thrifting. I miss finding treasures.

  2. miss alix says:

    i just absolutely love this style of dress. obviously it would be strange to wear these days, but i love the light cotton and all the lacy details.

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