Invisible dresses? Oh, knickers!

With the turn for the century, fashions began to change from the tight-laced bodiced dresses to a softer, flimsy and floating style, often made from lightweight fabrics. Presumably it was this change of style that required women to preserve their modesty, so, on that note we’re delighted to welcome a new guest to our blog, Sarah Waldock,  who describes herself as ‘a Regency romance author with a morbid interest in drains and underwear’.

Fashionable Furbeloes, 1801

The post has come about following conversations we’ve had with Sarah Waldock, about one of our previous articles regarding whether Georgian women wore knickers or not! So we’ll hand over to her to tell you more.

The Fashions of the Day – or Time Past and Time Present: The Year (1740) a Lady's Full Dress of Bombazeen – The Year (1808) Lady's Undress of Bum-be-seen
The Fashions of the Day – or Time Past and Time Present: The Year (1740) a Lady’s Full Dress of Bombazeen – The Year (1808) Lady’s Undress of Bum-be-seen; Met Museum

This goes back to an assertion I made that yes, there were drawers worn by ladies in the Regency period as I had seen ads for them. Only when I uncovered the following ad, two words – invisible dresses – leaped out at me.

Radford’s Hosiery, 52 Cheapside

All manner of hosiery, gloves, flannels, drawers, ladies’ invisible dresses….

So going a bit further, I found

Mrs. Morris, once Mrs. Robertshaw, invisible dresses, petticoats, drawers and waist coats of real Spanish lamb’s wool, Welch Flannel Warehouse, 100 Oxford Street.

Plainly Mrs. Morris is a cut above Mr. Radford, being in Oxford Street where you pay three guineas a lungful to breathe [not that Cheapside was especially cheap; the name comes from the same source as Chapman, a peddler, from OE for goods for sale].

Digging around, I initially discover Mr. Radford advertising as far back as the 1st of January 1806 both the ‘Newly invented’ invisible petticoat and drawers, which is the earliest mention of drawers I had yet to find – at that point.

And then a bit of luck.

An unnamed seller advertises on Tuesday 17th September 1811;

New-invented invisible dresses [I hear you say, hang on, Radford and Morris had them in 1810; it’s the way of making them which is new invented] all in one, of a superior style for ladies and children … for ready money only, at no. 16 Poultry.

 

Fashion plate from Ackermann's Repository of Arts.
Fashion plate from Ackermann’s Repository of Arts.

All in one, which is interesting; it suggests that invisible petticoats and waists have been combined.   And in the same year, 21 December, 1811, Mr. Radford is back with his own take on this:

 New-invented Brunswick invisible dresses that are such a preventative against colds and are patronised by the Royal Family.

There are also ads from him advertising them for ladies and children, reinforcing the idea that these are practical garments, no mere modesty pieces. These garments are for warmth to prevent the silly and fashionable chits in muslins from dying of pneumonia at winter balls.

A hint to the ladies, or, a visit from Dr Flannel. "Mrs Jenny said your Ladyship complain'd of being cold about the loins... so I have just stept in with a warm flannel petticoat." © The Trustees of the British Museum
A hint to the ladies, or, a visit from Dr Flannel. “Mrs Jenny said your Ladyship complain’d of being cold about the loins… so I have just stept in with a warm flannel petticoat.” © The Trustees of the British Museum

I then looked up ‘Brunswick’ in the ‘Fairchild Dictionary of Textiles’. It gave me:

“A twilled wool and cotton fabric similar to cassimere”[Cassimere was a soft woollen twill cloth invented in Bradford and often combined with cotton, silk or mohair].

Petticoat dating from the very early 19th Century which would have been worn under a sleeved, trained dress and over a loose knee length chemise and a corset which covered the exposed bust area.
Petticoat dating from the very early 19th Century which would have been worn under a sleeved, trained dress and over a loose knee length chemise and a corset which covered the exposed bust area. John Bright Collection.

Now, Mr. Radford was also advertising cotton invisible petticoats in June and July of 1806, so maybe they were there as modesty pieces as well.  I don’t have any more on that, nor on whether they were stockinet flesh coloured garments, like the drawers mentioned by Nicky Roberts in ‘Whores in History’ [Harper Collins 1992] to be worn under the notorious dampened muslins.  It wasn’t mentioned. However I am seeing, I hope not spuriously, a connection between drawers and invisible gowns, which is an impression strengthened by a few more ads.

And this one from Mrs. Robertshaw [before she was Mrs. Morris] is the winner.

