Monday, 23 September 2013

Mr. Darcy didn't wear underwear, but he might have stuffed his socks

Georgians loved all things neoclassical. You can see it in their architecture, their art, even their clothing. Although we usually think of men of this period dressed in black, by 1813, when Pride and Prejudice was published, it was not really en vogue, except maybe for clergymen. I am pretty sure they always wore black. But for fashionable gentleman, it was much more stylish to try to look as much as possible like a Grecian marble statue. This meant wearing light, creamy tones and very tight britches, often made of calf-skin.
As you have no doubt seen in costume dramas, they did not usually wear long trousers, but rather short ones with long socks. One advantage of this was that it allowed a gentleman to display his shapely, Grecian calves. If one's lower legs were wanting in bulk or definition, all was not lost. One could pad them up. It was actually possible to buy calf-shapers to put into your socks. As Mr. Darcy abhors deception of any kind, he may not have participated in this trend, but it was certainly possible. I do find it difficult to believe that a lady could not tell that a man's legs were not her own, but perhaps it is like a push-up bra. It doesn't matter that it is obviously the work of a bolstering garment. The effect is as desired.
As for underwear, neither men nor women wore any in the Georgian era. Underwear as we know it didn't exist at the time. Bloomers were just beginning to make an appearance on the scene, but were a bit useless. They were not in one piece but came in two separate legs, each with a tie to go around the waist. They did not really cover you up very effectively, and were prone to coming undone and falling off. I really do not know how they came to be popularized at all. Eventually, someone came up with the brilliant, though apparently not obvious, idea to sew the two legs together, as had been done with trousers for centuries.
Previous to bloomers, Ladies simply wore petticoats. Actually, in the Regency, they wore a chemise, which is like a loose, light, shift, then a stay, which is like a cross between a bra and a corset, then a petticoat or two, and then their dress, or gown as they would have called it. All together, the length and weight of their dress obviated the need for any underwear. They were pretty well protected. On their legs, they wore high socks. I cannot confirm that they did not use any sort of garter to keep them up, but I am pretty sure they just tied ribbons around the tops and hoped for the best.
The men also did not wear any underwear. Many modern people do not realize that a man's shirt functioned as his underwear. Shirts were extra long, and men just stuffed them down and around to cover themselves up. So, the romantic image that we have of a man in a flouncy shirt with an open collar, writing poetry by candle light is perhaps not so alluring when you consider that the bottom half of that shirt is not very sanitary. This is why a gentleman was never seen in his shirtsleeves in company, because a gentleman doesn't wear his underwear in front of other people. And this is why I am so outraged by the scene in the Pride and Prejudice film where Matthew McFayden (dreamy as he may be) is out for a stroll at dawn in his open shirt. MR. DARCY WOULD NEVER ROAM THE DOWNS IN HIS UNDERWEAR!
Sorry for yelling. I am excessively attentive to Mr. Darcy's reputation.

(Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice, the novel, comes out October 31, 2013. Until then, I am posting things I learned in the course of my research, and of being a geek. Sharing always welcome. Follow me on twitter @FolliesPast)


  1. I've heard before that women didn't wear any underwear in that era, and I am always trying to understand how they handled their periods. Even if you are indisposed and remain in the privacy of your chamber for a few days, don't you need something to hold the cotton/rags/whatever in place? How does it work?

    1. Hi Naomi! I wondered if you were following me. During their monthly episodes, women wore belts, with rags, or absorbent cloths fastened at the front and back. In fact, people continued using the belts well into the 20th Century, before adhesives became commonplace. Even disposable pads had sort of extensions out the front and back for attaching to a belt.

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