A Victorian Woman’s Layers

If you’ve ever wondered what women in the 19th century wore underneath their dresses, this video should illuminate you. Watch the layers get removed in the video from 1897.

Assisted by a maid, first comes off the dress and then a petticoat. She takes off a pair of drawers, followed by her corset to reveal a chemise. Her stockings come off. And then lastly the chemise.

Shining Shots

corset, 1740-1760, and panier, 1770, photographed by Patricia Canino for Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Yesterday I came across a gallery of images for the new Musée des Arts Décoratifs exhibition La mécanique des dessous, une histoire indiscrète de la silhouette, which explores the mechanics of foundation garments.

The photography is extraordinary. Shot by Patricia Canino, the undergarments are superbly lit so that they glow against the dark background. I had to share them.

bustle, 1887, photographed by Patricia Canino for Musée des Arts Décoratifs

butterfly bustle hoop, 1872, photographed by Patricia Canino for Musée des Arts Décoratifs

I’ve been to my fair share of historic fashion shoots, and it is incredibly difficult to execute these kind of images. First, the technical skills required to mount these garments must be flawless. The camera picks up the smallest wrinkles, so the form must be moulded to fit the piece perfectly. Then there’s creating symmetrical bows and finding the best drape of the fabric. The camera can spot stray specks of dust that the eye doesn’t catch. Sure photoshop can help, but the final image will be so much better if one takes care of those details from the start. And then lastly, it takes time and talent to light and photograph clothes like this.

paniers, 1775-1780, photographed by Patricia Canino for Musée des Arts Décoratifs

corset, 1770-1780, photographed by Patricia Canino for Musée des Arts Décoratifs

I love underwear. It’s fascinating to me to examine the understructures that literally create the fashionable shape. And these images really show them off in the best light.

The Challenge of the Poofy Sleeves

afternoon dress, c. 1835, from Metropolitan Museum of Art

As a fashion historian, sometimes I look at a garment and marvel at the way it is mounted on a mannequin. Like the afternoon dress above from the Met, I see those sleeves and wonder what the mount maker used to get them so bouffant-like. You see, every mount maker has their own tricks of the trade, and I’m eager to learn them all.

detail of afternoon dress, c. 1835, from Metropolitan Museum of Art

But then I stop and remember that someone actually wore this garment — and that someone was not a stationary mannequin. So how on earth did the living, breathing woman who wore this dress keep her sleeves so full and puffed out?

And was that something other women gossiped about? “Did you see Mary’s sleeves tonight?” “I did, they are simply the most voluminous I’ve ever seen!” Or, “Helen’s sleeves are so sad and droopy tonight.” “Oh poor dear, she is really letting herself go.” Can you imagine?

sleeve puff, c. 1830, from Victoria & Albert Museum

Well the answer to my question (not those gossipy, imaginary ladies), was that some women wore sleeve puffs made of cotton and down stuffing. Basically they wore pillow-like underwear tied around their arms inside their sleeves. How funny is that?! Imagine trying to keep those in place in a ladylike manner. I still am a bit baffled about how they did it.

spring 2010 Alexander McQueen Armadillo shoes, photo by Don Ashby & Olivier Claisse, from Style.com

Of course, I’m sure 200 years in the future some fashion historian will be looking at Alexander McQueen’s Armadillo shoes laughing and wondering how on earth women walked in them. Let’s just hope Gaga is keeping some kind of journal about that.

The Corset’s Effect

I love talking about undergarments. They are one of my favorite fashion history topics, because they impact the rest of fashion history so much. Today I thought I’d touch on corsets.

Now I could write a whole book on corsets (some people have), but in today’s post I’d like to focus on how corsets affect posture and movement. Corsets are best known for the way they mold women’s bodies — supporting the breasts and constricting the waist. But corsets do much more than that, and one of those things is influence the way a woman stands, sits, and moves.

At my last job, we had a reproduction late 19th century corset I liked to try on female students. Students were always amazed that once they were laced into the corset, suddenly they couldn’t slouch, even if they tried. Only moments ago they had the kind of posture mothers hound their children about. When asked to sit, these students acted like proper ladies perching on the edge of a chair with perfectly straight backs.

Corsets not only alter the shape of the body, but they restrict and reinforce good posture.

Below I’ve assembled a timeline of seven corsets along with corresponding portraits showing how they affected women’s posture. You can see that as the shape of the corset changes, women’s posture changes as well.

In this 1750-1775 corset and comparable portrait, the upper body appeared rigid due to heavy boning in a V shape.

Later in the early 1800s, the corset became lighter without boning. It mostly functioned as a support for the bust. This allowed for a little more range of movement.

Corsets from the 1830s through the 1850s regained their stiffness through the waist when boning returned. However, these corsets allowed the shoulders to slope forward. The portrait above shows the popular stance of the period with slouching shoulders.

corset, c. 1876, from Metropolitan Museum of Art | On the Thames by James Tissot, c. 1874

But by the 1870s, new technology enabled corsets to be better fitted. The waist was elongated and slimmed and the shoulders rotated backward.

In the beginning of the 1890s, the hourglass form reached its peak, as shown above. During this time, fashion focused on the bodice, so an even smaller waist was important, impacting the whole figure and its ability to move.

By the late 1890s, corsets crept lower on the hip, shaping and restricting more than just the upper body.

corset, 1909, from Metropolitan Museum of Art | photograph, c. 1910-13

Then corsets changed dramatically around the turn of the century. As you can see by the 1910s, they extended even lower on the hips, became straighter, and pushed the body into an S shape — breasts pushed forward and hips back.

The 20th century tells the tale of the decline of the corset. Foundation garments evolved into new forms to shape the body in new ways and allow for an increase in movement. But that is best left for another post.

Exhibition File – Underneath It All

Throughout history the fashionable silhouette is always changing. Whether it includes perfect posture and a tiny waist with a large bell skirt from the 1860s or the slouchy saunter of the 1930s in a slinky dress, one thing remains constant — women’s undergarments play a pivotal role.

Although foundation garments are rarely seen, the entire ensemble and the way a person moves depends on them. Most undergarments reshape the body to different degrees. They might reduce a section of the body (such as the effect a corset has on a woman’s waist), they might increase another (such as a push-up bra making the breasts appear larger), or they might compress parts (like Spanx smoothing out the thighs). Bustles, corsets, hoops, bras, crinolines, and girdles are all types of undergarments that mold or alter the body’s natural state into whatever silhouette is popular at the time.

Underneath It All is an exhibition at the Missouri History Museum that looks at underwear and how it has shaped fashion and history. According to the exhibition, “while these ‘unmentionables’ may appear insignificant, they are powerful artifacts that chronicle the evolution of women’s progress in an ever-changing society.”

The exhibition runs until January 27. If you are curious about what women have worn underneath their visible clothing, Underneath It All is a show you don’t want to miss.

Address: Missouri History Museum, 5700 Lindell Boulevard, St. Louis, Missouri
Hours: Monday 10-5, Tuesday 10-8, Wednesday-Sunday 10-5
Admission: free
Website: www.mohistory.org/node/7255