Today we return to the subject of clothing in the 1800s. In all the movies made of Jane Austen novels, we see young women attending balls wearing flimsy, lowcut, empire-waist dresses with long, elbow-length, white gloves.
When I was growing up in the 1960s, I always assumed those gloves were made of cloth the way my mother’s formal gloves were. Well, I was wrong. The gloves that Betsy Bonaparte would have worn to a ball (and she loved to go to parties) would have been made of white kid. I can’t imagine how hot it must have been to dance while wearing leather gloves covering nearly the entire arm.
Speaking of white kid, the Maryland Historical Society has a pair of white kid shoes that belonged to Betsy Bonaparte in her eighties. Even as a woman of mature years, she wanted to be fashionable and wore pumps with heels.
That brings me to a final oddity about 19th-century fashion. Did you know that in the first half of the century, there was no such thing as right and left shoes? Both shoes in a pair were shaped exactly the same. The next time you have difficulty breaking in a pair of shoes, just thank your lucky stars that you didn’t live in Betsy’s day!
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?