January 14, 2015

Closet Histories no. 4.1: Basic 18th Century Layers

 Now that we have jumped into the 18th century, lets look at the basic layers of an 18th century ensemble. Underneath each exquisite gown, a lady would be wearing several layers of undergarments and supports. The most basic of these layers were the chemise, the stays, a skirt support, and a petticoat.  More layers could also have been added like additional petticoats, pockets which hung from the waist, and fichu or kerchiefs that filled in the necklines of gowns. The best part about Closet Histories finally reaching the 18th century is that I can now find extant examples to show you with relative ease, luckily many examples of 18th century dress (and undress) have survived!

Fig. 1                                                                                                Fig. 2                                        
 Above in fig. 1 we see a very basic late 18th century chemise (also called a shift). Usually made of white or off white linen, the shift was the first layer of clothing for the 18th century woman and was definitely considered underwear at the time. The more money you had, the finer and better quality linen you wore. In fig. 2 we can see an 18th century woman in her complete set of undergarments. She wears a shift, stays, stockings, and a wide pannier skirt support.

Fig. 3 (1765)                                                                                      Fig. 4 (1770-1790)

 Stays had become an essential part of of a woman's wardrobe in the previous (17th) century. Worn to create the stiff conical shape essential to the fashionable silhouette, stays were very different from the corsets that would come generations later in the 19th century. The main purpose of stays was not to reduce the size of a woman's waist, but instead to create the proper shape and support for the gowns worn over them. It was thought that stays helped ensure the spine grew straight and even boys wore them as young children to support healthy growth. Overall, stays are much less harmful than many other types of corsets, the worst of which were the S bend corsets of the late Edwardian age. We will of course be discussing corsetry in greater depth later in our timeline of costume history.

fig. 5 
Once the stays were securely laced on, something was needed to give the skirts of a gown their proper shape as well. Skirt supports varied widely through the 18th century, providing the structure for the wide skirts of both formal and everyday attire. The more simple pannier set above tied on at the waist (and in the center front and back) and was worn over the stays but underneath the petticoat. Stiffened with cane or whalebone, panniers could be slimmer like the pair above or gargantuan wide like the pair below!

fig. 6

 Later, when the fashion for thin wide skirts had waned, a fuller rounded look came into fashion. This style required different skirt supports, bum rolls or bum pads. Yes indeed you heard me correctly, the ladies of the 18th century tied on a false bum to poof out their skirts. Like the bustles that would come a hundred years later, in the late 18th century, skirt fullness shifted to the back. Check out this awesome and well researched bum roll post over on Demode Couture to see different styles of bum roll in action.

Fig. 7
 The final layer of undergarments for a well dressed 18th century lady would be a petticoat. The one above in fig.7 is a quilted petticoat, which did double duty as its stiffness also helped fill out the shape of the skirts and would be much warmer in the cold winter months. Petticoats could be made of thin gauzy linen or of thick wool depending on the gown that would be worn over them and the weather. Sometimes ladies would have several layers of petticoats, or perhaps another very simple one to be worn underneath her other layers. The skirt of the gown (also sometimes called a petticoat) was another separate skirt that would be worn on top of the other structural petticoat.

fig.8 (1740's)
 Even with these basic layers of underwear, the 18th century woman still had a few more to slip on. Gowns were not simply one piece dresses like today, but were also several layers themselves. The three components to the average 18th century gown were the skirt, the gown, and a stomacher.  The stomacher was a triangular piece of fabric that filled in the front opening of the gown, it would be pinned in place onto the front of the stays. Then, once the gown was put on, the gown too would be pinned into the stays over the stomacher. Pins were an essential part of getting dressed in the 18th century. Most ladies were pinned into their gowns, there were no zippers or snaps in the 18th century!

That's all for today, next week we will continue with more from the 18th century!

All of the information for this post has been gathered from the textbook Survey of Historic Costume (5th edition) by Phyllis G. Tortora and Keith Eurbank, from the links above or my own knowledge. I want to share the resources I come across with all of you as much as possible. The portraits used to illustrate today's post are credited to either the museum where they reside (whenever possible) or the source where I found them, and are linked via their fig. # underneath. Again I repeat my disclaimer that I am not a historian, and if you have corrections or additions for this post, please begin the discussion in comments as I would love to learn more!


  1. That quilted petticoat is immensely beautiful. I've always been drawn to quilted clothing (very much including quilted 50s circle skirts - natch :)) and though it would have been unthinkable back then, could easily see (a modern version of) that being worn as a standalone skirt these days.

    ♥ Jessica

    1. I don't think I have ever seen a quilted 50's skirt but that sounds adorable! I think that's whats great about fashion now is getting to choose bits from the past and cobble them into unique looks for today. I'd love a quilted petticoat skirt!


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