Knickerbockers and Pantalettes?: What Late-Victorian Women Wore underneath their gowns.

If you write historical romance of the non-closed door variety, sooner or later you’re going to find yourself researching undergarments. I’m sure there are lots of places on the internet where you can find all the information in one place, but one more won’t hurt. My books are set in the 1880s-90s, so that’s the period I’ll cover in this post.

I can’t remember who called the appearance of Victorian women in photographs ‘well-upholstered’ but the description is spot-on. Unsurprising too, once you realize how many layers they had to put on every morning to be considered ‘decent’.

First your well-bred lady (probably with the help of her maid) would put on a chemise:

Chemise, 1880s. Source: The Met.

Then the drawers:

Drawers, 1890s. Source: The Met.

The chemise would be worn tucked into the drawers. Or you could opt for a combination, which was basically the two garments stitched together without all the excess fabric. Then you’d add a corset which would be attached to your stockings with a suspender belt.

Corset. 1880s/90s. Source: the now defunct fuckyeahvictorians tumblr via Pinterest.

Then a petticoat:

Petticoat. 1882. Source: The Met.

Then a corset cover:

Corset Cover. c. 1889. Source: Pinterest.

Then, if it’s still the 1880s, a bustle:

Bustle, 1880s. Source: FIDM Museum Library via Pinterest.

Or, if it was the part of the 1890s when massive sleeves were in, you need wire sleeve supports:

Wire sleeve supports (1890s) with wire bustle (1880s). Source Augusta Auctions via Pinterest.

Give or take the odd sleeve support and varying the size of the bustle, you’d end up looking something like:

1880s undergarments. Source: Pinterest.

There. Now she’s ready to put her dress on. Assuming she still has the energy.


Victorian Mad Doctors and Clitoral Stimulation Redux

Just when I thought I knew where I was with this topic, I find this article by Dr. Kate Lister. In a nutshell, while there is next to no evidence for Victorian doctors using the vibrator to stimulate women’s clitorises as a cure for hysteria, there is actually quite a bit suggesting they used manual stimulation of the vulva or pelvic massage.

‘The Physiotherapy in Gynaecology and the Mechanical Treatment of Diseases of the Uterus and its Appendages’, 1895, via inews.

According to my understanding of the article (and, truth be told, I am beginning to doubt my ability to understand anything about this subject), the point of the treatment was not to induce orgasm (though people at the time worried this would be an unfortunate (?) side-effect), but to treat a miscellany of conditions including “prolapses and protrusion of the uterus; prolapse of the vagina; hypertrophy and induration of the uterus; ulcerations; abnormal haemorrhage, depending on relaxation of the uterus; tendency to miscarriage; slight hypertrophy of the ovaries.”

So, no vibrators, but apparently fingering was fine and dandy. And recommended by The Lancet.


Eminent Victorians: Valerie, Lady Meux.

Harmony in Pink and Grey or Portrait of Lady Meux, 1881, by Whistler. Source: Wikipedia

I first came across Lady Meux when writing my first manuscript (now languishing on my hard drive). I think I was trying to gain a more accurate idea of what ladies wore in the 1880s when Harmony in Pink and Grey popped up in my Pinterest search results. I’d never seen it before and I fell in love once I learned a bit more about the subject. Valerie, Lady Meux, despite her aristocratic demeanor, was a woman with a past. She didn’t begin life as a lady and was never accepted in the highest social circles.

When she married Sir Henry Bruce Meux, 3rd Baronet, it was said she’d once been an actress, but, while she does seem to have spent a single season on the stage, it’s thought she was actually a barmaid, banjo-player, and prostitute when she met her future husband. For some reason, it’s the banjo playing that sticks with me:

Sir Henry Meux, Lady Valerie and banjo.

Like I said, she was never fully accepted by society (or her husband’s family) but instead of sitting at home and sinking into a decline as sinful women mostly did in Victorian novels (see Thomas Hardy, Elizabeth Gaskell, and about a bajillion others,) she threw lavish parties attended by the future Edward VII among others, drove around London in a high phaeton (the old timey equivalent of a sports car) drawn by zebras, and was painted by Whistler three times.

Arrangement in Black: Lady Meux by Whistler.

Sadly Whistler burnt the third painting (Lady Meux in Furs) after Lady Meux said something that pissed him off during a sitting.

So there you go: Lady Meux, Victorian sex-worker made good, artist’s muse, socialite, and banjo-player.