Underwear: what was worn under Regency gowns?


See-through petticoat with flounced hem

What underwear did ladies have beneath their Regency gowns? Generally, not much. I’ve blogged before about see-through gowns and the Regency petticoat but what else was underneath?

The go-to reference book for underwear is The History of Underclothes by C. Willet and Phillis Cunnington which starts at the medieval period and finishes at 1939. The History of Underclothes by C Willet and Phillis Cunnington



As you can see from the cover, it includes corsets and bustles and much, much more. And it includes underwear for men. That gent in the middle of the cover is wearing a Jaeger nightgown, dating from the early 1880s.

The lady to his right is wearing “cami-knickers in crêpe-de-chine” from 1922. (No, they didn’t look like knickers to me either!) The lady to his left is much earlier, of course. She may look fully dressed, but she isn’t. That’s corset, chemise and underskirt, dating from about 1780. And French!

Regency underwear

1835 shift, corset, drawers © V&A Museum London

1835 shift, corset, drawers © V&A Museum London

1835 shift, corset, drawers petticoat © V&A Museum London

1835 shift, corset, drawers petticoat sleeve puffs © V&A Museum London

Regency women’s underclothes normally consisted of a loose shift/chemise in linen, with a corset/stays over the top, then a petticoat, then the gown. Plus stockings, held up by garters.

But, usually, no knickers.

This image (left) shows underwear from 1835, including pantalettes/drawers. In the Regency era, such knickers/drawers would have been unusual. The second image (right) shows the next stage of dressing, with the petticoat on top and puffs to support the big sleeves of the time.

Sadly, there aren’t many images of drawers or knickers etc in the collections. This is the best I can do, for now. Understandable, I suppose, because most of the items given to museums are outerwear. Very few people would even think about giving their used knickers to a museum, would they? (Though I believe there are lots of pairs of Queen Victoria’s drawers around. The waist measurement is, ahem, large.)

Adopting Regency underwear

Cover of Regency House Party by Lucy Jago

Back in 2004, Channel 4 in UK produced a series called The Regency House Party in which 21st century volunteers spent 9 weeks behaving like Regency folk. That’s them above, on the cover of the accompanying book. The volunteers had to do everything Regency style. Regency clothes, and toiletries, and food, and manners, and… and…

So you’ll understand that the costume designer for the Channel 4 series, Rosalind Ebbutt, had a bit of a problem with knickers. Here’s what she said about them:

At the time [Regency], in direct contrast to today, knickers were seen as very racy. They were associated with Parisian dancers and actresses and no polite Regency lady would wear them. In Paris, with the Empire fashion for sheer dresses, women had a sort of body-stocking made out of peach silk which would go under the dresses and look as if the wearer was naked underneath. Peach knitted silk leggings, cut to any length, were also worn. In the house we did give all the ladies these fitted knickers as modern women are used to wearing underwear. They also have loose cotton drawers, which were far more usual among Regency women, which simply had a waistband but had no gusset, so did not need to be removed when visiting the chamber pot.

And yes. Part of the deal for the volunteers was using the chamber pot. Quite. I think that’s enough of that, don’t you?

Underwear: corsets and stays

Libertà friend Louise Allen has done some great posts about corsets and stays, explaining the differences (and including jumps). So I won’t repeat her research here. But they’re much recommended. Read the first of them here.

1780-1789 red stays (front) V&A Museum London

1780-1789 red stays (front) © V&A Museum London

1780-1789 red stays (back) V&A Museum London

1780-1789 red stays (back) © V&A Museum London

However, that won’t stop me showing you images of corsets and stays. Usually, they were in white or neutral colours but sometimes, just sometimes, a lady wore something more vibrant.

I really love these red stays, dating from 1780-1789 (so Georgian rather than Regency, but who cares?)

Note the lacing at the back. If you click on the image to enlarge it, you’ll be able to see that the eyelets are reinforced with buttonhole stitch. Metal eyelets were a lot later—1828 according to the Cunningtons. These earlier stays could not be pulled up as tightly because the eyelets would have ripped, but the stays were heavily stitched and boned. The stitching is beautiful.

1795-1800 stays with gathered cups © V&A Museum, LondonThese stays (above) are again in neutral colours, with hand-stitched eyelets, but everything seems to be on view. Is it sexy? You decide. The pads at the back are to add volume to the gown.

1800-1815 stays corset bodice © V&A Museum, London

This set of Regency stays (above) looks much less ferocious than the red Georgian ones. This corset bodice laces at the front, where it is boned. A woman could have put it on by herself. Useful for eloping, maybe?  It’s made of linen, trimmed with blue ribbon, and has the high waist typical of the Regency period. Not as stunning or as sexy as the other two, though, is it?

Corsets and stays: oddities

Finally, I have two corset oddities to show you. This is the first known “bra” according to the V&A Museum and it looks pretty modern. The V&A says it was home-made to reflect the high-waisted styles of the time. It is front opening and may have been designed for breast-feeding. The cups were originally larger and have been altered. The design seems ingenious and the long tapes, tying at the front, allow for a good grip around the ribcage, even if the wearer’s size changes. What’s not to like, in the days before elastics?1820-1829 bust bodice © V&A Museum, London

This—the V&A says—was probably used to correct spinal deformities. Looks like an instrument of torture to me. What do you think? Fancy wearing it?

