Copyright (c) Jane Austen’s World. Look at this lovely Regency lady in this image from 1814. Her petticoat peeps under her fashionably short gown, whose conical shaped skirt has been given a definite shape by the undergarment.
At the turn of the century, when lighter cloths were used to fashion gowns and when the dress silhouette was columnar and worn close to the body, the use of a chemise or petticoat was even more crucial, for the thin fabric would cling to the legs and work its way between them without the barrier of the petticoat. A few weeks ago, one of my posts created a stir when I revealed that drawers were regarded as optional underwear for Regency ladies, and readers wondered how a Regency lady could withstand the cold in winter.
While bloomers were optional, a petticoat was an absolutely necessity. Dress fabrics were gossamer thin, and petticoats, made of sturdier linen or cotton, and reinforced with tucks and perhaps a thin line of boning at the hem, served to give shape to the hem of the dress, keeping it away from the feet and body. As skirts rose, the decorative elements of a petticoat peeped out under the skirt. Below, one can see a typical petticoat of the day (with corset on top of it). This one is short, but the tucks are evident.
Without this undergarment, the thin fabric of a ladies gown would hug her body, revealing her legs and her mons of Venus in stark outlines when she moved. Gillray’s cartoon of The Three Graces in High Wind demonstrates how revealing Regency dresses were, even when petticoats were worn.
Illustrators James Gillray, Isaac Cruickshank, and Thomas Rowlandson relished making fun of the new fashions. In the image below Gillray shows the effects of wearing a gown without underwear and taking the fashion features of décolleté and side slits to the extreme. Rather than creating an elegant effect, the lady resembled a tart.
Boilly’s painting shows how clearly the chemise, which ended above the knees, shows through the thin fabric of this lady’s gown.
This image from the Kyoto Costume Institute also demonstrates the transparency of Regency gown fabrics.
The unusual (and rare) practice of dampening one’s gown at the turn of the century was most likely followed by light-o-loves, courtesans, ladybirds, cyprians, and women of ill repute. Aristocratic women who were confident in their unassailable status might have gotten away with such licentious behavior on a dare, and their fashion inclinations might have been considered “au courant”, but no proper lady, no young miss on the marriage mart, no merchant’s daughter looking to improve her station in life, would for a moment consider walking out in public without the protection of a chemise or petticoat, much less wet her gown to make it more revealing. While caricaturists showed enormous zest in depicting the new revealing fashions, they exaggerated the trend of these flimsy gowns out of all proportion in their visual commentaries.
Addendum: I must add that another primary purpose of these undergarments was to protect the delicate outer garment from soiling. In Regency times people did not wash themselves frequently, and petticoats and chemises presented a barrier between unwashed and sweaty skin and the dress. Since undergarments were made of sturdier fabrics, they could be laundered more often. In addition, people with less means owned fewer gowns and employed fewer servants to do the laundering. Even these ladies owned a number of chemises (usually homemade) and petticoats that could be washed frequently, thereby protecting their every day AND special gowns.
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