Historians, researchers, and authors have long debated what ladies in Regency England wore under their gowns. We know they wore a shift, or chemise, over which they laced up stays (a type of Regency corset but more comfortable), and then donned a petticoat, which was basically a long slip. We also know they wore stockings that tied or buckled. But our modern-day sensibilities insist that they must have worn drawers or pantaloons, right?
Not necessarily. There’s a bit of controversy about drawers or knickers.
We know drawers existed by 1806 because merchants were advertising and selling them. However, they did not cater to upper classes. Some women began wearing pantaloons of flesh colored or pink stocking that went to just below the knee, but these were by no means a commonly adopted garment. From what I have found, most women during this period did not, apparently, wear knickers or drawers. They were a direct imitation of men’s undergarments, and as such, risqué. Also, prior to the Regency, the only women who wore them were prostitutes, so obviously ladies of high society would want nothing to do with this kind of garment.
In 1811, Princess Charlotte wore them, but despite this, many considered the garment shocking and openly criticized her for wearing it. Remember, drawers were considered a masculine garment and women who wore them were denounced as being vulgar.
Long drawers with feet attached were introduced sometime during the Regency. By 1817, some fashionable ladies wore pantalettes, a longer, lace-edged variation of drawers that were meant to be seen below the petticoat. But this did not catch on for about a decade. Even then, pantalettes had two entirely separate legs. This picture to the right shows them sewn to a type of top, but most of them tied around the waist.
(Before you continue, I must warn you: the images below are a tad graphic, so please don’t send me hate mail.)
The lack of underwear was so common that social and political cartoons of the day reflected this. Thomas Rowlandson, a famous illustrator and cartoonist he did water colors of soldiers, wars, death and dying, the hunt, several humorous series, as well as some rather erotic pieces. One of these is called Exhibition Stare Case pictured to the left.
Many satirical cartoons by different cartoonists including Cruikshank, and Gilray show pictures of women tumbling off horses or, in the case of the picture to the right, warming themselves in front of a fire. In all these drawings, women are clearly wearing nothing underneath their skirts. However, there also seems to be a lack of any sort of undergarment, so I’m not certain we can fully accept this as proof.
Obviously, back then, as today, political cartoons are only loosely based on fact. They are supposed to be absurd. However, so many of them reveal (no pun intended) the lack of ladies’ undergarments that one wonders.
Progress of the Toilet is a set of three images (one of which is shown below left) published by James Gillray in 1810 which pours ridicule on fashions of the period dictating how the shapes of women should be altered to meet current standards of beauty. He does show a woman wearing drawers. It doesn’t look like it, but she is wearing a chemise – you can see the sleeves and the edge around the top of her stays – but it’s tucked into her drawers. I don’t know the exact date of the image. One source said this series was created in 1810 but I have not been able to verify that. If it is contemporary to the Regency, it’s probably closer to late Regency than early. Regardless, I find it unlikely that ladies had adopted this as their norm by this date. It’s also possible the cartoonist showed drawers to add to the absurdity of his attempt to ridicule the complicated process of dressing for the day.
In the 1820s long pantaloons (sometimes incorrectly called pantalettes) were adopted. It gets confusing because men wore pantaloons–silk breeches that went to the knee–for formal occasions until well into the 1820s and beyond. At any rate, the feminine version of pantaloons were meant to show beneath the slightly raised hemlines of the era. They quickly went out of fashion for adults, but were retained by children well into the Victorian era.
To our modern-day sensibilities and cultural delicacies (if we have any left) makes the idea of not wearing some kind of panty or undergarment sound rather obscene but remember, they had far different viewpoints about a great many things.
Some experts claim that women wore drawers and others swear they didn’t. I suspect that just as today some men and women don’t wear underpants, there were those who did during the Regency. It doesn’t make it “normal.”
Other reading you might enjoy:
The Great Regency Underwear Debate posted first on https://donnahatchromancenovels.wordpress.com/