We love to read of dashing men and women in different time periods, but what, exactly, are they wearing? Brittany Melson tells us how they got it on—and more importantly, off.
Time Period: Tudor (1485-1603)/Elizabethan (1558-1603)
A Tudor man had his work cut out for him if he wanted to succeed in getting his special lady in the buff. From her elaborately coiffed head with hats and shiny bodkins to her densely layered and complex gowns, a wealthy woman needed assistance (and lots of patience) getting dressed and undressed.
A Tudor lady began her ensemble with a soft linen smock, or chemise, to protect the rest of her clothes from sweat and body oils. Beneath her chemise, she would wear thigh-high stockings, which were tied with garters above the knees. Most were woven, but wealthy women might be able to obtain a pair of coveted knit silk stockings.
On top of her chemise, a lady would wear her “pair of bodies”—funnel-shaped, corset-like (but the word “corset” wasn’t used until the Victorian period) stays with shoulder straps. It ended at the waist or just below the waist and was stiffened with whalebone, reeds, or cords. It was spiral-laced, rather than cross-laced, and not super tight. It was designed to flatten the front of the chest and lift the breasts.
A farthingale, which was a long, conical hoop-skirt stiffened with rope or willow, was tied to the stays to add volume to the overskirts. On top of her farthingale, a lady often wore a bumroll—a padded, three-quarter moon that tied at the front of the waist and added volume to the hips.
On top of the farthingale and bumroll, a lady wore petticoats, or a kirtle and forepart. The forepart—a strip of fabric that was removed and reattached to different kirtles—might be visible between a split in the gown.
Above the neckline of her chemise and stays, a lady might wear an embroidered partlet, which tied beneath the arms. It was similar to a modern-day dickey with a high collar and embroidery. Lace ruffs at the neck and wrists were also popular. Heavy sleeves, which were separate from the gown and often came in multiple layers, were tied to the stays.
Topping all of her other garments would be a heavy wool gown, also called a robe, that usually laced up the front. The gown might be decorated with elaborate silk, silver or gold embroidery.
Random Fact: Generally, ladies did not wear any underwear (no knickers, no bloomers, no drawers) until the Victorian era, and even then, they tended to be crotch-less!
Time Period: Baroque (1603-1714)
During the early part of the period, fashion began to relax into the Cavalier style, allowing greater freedom of movement. Ladies let the hair down—literally; intricate updos were replaced with soft waves in the front and a low bun in the back. Cartwheel ruffs were replaced by loose collars before disappearing altogether. Stays became shorter and more figure-revealing rather than figure-concealing. Ladies chose gowns in light, bright colors with looser, less-embellished fabrics. Full sleeves rode low on the shoulders and stopped just below the elbow.
Near the end of the Baroque period, the Manteau gown became popular.
Undergarments of the Manteau Gown: The chemise was trimmed in lace along the low neckline or at the arms.The stays, which also may have served as the bodice of the gown, were figure revealing and ended below the waist. In general, farthingales were replaced by stiffened petticoats, or multiple layers (as many as eight layers) of petticoats, which were visible beneath the gown.
Overgarments of the Manteau Gown: The sleeves, which continued to be attached separately, were made in a fabric that matched the gown. The gown itself, if it contained a bodice, was made all in one piece, rather than two pieces. The robe, or upperskirt, was pulled back on the sides and held with jeweled dress fasteners to create a draped effect. The gown was so heavily lined that coats were unnecessary even in the winter. Ladies might wear gloves or a muff to warm the exposed lower arm, and a shawl, cloak, or large fur collar to warm the exposed neck and chest.
Random Fact: The movie Girl with a Pearl Earring, which is based on a painting by Vermeer around 1665, provides a good example of period clothing.
Time Period: Georgian (1714-1837)
The clothes of the Georgian era became more elaborate and tight-fitting. Think Marie Antoinette in all her overdone glory.