1750 iron corset © V&A Museum, London

1750 iron corset © V&A Museum, London

And Gillray, of course, had a take on everything, including stays/corsets. Note that, even though these cartoons date from 1810, the lady in the first and second images is wearing drawers.1810 Gillray Progress of the Toilet, 3 cartoons © V&A Museum, London

Underwear: stockings

I couldn’t finish the blog without having a look at stockings and garters. Unlike knickers and drawers, there are quite a few images of these in museums.

1800-1849 stockings © V&A Museum, London

1800-1849 stockings © V&A Museum, London

1825-1849 stockings © V&A Museum, London

1825-1849 stockings © V&A Museum, London

The stockings on the left date from the first half of the 19th century. If you click to enlarge, you’ll see the beautiful lacy effect around the ankles. Definitely meant to be seen, I’d say.

The stockings on the right are a little later and have loops at the top, presumably for garters. Again, click to see the lacy effect around the ankles.

In Paris, later, they were into branding. The cream stocking (right) has the maker’s brand at the top. At least, I’m assuming it’s branding. Maybe it was the owner’s address? Maybe she thought she might lose her stockings, somewhere or other, so would need to prove they were hers? Now there’s a story to think about…1830-1840 branded stockings, paris, © V&A Museum, London

Underwear: garters were essential

How did these beautiful stocking stay up? The answer was garters, which had been in use for a very long time. Garters might simply be a length of ribbon, tied round the stocking top. But some garters were much more elaborate and, possibly, meant to be seen and enjoyed by someone other than the wearer. Look at these:

1780-1800 garters © V&A Museum, London

1780-1800 garters © V&A Museum, London

The beautifully embroidered garters (above) have white silk ties to secure them. They are made in ivory silk taffeta, padded and lined. The main part is tamboured in a pattern of flowers and vines.

1798 garters knitted © V&A Museum, London

1798 knitted garters © V&A Museum, London

The later garters, above, were knitted and lovingly edged with blue satin ribbon, though it does not look blue in the image. They would have been simply tied to secure them.

Later again, elastic became available and the white silk garters below had watch-spring elastic backing and a metal fastening to secure them. Much easier to use and probably easier to wear, too. But still beautifully embroidered in coloured chenille.

1820-1840 garters with elastic © V&A Museum, London

1820-1840 garters with elastic © V&A Museum, London

I fancy any gentleman would have enjoyed removing these, don’t you?

Regency underwear could definitely be sexy, I’d say. What do you think?

Libertà co-founder Joanna Maitland


12 thoughts on “Underwear: what was worn under Regency gowns?

  1. Elizabeth Rolls

    About losing your stockings…. I “think” that I read somewhere about stockings being sent out to be laundered. In London, anyway. Maybe that is the owner’s address. On reflection I think I read about this in Frances Wilson’s biography of Harriette (no relation) Wilson. Now there’s a girl who might have needed her address on her stockings! Not to mention the rest of her undergarments.
    I poked my nose into various go-it-alone undergarments for my current release. I needed Kit to be able to dress without assistance. Good to see your examples of those stays.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Good thought, Elizabeth. Of course it might be a laundry mark. OTOH, I think my idea of a lady losing her stockings is more fun… Yes, I can see that the front-fastening stays would have their uses and eloping was my first thought. Can’t imagine why, can you?

    1. Joanna Post author

      Now you mention it, Liz, I think my mother may have used that expression, too. I’m going by the V&A descriptions. Unfortunately, their search system doesn’t do fuzzy searching. So if you search for “pantalettes”, it only produces images with that word (and, in that case, only one single print). If you then search for “drawers” you get a few more, with real examples of knickers although men’s drawers are included, too. Clearly my search skills need work.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I do agree about the iron corset, Ros. But I suppose it had a purpose. Whether it changed any spinal distortion is debatable though, I’d have thought.

  2. Elizabeth Bailey

    I think most of them are dead sexy, probably more so than the flimsy pretties ladies wear today. They demonstrate how the Regency was the era of bosom and ankle for glimpses of feminine charms. Well, glimpses is a bit understated when it comes to those gathered cup stays. I love that quote about a new fashion (can’t remember what it was now) when the male commenter in the journal said that it has one virtue in that “it compels our feminine fair to wear something” – last word heavily italicised!

    1. Joanna Post author

      I think the source of that quote is in one of the Louise Allen blogs about corsets, Liz. And seems to have been pretty true, especially if you read the quote from the Regency House Party about what French women wore (or didn’t) 😉

    2. Yvonne Setters

      Yes Regency was definitely sexy – removing the clothing could be very provocative.
      I have always loved the Regency period, very good if you were rich which I would be in my fantasy world. (I am quite sane I assure you).

      1. Joanna Post author

        I agree, Yvonne. Last thing I’d want would be to go back in time and end up as the scullery maid. OTOH, there’s a lot about the Regency, including the way women were treated, that would grate, don’t you think?

  3. Anne Harvey

    Love your blog posts, Liberta! I have one question about ladies not wearing drawers/knickers. How on earth did they cope during their ‘courses’? When I first started my period in the early 1950s, my mother and I still used cut up rags pinned to our knickers, hence my question. How on earth did they cope? Thanks.

    1. Joanna Post author

      They used cloths, Anne. I don’t know for certain, but I assume said cloths were tied to some kind of waistband. They were washed and reused. The system must have been similar to that in the 50s when disposable looped sanitary towels were hooked on to an elastic waist belt. None of my research books actually covers this, not even Cunnington. No surprise there, since it was published in 1951 when menstruation was not mentioned or even acknowledged.

Comments are closed.