The Biddenham Women’s group had a presentation on the 12th June 2018 about “The History of Women’s Underwear”.

Ann Wise, a social dress historian of 30 years (though one would never have guessed it) had such a soporific voice that she might have lulled us off to sleep had it not been for the humorous pictures she showed us.

We started off with some ‘Medieval modesty’, depicted in a woodcut from 1474, showing women wearing a simple loin cloth but, for hundreds of years, the only undergarment worn was a simple chemise, made of coarse linen or cotton. Its sole purpose was to absorb perspiration and protect the expensive fabric of the beautiful dresses worn at that time. Natural fabrics had the advantage of being hard- wearing, could be cut down or passed on to siblings.

Everything was hand made. Sewing machines appeared in the 1850s and by 1870 patterns became available. A bride’s trousseau consisted of a chemise, silk stockings – held up with ribbons – and a corset with hooks at the front and laces at the back which, if you were lucky enough to have a maid, would be tied by her. Individual pockets, often elaborately embroidered and passed down as heirlooms, would be tied around the waist underneath the dress.

Corsets created a foundation for clothes, ensured a small waistline and upright posture making it very hard to bend. They were worn day in and day out and were wiped with a damp cloth.

A cotton-lined quilted petticoat was worn under an open robe in the 18th century. Many examples of women’s clothes are on display in museums, we were informed by Ann, who has worked in the heritage section of several museums. We can only assume the men wore theirs out!

The 1800s saw a change in fashion and a change in the shape of corsets. In the Regency period waists were out but after about 30 years waists were back in vogue again because they had become ‘a marriageable asset’. Young girls from the age of six had to wear a corset for the entire week!

Dry cleaning had become available if you were wealthy; failing that you could use gin and ammonia (and you can only guess where that came from).

Natural dyes were being substituted by artificial ones in the 1850s. Unfortunately, the chemicals reacted with the fabrics and few survived from that time. You could, however, knit your own corset! You would need to add a few extra rows of knitting though because by the 1890s corsets became longer and suspenders could be attached.

Open drawers, like Queen Victoria’s two-legged garments, developed from the 1930s and by the 60s and 70s elastic, rayon and nylon garments were being manufactured.

By the 1920s laced and boned corsets gave way to girdles and stockings were made of more natural colours and artificial fabrics. Ready-to-wear garments were now appearing and enabled women to have more freedom for their more active lifestyles.

This is just a brief summary (if you will pardon the pun) of the presentation we enjoyed in our group. If the subject matter of future talks appeals to you, do come along and join us. In the new year our group name will change and become more inclusive. Watch this space!

At our Summer Social, on 10th July, we shall ‘Party Like Royalty’ and raise funds for TIBBS Dementia Foundation, which is our chosen charity this year. If you wish to join us and are not a member the fee will be £5 for tea and entertainment – plus a quiz on royalty. Please remember to bring cash for a ‘Regal Raffle’. TIBBS, winners of the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, needs your support.

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