Victorian French Lingerie

Victorian French Lingerie: Example of a New and Elaborate Under-Petticoat in 1899. This one is made with turchon lace and French embroidery with hem-stitiching between the lace and embroidery. Author's Collection
Example of a New and Elaborate Under-Petticoat in 1899. This one is made with turchon lace and French embroidery with hem-stitching between the lace and embroidery. Author’s Collection

The concept that lingerie and undergarments were visually appealing, did not become a thought until the late nineteenth century during the Victorian Era. At that time, some of the best lingerie that could be purchased came from France. In fact, it was common for nineteenth century English and American visitors to travel to France to purchase French lingerie for their wedding trousseau.

Victorian women also wore French lingerie for other reasons. Some women found they obtained some form of personal enjoyment from it. After all, many pieces of French lingerie captivated the eye because they were practically works of art with their fine embroidery and pretty ribbons and bows. The French also viewed lingerie in a different light than did most English or American women. Their view allowed Victorian lingerie wearers to focus on how they felt rather than how they actually looked in it. This in turn allowed wearers of French lingerie to enjoy an aristocratic elegance even if they belonged to the ordinary working class. However, there was also this tidbit about French lingerie:

Young Girls in Their Lingerie Dressing for Dinner in 1896, Author's Collection
Young Girls in Their Lingerie Dressing for Dinner in 1896, Author’s Collection

“A woman’s underclothing is more a part of her, is more truly indicative of her real nature, than all the fine gowns that she may have in her wardrobe. It tells whether she has innate, refined taste, for no matter how plain one’s nightdresses and petticoats may be, it is always possible to have them dainty.”

Another reason for French lingerie purchases by women was provided by a nineteenth century fashion magazine when they stated, “Love of dainty underwear is innate in womankind,” and there was no daintier lingerie in the world than French lingerie. Daintiness meant pretty flairs on gowns and delicate handwork or embroidery on pieces. French lingerie was also regularly trimmed with silk, ornamented with clusters of pleats or tucks, and embellished with fine embroidery. Ruffles were another popular addition, and ribbons also added a feminine touch. Ribbons were usually pale or delicately tinted in shades of pinks, blues, or lavenders. One particular color that was popular on French lingerie in 1896 was lilac, partially because it matched well with the scent of violets:

“All of her lingerie has a dash of lilac peeping about in lace frills, and there is an unmistakable odor of violets about her boudoir. … Just a few drops of toilet water sprinkled on lingerie before being folded always gives a delightful, lasting odor.”

Example of Valenciennes Bobbin Lace (1850-1900), Courtesy of Wikipedia
Example of Valenciennes Bobbin Lace (1850-1900), Courtesy of Wikipedia

Lace was another dainty addition to French lingerie, and one of the more popular laces on French pieces was Valenciennes lace. In the seventeenth century, to use up flax yarn, women of Valenciennes began to make bobbin lace with early versions of the lace grounded with fancy mesh. As more open versions of the lace developed, the lace then became known as Valenciennes lace for the town where it was made. The open mesh continued to evolve over the eighteenth century and nineteenth century, until by the twentieth century, little of the famous lace was still made in Valenciennes (production had moved long ago to Belgium). Moreover, by the nineteenth century the lace could be made by machine rather than by hand.

Although Valenciennes lace may have originated in the town of Valenciennes, that was not the main reason why the French preferred it. Valenciennes lace also offered practical advantages: first, it had a variety of patterns so lingerie sets could easily look different; second, it sported little eyelets, which made it was easy and practical to run delicate and dainty ribbons through it; and third, and perhaps, the best advantage, Valenciennes lace looked nearly perfect even after repeated hand laundering.

Lingerie advertisements of the 1850s included jacquettes, jupons, camisoles, crinolines, cages, and bonnets de nuit. Later, lingerie advertisements include other pieces, such as corsets, corset-covers, drawers, petticoats, chemises, night-robes, nightgowns, and lounging robes when mentioning lingerie. These pieces of lingerie were created primarily from nainsook, linen, long-cloth, muslin, or fine cambric, although one Victorian writer claimed that the when it came to lingerie, the well dressed and most fashionable women chose to have their best pieces made from the “finest batiste.”

Certain pieces of French lingerie pieces also served a dual purpose, such as robes and nightgowns. For instance, besides looking pretty in daylight, these pieces were said to be a requirement for mornings when traveling aboard a ship or a train as they could be worn in a private stateroom. They could also be worn at home “for breakfast in one’s room or for [accepting] informal calls in one’s private parlor.” To accomplish this feat of practicality and prettiness, robes and nightgowns often sported soft colored ribbon belts or unique needlework.

French Corset of Silk, 1891, Courtesy of the Met Museum
French Corset of Silk, 1891, Courtesy of the Met Museum

Corsets were also extremely popular as a lingerie item. In fact, there were several types of corsets that Victorian Era women could buy. To demonstrate the versatility of the corsets, the following list demonstrates five different corsets that one nineteenth century woman bought:

  • high black satin corset to be worn with her tailor-made street gowns.
  • white satin corset with rosebuds that was worn with evening gowns and was long on the hips but extended hardly four inches above the waist line.
  • support corset that had straps over the shoulders and barely reached to the waist line that was worn with tea gowns.
  • stiffened girdle corset, just four inches wide, worn with golf blouses and tennis outfits.
  • and, the ever necessary bicycling corset designed to give free movement to the hips.

For many years, French lingerie that was sold was primarily white in color, but in early 1897 that changed. Newspapers began reporting on a new lingerie fashion fad that hit America: 

“Lingerie of solid lace has often been dreamed of, and now and then an appropriation of it has been actually seen. Always, however, the lace garments have been white. But in the very latest development of fancy lingerie, the garments are not only of solid lace, but the lace is black.”

Corset Covers and Combination Suits B. Altman & Co. Catalogue, Winter 1886-87. Author's Collection
Corset Covers and Combination Suits B. Altman & Co. Catalogue, Winter 1886-87. Author’s Collection

Women were told that black was not necessarily a somber color but rather that it produced a “charming effect.” However, to embrace the black lingerie fad, Victorian women found it costly. The French believed that undergarments should not clash or be of opposing colors, just like they didn’t believe in women wearing mismatched lace on undergarments. French lingerie was also intended to coordinate with whatever a woman wore as they were considered an ensemble. So, that meant women had to buy all new pieces in black. This included underwear, petticoats, corsets, corset covers, and undervests. Moreover, one New York newspapers claimed that scores of fashionable women had already embraced the fad despite the cost.

The French thought a great deal about lingerie and also thought about the best way to make it. Surprising as it may be, French lingerie and the needlework that accompanied it was often made in convents. One visitor to the convent lingerie workshops wrote about her visit in the 1870s:

“We enter … a spacious, airy, whitewashed room, having a crucifix over the mantelpiece and religious mottoes painted on the walls. It has large windows on each side, and seldom anything in the shape of a curtain to keep off the dazzling light of mid-day summer. Sitting on high benches without backs are twenty, thirty, or fifty girls, as the case may be, of all ages from four to twenty-one, busily plying their needles. At each end of the room presides a sister, often over a sewing-machine, and her quaint nun’s garb is the only break in the prevailing monotony — a large, bare, over-lighted room rows of little children in white night caps, blue-checked, dresses and white aprons, who stitch away silently, automatically, as the bright summer hours pass by. As we enter all rise, and remain standing whilst we inspect their work. The sister takes us from one little needlewoman to another, proudly exhibiting the stitching or embroidery she has in hand. Then finished garments are produced, and we gaze in wonder, first at the elaborate piece of needlework, and then at the feeble-looking workers who have produced it.”

The French also considered how to market fine French lingerie. Unlike, other countries where lingerie was hidden away, the French openly displayed it in shop windows. This caused one Victorian woman to report, “In the shops of Paris one doesn’t feel duty bound to make a bee-line for a saleswoman, and then whisper gently in her ear that one’s errand is the purchase of lingerie.” Furthermore, the woman’s visit to Paris, in the late 1800s, resulted in her seeing what she called a “white window.” It was filled with satin lingerie and was so popular it supposedly attracted endless attention. The “white window” also included some elaborate garters that are described in detail below:

“Over the elastic was frilled cameo ribbon in delicate colors, edged with a very full frill of real lace three inches wide. At the side was a bow or ribbon on the lace, and a beautiful oblong buckle of brilliants.”

Garters were not the only things on the minds of buyers when they looked in shop windows and found simple displays of French lingerie. French lingerie of Victorian times always possessed the most dainty needlework that was of a quality unsurpassed by any other country. French designs were also reportedly the most tempting and the most stylish, which explained how they easily enticed dollars, pounds, or ducats away from any feminine purse. One Victorian writer agreed and commented that French lingerie was so pretty and dainty with its billows of snowy lawn, exquisite embroideries, and eyelet Valenciennes lace:

“One cannot help but feel that it is a shame to hide all of this loveliness beneath the somber exterior of a plain … dress, and yet, such of course, that is the fate of the season’s lingerie.”

References:

  • “Beautiful Lingerie,” in Logansport Reporter, 14 October 1899
  • Betham-Edwards, Matilda, A Year in Western France, 1877
  • “Black Lace Lingerie,” in St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 11 April 1897
  • Lingerie, in Saunder’s News-Letter, 26 April 1858
  • “Lingerie of My Lady,” in The Inter Ocean, 9 October 1898
  • “Parisian Lingerie,” in The Topeka Daily Capital, 25 Jul 1896
  • “They Delight in Lingerie,” in Pittsburgh Daily Post, 14 March 1897
  • The Delineator, Volume 58, 1901

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