In this blog we are going to look at the underclothing worn by women in our collections. Most of our collections cover the Victorian and Edwardian period but women’s underwear has a long and varied history. In the Victorian age women would wear a whopping number of layers to create a certain shape. The corset was used to create a tiny waist, and metal cages known a ‘crinolines’ were worn to achieve voluptuous skirts. Here we are looking at the histories of corsets, bras, crinoline cages, and knickers!
In the first part of our four blogs we are looking into the knickers and stocking we hold in our collections.
Knickers have had many names over the years, but they first became a popular and essential item of women’s underclothing in the Victorian era, and they knew them best as Bloomers. Bloomers were popularised by Amelia Jenks Bloomer, an American activist who, in the 1850s, created a scandalous outfit aimed at freeing women from their constrictive clothing.
The outfit featured bloomers (like long baggy trousers) down to the ankles with a dress stopping at the knees on top. It caused a stir in society and was ridiculed by the stuffy Victorians who thought the dress and bloomers were scandalous (imagine seeing the basic outline of a woman’s leg!). The costume never really took off, but bloomers were adopted and worn under the voluminous skirts of fashionable women.
Some bloomers developed into combination underwear that became popular in the later part of the 1800s and into the 1900s. This was a combination of bloomers and a vest -like top called a chemise. They are similar to a modern romper suit except the crotch was left open to allow women easy use of the toilet.
As fashionable clothing changed over time so too did the undergarments women wore. After the 1900s the crotch on bloomers started to become closed, allowing more modesty and the garments became smaller. During this time new synthetic materials like Rayon and Nylon became available and fashionable underwear could be made and bought cheaply.
The 1920s saw these materials used to create affordable luxury underwear and ‘French knickers’ became a popular staple for many women. Like a loose style of boxer shorts these French knickers featured a button open and closing system on the sides.
Artificial silks and materials were also used to create stockings which became incredibly popular during the 1930s/40s. Some knickers were made with suspender hooks sewn into them so they could hook straight onto the stockings, getting rid of the need for a suspender belt. Stockings reigned supreme until tights came along in 1959 and replaced them as the most popular leg coverings for women.