1840s/ 1850s Underwear – Dressing The Victorian Lady

Dressing The Victorian Woman

The right underwear is very important for historical costuming – even more important than the dress – because underwear provides the structure for the dress. Without the correct underwear, the dress looks cheap and shabby.

Victorian women wore many layers of underwear: chemise, drawers, corset, petticoats – to name just a few. Mid-Victorian underwear was usually very plain – unlike late Victorian or Edwardian lingerie with their lace frills and flounces.

Here I’m showing you how a middle or upper class woman would’ve dressed in the 1840s or 1850s.

Dressing The 1840s Or 1850s Lady

1840s/ 1850s Underwear - Dressing The Victorian Lady

The first layer is a linen or cotton chemise or shift. In the Victorian era, heavy embroidery on underthings were considered indecent, so undergarments were usually quite plain. Here’s a plain 1851 linen chemise with muslin frill, an early-Victorian linen shift, and a pattern for a plain chemise if you’d want to sew your own.

Open drawers are worn under the chemise.

Stockings were knitted cotton or silk, or wool in winter. Here are some antique Victorian white cotton lace knit stockings: 1851 white lacy  elasticated cotton stockings at the V&A museum, 1860s stockings at the MET museum, 1873-7 stockings also at the MET museum and a free knit pattern for beautiful knitted lace stockings from 1859. I’m also wearing white knit lace cotton stockings.

Victorian Chemise Corset And Drawers

Now comes the corset. A corset is worn to evenly distribute the weight of the petticoats.  Early-Victorian corsets had a wood or bone busk without opening, while mid-Victorian corsets might have a steel busk with opening.

Dressing The Victorian Lady

A properly fitting corset has a gap at the back.

Victorian Lady With Corset And Day Cap

A lady’s hair is always covered during the day with a lace or cotton day cap. I’m wearing my Carrickmacross lace day cap. The hair is arranged in a fashionable hairstyle.

Victorian Underpinnings

Now put on some cotton petticoats to achieve the fashionable bell-shaped silhouette. In this picture I’m wearing four cotton petticoats.

Victorian Underwear

A camisole or corset cover is worn over the corset so that the bones of the corset don’t show through or damage the dress, and to protect the corset from dirt.

Victorian Corset Cover And Pockets

Tie a pair of pockets round your waist. They can be reached through a gap in the side seam of the skirt.

Dressing The Victorian Lady-9

At the feet you can wear elastic sided boots like these 1851 black leather boots with elastic gussets at the V&A museum, or these early 19th century purple leather boots with elastic at the MET museum. And finally you’re ready to put on your dress! 😉

Here you’ll find how a Victorian working woman might’ve dressed.

12 thoughts on “1840s/ 1850s Underwear – Dressing The Victorian Lady

  1. The article is a very helpful guide in dressing Victorian, and I like the idea of the elastic sided boots.

  2. This is lovely! Thank you so much! I’ve enjoyed looking through your site since I’ve found it. Do you have a tutorial or a pattern or a general how to on how you made your petticoats? I really love the adjustable waistband. Thank you!

  3. Lovely guide, thank you, but I had heard before that the corset was a support garment that served the same function as today’s bras, instead of existing to distribute petticoat weight? Or maybe they served both functions. Anyway, thank you!

  4. I was wondering what the working class wore instead of a corset since you can’t really bend easily in a boned corset. There isn’t a lot of information on that out there! Thanks!

    1. The working class wore corsets just the same. It is possible to work, and work hard – in a corset, especially if you’ve been wearing one your entire adult life.

    2. Hey Cyndi, I know it’s nearly a year since your original comment so I don’t know if you’ll get notified of this reply or not, but hopefully this helps someone out! Lots of working women wore corsets as whalebone is actually quite flexible- it’s actually baleen and not bone. Other stiffening materials like reed were also quite flexible. In addition, lots of corsets have at least some panels cut on the bias where the fabric naturally has more give.

      Even the front and back where steels were most used were quite flexible, as the steel boning was also very thin- think less reinforced concrete and more a thin strip off one of those thin metal rulers.

      Although there certainly was a different movement pattern required by corset wear, I honestly don’t think this is a bad thing- really involves using the glutes and legs to hinge at the hips and knees to bend, lift, and reach; moving to be in front of objects you’re manipulating rather than overly twisting and extending; and perhaps moving location and hip-hinging to reach up or forward with the arm while keeping the shoulder fairly in place. These are all things commonly recommended by modern occupational therapists and physios to protect the body from needless strain and injury when working anyways haha! And given that corsets are more flexible than we often assume them to be, it’s more that they heavily encourage you to move like this rather than completely rigidly hold you like a cast- your torso muscles do still have to work for it.

      Working women who weren’t wearing a corset as we’d think of them still wore stays or jumps, which were usually less boned or un-boned but still supportive through the use of cording and quilted layers. These are older styles of support garments that seem to have stuck around more in rural areas. I imagine this was due both to the slower diffusion of fashion to working rural areas, and that the cuts of stays and jumps are usually more conical/triangular, and thus probably more fabric saving?

      Anyways, I hope this helps! There’s a number of other articles Lina has written about working women’s attire through the ages here on her blog that may interest you. As well, Bernadette Banner on youtube has a video about Victorian/Edwardian exercise where she wears a quite fashionable Victorian corset and you can see her good range of movement while wearing it. Cheers 🙂

      P.S. Lina I love your blog, very informative and fun to pick through!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *