The idea of underwear as separate from outerwear is a relatively recent one. Elements of dress that we today consider staples of underwear did not in fact make an appearance until the nineteenth century. Drawers, which were voluminous underpants, were not worn before 1800 and certainly not considered respectable for decades. Nevertheless, for a Georgian lady, an assemblage of foundation garments was essential in order to present the outer layers of sumptuous clothing to their best and most proper effect, and protect them from staining.
In the late-seventeenth century the bodice had shifted role from a highly decorated outer garment to become an indispensable piece of underwear. Referred to as ‘stays’ until the late-nineteenth century, the corset was the staple and most essential piece of underclothing in every woman’s closet, moulding the body into the all-important fashionable silhouette on the day. Never worn next to the skin, stays fitted over a loose, knee-length shift of linen or cotton, which provided a barrier layer preventing contact with the skin. Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps by today’s standards, regularly changing one’s body linen, for both men and women, rather than personal washing, was seen as the best route to cleanliness.
Stays were designed to be laced either at the front or the back. Above them, a boned stomacher, a v-shaped, decorative panel insert, would be placed providing a focal point and centre covering for open-fronted gowns. Stomachers were either pinned or stitched into place if worn with a back-laced corset or alternatively slotted behind the laces of a front-laced pair of stays. They were usually highly decorative items with elaborate embroidery and trimmings and could come at a high cost. Dressing in such garments required assistance and was therefore the preserve of those able to afford the luxury of servants and a lady’s maid.
Completing these layers of underwear came the hoop. Becoming fashionable from the beginning of the eighteenth century, hoops supported and provided extreme fullness to the heavy fabric of skirts and at the same time created a new and daring shape. While the hoop allowed more freedom to the legs, it was impossible for ladies to take ordinary strides; it necessitated tiny, gliding steps.