Gold Rush Undies: Women’s fashionable underwear in the 1850s

Women’s Underwear

As there has been so much interest in our fashion blogs, we have decided to include another fashion post.

Cutaway diagram showing underclothes

Cutaway diagram showing underclothes

What did women wear under their beautiful dresses? The dressing regime of a lady would be seen as incredibly tiresome by today’s standards. Because the fashions came from Europe, the clothing would have been terribly warm and claustrophobic in the Australian climate. Let’s explore the stages of layering required to achieve the desired result for the fashion of the day.

Pantalettes and Chemise

Pantalettes and Chemise

To begin with our lady would put on her pantalettes, which were leg coverings.  These were worn from waist to ankle to ensure the legs were modestly covered should her skirt rise and expose the legs. Then she would put on her chemise. This is a French word meaning ‘shirt’, and it basically is a quite long shirt, falling to around the lady’s knees. This helped to protect her body from the corset.

Corset

Corset

Next the corset goes on. The corset is a very tight fitting belt-like garment designed to pull the waist in and give an “hourglass” shape to the lady’s body. The corset was usually stiffened with wood, ivory, bone or baleen which comes from the mouths of whales. The stiffening was used to create the desired shape of the time. The corset could be tied so tightly that women had difficulty breathing. It is also attributed to be the cause of many illnesses such as pneumonia, curvature of the spine and headaches.

Cage Crinoline

Cage Crinoline

Over the top of the corset the woman would wear several petticoats to fill out her dress shape. After 1854 women wore a new invention from Paris called a ‘caged petticoat’ or ‘crinoline’. This was a garment with several hoops sewn in that gave the illusion of fullness to the dresses. The hoops could be made of cane, rope, spring steel or baleen and could be in the form of a cage as per our picture, or sewn into a petticoat. The crinoline could be a very dangerous item of clothing in a home where fire was used for heating and cooking.

Camisole

Camisole

Next came the camisole which provided a corset cover used to help soften the lines of the corset under the dress.

Petticoats

Final petticoats

Lastly one or two petticoats were worn over all this to also soften the line of the crinoline under her dress.

 

Sovereign Hill staff member dressed to the nines

Sovereign Hill staff member dressed to the nines

Whew!! Now she can put on her outer clothes and go shopping!!!!

Would you like to know more about Gold Rush Fashions? Try our other blogposts on Women’s, Men’s and Children’s fashion.

For undergarments, there is some information about the history of crinolines and other aspects of mid 19th century fashion from the Victoria & Albert Museum.

This article was written in response to some questions from Brooke, a student from Wesley College at Clunes.  If you have a question you’d like us to answer please contact us!

8 responses to “Gold Rush Undies: Women’s fashionable underwear in the 1850s

  1. but in the 1850’s women don’t wore pantalettes (not before the end of the decade except for young girls ) and these pantalettes fall only around the kness. cage steel crinoline appears from 1856 , corset was worn by every women and not so tightly tied except for an handfull of “fashion victims”… regards …

    • Thanks for the comment. The information doesn’t conform to our research but we’re happy to look into it in more detail. We may have used the term “Pantalettes” instead of “Pantaloons”, as we thought they were interchangeable during this time in our history. we assure you the underwear we have researched did go from waist to ankles. Boys wore “Knickerbockers which fell to below the knee. Do you have any references for your information? We would love to add it to our files. Once again thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.

  2. Hi, I came across your site whilst researching women’s fashion on the goldfields but was unable to fine exact references to the shape of the pantalettes or if women wore ‘knickerbockers’. From my research of the 18th century, women generally didn’t wear what we call today knickers/pants/undies etc and so have found a few sites that mention that some 19th century pantalettes were basically ‘crotchless’. Sorry, I’m not sure how else to describe it.
    Is this the general view of the era or have some museums/historical sites listed these more out of interest?
    I can imagine it would be difficult answering natures call in a corset, crinolines and pantalettes!

    • Hi Han! Great question, we were just talking about this in the Edu office yesterday. By the 1850s, most British women, at least, were wearing pantelletes (we were debating about how long they actually would have been- ours at Sovereign Hill cover the ankle, but ladies back then probably wore calf-length ones and high lace-up books to maintain modesty). And yes, they were likely to be crotchless… Elastic was only just being developed at this time, and you’re right, without such technology, crotchless pantelletes were the only way you could realistically use the chamberpot/thunder box when you were wearing so many layers. It’s thought that some women would even use these crotchless pantelletes to “do their business” while standing up in the street! There were no public toilets for ladies in Victoria until Myer installed them in the back of the ladies department (genius!) at their Burke St store, so until then what else were women to do! It’s difficult to find out about these intimate technologies because they have historically been so private, but the V&A currently have an exhibition travelling around Australia about the last 350 years of underwear, and their website has some good information: http://www.vam.ac.uk/page/u/underwear/ If you have the chance to see the exhibition, it features a crotchless pair of Queen Victoria’s pantelletes! 🙂

      • Hi.
        Thanks so much for your previous information. I’ve already been putting it to good use (creative writing).
        I did have another question about stays or corsets, and who would have laced them up. I recently watched a YouTube video (unfortunately I didn’t keep the link, very silly of me) which showed how a woman of the era would have dressed of a day. However, the model had much assistance in dressing and whilst upper and middle class women would have had maids to assist, what if the women on the goldfields? Particularly if they lived with just their husbands. From previous research, I doubt their husbands would have laced them up.
        If you could shed some light on this for me, that would be very much appreciated.
        Thanks again. Your site has been so helpful.

      • We’re as puzzled as you are Han! We can’t find any evidence that thoroughly answers this question – in studying history there’ll always be mystery around how people used intimate items like undies, that’s what makes them so interesting 🙂 People lived much more communally than we do today, so you can imagine that sisters, daughters and female neighbours could have been helpful in fastening a lady’s corset, but as you say they were uncommon among the working classes. We see this lady doing her corset up herself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-v2yzJ42_ac I hope this helps a bit 🙂

  3. I love hearing about the practicalities of the era – what they ate, how they cooked, how they entertained themselves, how they mined and how they dressed themselves. I’m starting a novel set in the era and this information is extremely useful. I also teach the Gold Rush to Year 5 students so am always keen to learn more. Thanks for all your research.

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