Underneath It All

March 27, 2014 · Collections ·

Even if you are not a fashion historian, you have likely seen images of the clothing people wore in the past.  Whether you saw them online, or in your own family photos, the outer garments of individuals are fairly visible.  But what about what lies underneath?  What does that look like???


Dress. About 1836-1840. Gift of Annetta Eddy Brigham. 2001.49.9.

The dress above is a typical style of dress for a woman in the late 1830s (to read more about this period in fashion, check out this previous blog post!).  The full skirt and smooth bodice are indicators of what she wore underneath it all…


Quilted Petticoat. About 1820-1830. Gift of Mary S. Belden. 1975.42.1.
Corset. About 1820-1830. CHS Collection. 2003.124.0.
Pocket. About 1820-1840. Gift of the estate of Amos Geer Avery. 1998.80.9.
Chemise. About 1839-1850. Gift of Mrs. Alfred Howe Terry. 1950.97.2.

Shown above are the major elements of a woman’s underclothing for much of the 18th and 19th centuries.  Although the example above shows the typical styles of these garments in the early half of the 19th century, the essential elements were the same for over 200 years.  The first garment a woman would put on is the chemise (the white garment with sleeves in the above picture).  Chemises were primarily made of either cotton or linen, due to an early theory that wearing animal fibers close to the skin was unhealthy.

Above the chemise would be worn a corset.  Now, most of us might imagine a corset that is heavily structured with bones and tight lacing to make the waist appear quite small (like Scarlet O’Hara’s).  But, in fact, corsets had different roles during different time periods.  In the early part of the 1800s, the primary role of a corset was to support and separate the bust, while flattening and generally smoothing out the waist, stomach, and hip areas.

ImageAfter the chemise and corset came the petticoats.  The petticoat shown is a quilted petticoat that would have added extra bulk to the skirt, while keeping the wearer warm in colder weather.  Before the adoption of the crinoline in the 1850s, women would have to wear multiple petticoats to achieve the desired skirt width.  As an example, the dress pictured at the top of this post was placed on a mannequin wearing 5 petticoats.

A final element of underclothing, at least until the popularity of sewn-in pockets in women’s dresses took hold in the 1840s, was a detachable pocket.  The pocket was tied around the waist, sometimes with a pocket on either side, and was reached through a slit in the side seams of the skirt.

ImageAfter putting on several layers of under garments and adding stockings, garters, and shoes, a woman was finally ready to put on the pieces of her outfit that the public would see.  A dress at the end of the 1830s could be accessorized in a variety of ways.  Here, the dress is pictured with a silk apron.  These aprons were not meant for wiping dirty hands, but rather were purely decorative.  This one is made of changeable silk, meaning that it appears both green and pink depending on the lighting and the angle of viewing.


Apron. About 1830-1850. 1959.12.13.

So, next time you see an image of someone dressed in clothing of the past, think about all of the pieces you can’t see.  It is difficult to imagine getting dressed in the morning and wearing upwards of six layers of clothing…even in the summer!


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