19th Century Life: Unmentionables

Saturday, my husband and I went to an interesting exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago called Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity, which examined the clothing portrayed in late 19th-century paintings.

The exhibit naturally made think about how different fashion was in Betsy Bonaparte’s day, and not just because the slim empire gowns she wore as a young woman were so different from the ruched, flounced, ruffled, and bustled gowns of the 1870s. One of the biggest changes was one that doesn’t normally meet the eye—the undergarments of the two periods.

When we think of 19th century undergarments for women, most of us imagine the items I saw at the exhibit: corsets and the loose, long underpants known as drawers. But at the turn of that century, people did not wear underpants. The main undergarment for women was a linen shift, which is a simple underdress. Women wore them under their gowns and then slept in them at night.

Men wore long shirts. Ever wonder why men’s shirts have such long tails? They didn’t wear underpants, so the tails prevented stains from getting on their outer garments. A linen shirt was easier to launder than wool pants. That’s also why paintings of the period show men with coats and waistcoats (vests) hiding most of their shirt except the collar. To show one’s shirt in public was akin to walking around in one’s underwear.

According to Clothing Through American History by Ann Buermann Wass and Mihelle Webb Fandrich, by 1807 a book of instructions for tailors began to recommend that men wear drawers under their outer garments for sanitary reasons.

About time, wouldn’t you say so?


Filed under 19th century life

5 responses to “19th Century Life: Unmentionables

  1. Great post, Ruth! Your information reminds me of a blacksmith during a local Old West reenactment. He told me that before he removes his waistcoat to begin his smithing work in the morning, he must forewarn the ladies present that they must advert their eyes in case they didn’t want to see his shirt and suspenders as they are considered his underwear!

  2. That’s too funny. I’ll bet he gets a good reaction out of that line.

  3. yubahome

    Reblogged this on Ancestral Yuba and commented:
    Unmentionables make Honorable Mentions

  4. yubahome

    Any connection between the linen shift undergarment and the term “deshabille”? I have seen it used both as a noun and adjective as: She was in her deshabille, She was deshabille.

  5. Yes, I’ve seen it used both as a noun and adjective too. Deshabille comes from the French and literally means undressed. I think it wasn’t normally used for the shift but for the wrapper or negligee women wore as a sort of housecoat around the home. But don’t quote me on that.

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