The chemise usually had a froth of lace at the neckline and elbow. A poorer woman might wear jumps, which were similar to a long fabric girdle, while a wealthier lady might wear half-boned or fully-boned stays. The stays were tightly laced up the back and were designed to lift and flatten the breasts and pull the shoulders back. The laces in the front were generally for fit. The stays often had a carved or decorated busk down the front, which could be removed and given as a gift to a lover. The panniers, which held the skirts out at the sides, came in different sizes. The ones designed for court could be four to five feet wide.
The bodice was tight-fitting with a low neckline and three-quarter length sleeves. It might also have a stomacher, which was an embellished panel in an upside-down triangle shape that was part of the stays, stitched to the stays, or laced into the bodice. Skirts were designed to hang from the back and open in the front, revealing the petticoats.
Random Fact: Necklines often ended at or below the nipples, which were considered a normal part of the décolletage.
Time Period: Regency (1811-1820)
The Regency is technically a part of the Georgian era, during the reigns of the four King Georges, but there was a distinctive shift in fashion during the latter part of the reign of George III when the Prince of Wales became Regent. Compared to the sumptuous excess of the 18th century, Regency fashion was more classical in style with simple, loose, flowing clothing in subdued colors.
Regency ladies weren’t big on undergarments, aside from a thin chemise, stockings, and possibly a sheer petticoat similar in design to a shift. Their stays were not nearly as tight-fitting. Some were long with busks down the front but little boning, while others were short and flimsy. They were designed to lift and separate the breasts, rather than flatten them and squish them together. Some ladies began to experiment with underwear, but they were crotch-less and not widely accepted.
The high-waisted, empire-style gowns were tight at the top but soft and flowing beneath the breasts. Before a lady went outdoors, she would wear a long-sleeved coat—either a long pelisse or a shorter spencer. She would also wear a broad-brimmed hat, tied beneath the chin with a ribbon, to protect her skin from the sun.
Random Fact: Gowns worn during the early Regency era were considered quite racy and revealing with few undergarments and sheer materials. Some ladies would even dampen the fabric to make it cling more!
Time Period: Victorian (1837-1901)
Due to the length of the Victorian era, fashion changed considerably from the 1830s to the turn of the century. The era is characterized by numerous inventions, including metal grommets (1828), crinolines (1856), two-part metal busks (1829), suspenders and clips (1878), safety pins (1849), electric irons (1882), dry cleaning (1855), zip fasteners (1893), and the first paper dress pattern produced by Buttericks (1863)
Chemises became more like camisoles or slips. Corsets (which we can finally call corsets) changed radically with the invention of metal grommets, which made the corsets sturdy enough to allow ladies to reshape their figures. Ladies didn’t just pull on a corset and tighten it until they couldn’t breathe, however; they made their waists smaller through years of training beginning early in life. The invention of the two-part metal busk allowed corsets to be removed without being unlaced, but they were still very difficult to get on and off.
Early in the era, tiny corseted waists were accentuated by numerous layers of heavy petticoats (approximately ten to fourteen pounds worth), but by the 1850s, crinolines, which were frames made with metal, bamboo, or horsehair, replaced the petticoats. By the 1860s, half-crinolines, which were designed to make the back of the dress expand out, became popular. By the 1870s, bustles replaced the half-crinolines.
Gowns changed shape decade by decade. In the 1840s and 1850s, gowns were small and tight on the top and expanded out into the skirt with voluminous petticoats and crinolines. Ladies tended to wear a solid bodice during the day and a more revealing, possibly off-the-shoulder, neckline during the evening. During the 1860s, ladies adopted the half-crinoline, so the front of the skirt became flat. During the day, gowns had wide sleeves and a high neck, but during the evening, the neckline dipped and the sleeves became shorter. Ladies started wearing tea gowns in the 1870s, which had no corset. In addition, smaller bustles replaced the half-crinolines. Finally, by the 1890s, dresses were looser with no bustles or crinolines, and skirts tended to flare below the knee. High necks and puffed sleeves were popular.
Random Fact: Small, corseted waists became so fashionable that women would occasionally remove their “floating ribs” to make their waists smaller.
Brittany is a freelance writer, aspiring novelist and small business owner who hopes that heaven will be like a bookstore with an endless supply of free books, free coffee and super comfy chairs.