And if they didn't wear panties or drawers, you may be wondering how these women managed their menstruation. Yes, we're totally going to discuss this! As it happens, drawers would not have been of much use in such instances anyway. For example, imagine using sanitary towels with a pair of loose fitting pants. Totally impossible, right? Especially if said pants happen to have an open crotch to allow for bathroom visits. Please see picture below if you don't believe me.
From what I've been able to find, menstruation belts were worn after 1800. Prior to that, it's difficult to know for sure, although findings do suggest that similar devices were used at Queen Elizabeth the First's court .
But before you breathe that sigh of relief, comfortable with the knowledge that the messiness one might expect from a period without accessibility to modern-day sanitary towels or tampons, I must tell you that menstruation belts were not worn by everyone and that many women - especially those from the lower classes - often went without. Yup. That's right.Time to move on...
So, if drawers weren't a common wardrobe staple until somewhere around 1820, then what was? There were several items actually. When women got dressed, they would put on their chemise/shift first. This was a simple linen undergarment that reached to just below the knees. After this came the stays or corset which were used to keep everything above the waist in place. They went around the torso, contained strips of either whalebone or cane and were laced tightly together in the back. If you've seen Gone With The Wind you're probably picturing Mammy doing up Scarlet's stays at the beginning of the movie. Different era, same concept.
At the turn of the 19th Century, they did not necessarily circumvent the entire length of the torso. Some were fitted only across the breasts, similar to a wrap bra, in accordance with the popular empire waistline.
1810-1830: We're back to the more traditional corset look with an hourglass figure
Ankle-length petticoats were also worn and on top of these items went the gowns which consisted of bodices (the top part with a seam running below the breasts) and full length skirts which were oftentimes pleated at the back to allow for extra volume and ease of movement.
If one went out, gloves and bonnets were an absolute must, along with a reticule in which a lady might carry her money, possibly a handkerchief and some small personal items like smelling salts or quizzing glasses.
The complete ensemble would have looked something like this:
So there you have it. I'm sorry if the first part of this de-romanticises (spell-check claims this isn't a word, but it should be so I'm using it!) the heroines in the novels you're reading, but once I sink my teeth into a subject that interests me, I want to understand all aspects of it. Questions or comments? I'd love to hear them so please go ahead and post below. Thanks!