Throughout the Georgian, Regency, and Victorian Eras, ladies were required to wear numerous layers of clothing. These layers served a variety of purposes from hygiene to warmth to ornamentation. To help you understand the complexity of dressing and what was required for a woman to put on and take off in a single day, I have compiled a list of the pieces normally worn and have arranged them in the approximate dressing order: drawers, chemise, corset, busk, corset cover, decency skirt or under-petticoat, crinoline or hoop or bustle, petticoat, suit, garniture, and, finally, the accessories.
Other names for drawers include pantalettes, bloomers, and knickers. Such undergarments did not exist prior to the Regency era, but after styles became sheer and lightweight fabrics were used, more coverage and warmth were required in a woman’s nether regions, and thus drawers provided this coverage.
The first step in the dressing order for women was a lightweight undershirt or shift. It was said to have originated from the Roman tunic. It was made from either cotton or linen and was used to protect clothing from sweat and body oils. It was regularly washed and was the primary underwear worn by women until the 1820s, although sometime around 1810, the same year that Napoleon Bonaparte married Marie Louis in a civil ceremony, was the same time when the chemise became associated as an outer garment.
Corsets were used to shape a woman’s torso and accentuate her curvy assets. Corsets were rarely laundered partly because of what they were made from and partly because they were protected by layers of clothing from the top and the bottom. In the early 1800s, when gussets were added to allow more room for a woman’s bust, stays became known as corsets. (An interesting side note related to corsets is that women sometimes fainted from the tightness of them, in addition to the weight of their many-layered clothing.)
A busk reinforced and kept a corset straight. It was used with stays and worn between the 1400 and mid-1700s. It slipped into a pocket and was tied in place with a lace known as a busk point. In the mid-1800s a new busk appeared that did not use lacings. It used something similar to an eye and hook system, which made it easier to put on and take off. Another busk, known as the spoon busk, appeared in the late 1800s. The spoon busk allowed a greater reduction in waist size and avoided the annoying fleshy bulge at the bottom edge caused by previous corsets.
This garment was usually worn over the corset to protect the taille from the busk. The corset cover was eventually combined with the petticoat and became known as a princess petticoat. By the end of the Victorian era, the corset cover was primarily decorative.
Decency Skirt or Under-petticoat
A decency skirt was just that, a slim, short petticoat that protected and ensured coverage of a woman’s lower half in case of blowing wind or if she fell or tripped. This was worn if a woman did not wear drawers.
Crinoline, Hoop, or Bustle
Crinolines, originally created from stiff fabric or horsehair, were popular in the mid-1830s. They shaped and made long skirts bell out. Eventually, however, crinoline came to mean a stiffened petticoat, or a rigid skirt-shaped framework designed to support a full skirt. Fashions moved from crinolines to hoops around the 1830s. Hoops were made from cane or whalebone and fit inside petticoats. By the 1870s, crinolines and hoops had flattened out and turned into bustles. Bustles were a type of rigid structure worn below the waist that emphasized the rear, expanded the backside fullness, and supported a woman’s skirt to keep it from dragging on the ground.
A petticoat was an undergarment that hung from the waist and was worn under a skirt. In the 1700s, petticoats were sometimes quilted or created from wool or silk to provide extra warmth. As skirt styles became fuller, numerous petticoats might be worn, and after bustles became popular, several petticoats were worn to help support the bustle.
The last item in dressing order for women was a woman’s suit. This generally consisted of two unattached and separate pieces. The bottom piece was the skirt and the upper piece was the taille or waist. The taille was a tight-fitting garment that was a cross between today’s suit jacket and yesterday’s blouse or bodice. Tailles were usually long-sleeved garments, buttoned to the neck, and sported some sort of collar.
Garniture comes from the old French word garnir, which means to garnish. It was decorative pieces, such as bows, buttons, cord, fabric, jet, lace, ribbons, and was probably one of the most vital and important pieces of a women’s wardrobe. Garniture was initially attached to the skirt, but by the late 1800 to early 1900s, it moved from the skirt to the taille or waist.
Accessories topped off an outfit. They included such things as jewelry, gloves, hats or bonnets, parasols, handkerchiefs, walking sticks, and fans. To learn more about accessories in the 1700s, click here.