Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Fact or Fiction? The Absence of Under Clothes During the Regency

What About Those Underclothes?
 by Linore Rose Burkard

Rumor has it that women's clothing during the Regency lacked sufficient underclothing. But was it true?

During the 18th century, women were required to wear layers and layers of clothing consisting largely of underclothes. Chemises, stockings, stays (corsets), hoops, panniers, and often many layers of
petticoats. By the time of the Regency, costume had undergone a downright shocking reversal. The change began in France, the center of fashion, which took its ideas from classical Greek and Roman styles of antiquity (as in the illustration, below). The new styles caused the heavy layers of underclothing to be largely discarded.

Greek costume that influenced the Empire Style

It was, if you will, no less than a fashion revolution. 

Some French women of the upper class went so far that underclothing was in danger of becoming downright extinct.  When this “Empire Style” crossed the channel into England, however, it became
less risqué, thanks to the more modest English. 

(This explains why the quintessential Regency style dress has an "Empire" waist.  The style began during the reign of Napoleon, who fashioned himself emperor--ruler of an empire.)   

Regency Corsets
In England, the ideal of a long,
straight dress, revealing the human figure beneath was still in vogue, however, so all those petticoats from the previous century had to go.  Same for the long corsets, the hoops, and panniers.  What remained was a simple chemise, usually accompanied by a short corset (called “stays”) which served to raise and support the bust. It was a precursor to the modern bra. 

This is where personal taste came into
play. The long, straight line of the figure was the fashionable ideal which precluded the use of bulky under-garments. Most ladies, nevertheless,
assuredly wore underclothing. The chemise was a mainstay of the wardrobe, and the petticoat never disappeared completely. The Regency is famous in

caricature for the lack of female undergarments, but this propensity of exhibitionism was far less
common than the cartoonists of the day (or some modern novelists) would have you think.

Most women, like Jane Austen herself-- wore utterly sufficient undergarments, and, indeed, dressed quite modestly. The Empire day-dress, if it did not have a high neckline, used sundry manner of textile trickery to conceal the bust (such as
frills, lace, ruches and ruffs, and even light spencers) so that day garments were in particular extremely modest.

Josephine, as Empress

Evening dress was admittedly more revealing, requiring a square, low bodice, but women were free to use shawls, scarves, feathers, veils and what-not
(all of which came in an amazing array of sizes and styles, especially as
the Regency wore on), so that they could easily appear more modestly if  desired. Even to modern eyes, however, bodices from the day are revealing; but again this was mostly the case for evening wear, and

more formal occasions. The scantily clad lady sitting in the library
reading just wasn't the way it went, no matter how romance novel designers choose to portray it. And ladies without undergarments of any kind were, without question, a rarity.

Even drawers were worn by women as early as 1804, though admittedly not yet popular. (Left: 19th
century American women’s drawers)iv They were taken from men's clothing and considered coarse
and crude. Princess Charlotte was discovered to use them, however, which (despite shocking the

older set), did much to popularize them with the masses, who adored her.

VERDICT: Did Regency women abandon underclothes? No, this is a FICTION.

BONUS:  Subscribe to Linore's ezine and receive a coloring e-book companion to this article (for grown ups who love fashion!). (Greek and Roman Styles that Influenced the Regency.)  Leave a comment with your email address and let us know you subscribed (at and Linore will send you the fun coloring book! Simply print out the pages you want to color, or just enjoy the fashion plates.


Linore Rose Burkard  is best known for her Inspirational Regency Romance Series, which whisks readers back in time to early 19th century England. Eye-popping detail and heart-warming adventure are par for the course in her books. Fans of romance in the tradition of Austen and Heyer (such as Pride & Prejudice, Cotillion, and even My Fair Lady), enjoy meeting Linore's feisty heroines and dashing heros.


  1. I never considered historical undergarments until I became a writer. It's no wonder women swooned with those tight corsets and so many petticoats.

    1. Really. Clothing was undeniably heavy prior to the regency, and again afterwards. The layers helped keep one warm in the days before central heat, though!

  2. Hi Linore, Whew! I can now sleep better knowing that my ancestors were appropriately and modestly dressed. LOL!
    Now about those Scottish kilts....

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. LOL. That's another story, huh? :) I'll send you the ebook coloring book if you leave your email address.

  3. I remember reading in Georgette Heyer's novels how some women would dampen their evening dress so that it would cling to their figure and be sheer/revealing. I wonder if this is true and whether these women still wore chemises/corsets underneath? Thanks for the post, love Regency info!

    1. Lis, those women were evidently to be understood as lacking undergarments. But again, if women really did this, it wouldn't be in polite society, and certainly wasn't the norm. I think I saw a blog post that seemed to imply that most women didn't wear much underneath their gowns, if anything, which so incensed me that I did some research and wrote the above article as part of my PDF, Myths and Mysteries of the Regency!

    2. I need your email also, if you want the PDF.

    3. I subscribed to your newsletter after your last post about Lord Byron so I did receive the PDF (thank you!). I hope you write more Regencies!

    4. Thank you, Lis, but did you get the Grecian and Roman Fashions coloring book PDF? Let me know, because I think new subscribers get something else--unless I've forgotten!

  4. It's always fascinating to learn the "underneath it all" part of fashion history. Thanks!

  5. That's a good way to put it, Stephanie! Thanks!

  6. I always enjoy learning more about my favorite era! And I would love an e-coloring book. :) Let me know if you need my email.

    1. Anne, I'm going through old articles and saw this reply. Did you get the coloring book of Greek and Roman fashions? Let me know. So sorry to see this a year late!