30th September 1806

SPANISH LAMBSWOOL INVISIBLE PETTICOATS

Mrs. Robertshaw begs leave to inform those ladies that found their invisible petticoats shrunk last winter that she has a kind so much improved that she will warrant them never to shrink even in the commonest wash, at the same time will be found equally as soft, pliant and warm. Everybody that has tried them allows them to be a much pleasanter article than ever before invented, being so very elastic[a word merely meaning at the time having some stretch or give] and of so beautiful a white, and, like all these comforts will add quite as little to size as her patent lambs’ wool so much approved of last winter.  Likewise invisibles and stays all in one; well adapted to ladies that are confined; also under waist coats and drawers of the same description. 

The ad goes on to invite mail order purchase, but what seems suggestive here is that the drawers are also for warmth as the implication is that they are also lambswool [and possibly either knitted or woven as a knit-weave like gents’ pantaloons]

The implication is also that this is not the earliest date.

Progress of the Toilet, plate 1. © The Trustees of the British Museum
Progress of the Toilet, plate 1. © The Trustees of the British Museum

So this is the ad I found, on 21st October 1805.

Spanish lamb’s wool invisible petticoats; Mrs. Robertshaw…. large assortment of her large assortment of real patent invisible petticoats which ladies will find soft, warm and pleasant at the same time adding little to the size.

Patent.  A suggestive word, though I have a gut feeling that a lot of advertisers threw it around without applying for a patent.  However, it does suggest that warm underclothes under skimpy top clothes was a recent response to the changes in fashion, having to be lightweight themselves rather than adding a quilted petticoat as one might do in earlier times.

Progress of the Toilet; dress completed. © The Trustees of the British Museum
Progress of the Toilet; dress completed. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The latest ad I found was in 1815, Friday 22nd December.  Mrs. Morris is no longer reminding people that she was Mrs. Robertshaw before.

Ladies opera dresses, drawers, waistcoats, invisible petticoats – Mr. [sic] Morris manufacturer to the Royal Family respectfully informs those ladies that have patronised her patent invisible petticoat, opera under-dresses, drawers and waistcoats …. that she has manufactured an entire fresh and extensive assemblage.

I searched up to 1820 but could find no more ads.  But after 1816, the year without a summer, the climate warmed up.  Could it be that woolly longjohns and flannel petticoats disappeared for a lack of need for them?

Three Graces in a High Wind (a scene taken from nature, in Kensington Gardens). © The Trustees of the British Museum
Three Graces in a High Wind (a scene taken from nature, in Kensington Gardens). © The Trustees of the British Museum

As to earlier, in 1804 Mr. Radford was bad-mouthing those who sold inferior quality whilst proclaiming his own cheap but quality hosiery.  He mentions flannels again.  Was this a euphemism for flannel drawers? I haven’t tracked that down.

On 13th November 1804 he is advertising elastic cotton and other drawers in with his hosiery, gloves, lace mitts and lace sleeves. He is mentioned on 12th May 1803 as a hosier, and taking on the rent somewhere in an article too faded for me to read.

Mrs. Robertshaw however turns up in December 1804, or rather, Mr. W, Robertshaw does, at the same address, 100 Oxford Street, with  a hosiery and pantaloon warehouse with fresh Spanish lambs wool and Angola waistcoats and drawers.  Mrs. Robertshaw.

…begs the attention of the ladies to her patent Bath and elastic lambs wool petticoats and drawers, which ladies will find soft, warm and pleasant at the same time to add very little to size.

So, they are not yet invisible!  Bath was a soft woollen cloth comparable to superfine; Bath suiting was often used for men’s jackets.  It moulded nicely to the muscular form of the Corinthian.

Apart from the existence of W Robertshaw, Hosier, 100 Oxford Street in January 1804, the Robertshaws too disappear.    Two families of Hosiers, whose brief, decade-long production of underwear excites the interest two hundred years later.

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6 thoughts on “Invisible dresses? Oh, knickers!

  1. pennyhampson2

    Thanks for this fascinating article. Despite their reputation for scandal and loose living, I’ve never quite believed that Georgian/Regency women (who were not selling their favours) wore completely transparent dresses and no underwear. So your research seems to support my view! Within living memory, we’ve had transparent blouses, but nothing transparent below the waist.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. And I was out the other day in a wild wild wind, wearing an empire line dress, and believe me, I was extremely glad I had not gone commando when an errant gust flipped it right up! now we do have to remember that drawers in that time came as two legs which tied at the waist, or as my great aunt’s great grandfather said to her [and he’d have been born late Regency] that when he was a little boy ‘when the wind blew, my, how the full moon shone with the ladies!’

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Nancy Mayer

    The drawers shown in Cunnington’s book on underwear, show them with a seat and not just two legs tied at the waist. I think the drawers and the pantalets were two different garments though often called by the same name. A very interesting and informative post.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. g-bull

    Wouldn’t any undergarments that are normally covered be called “invisible” – am I missing something in the article (or perhaps there’s a language barrier)?

    An extra dress layer, worn on top of the drawers but beneath the “visible” fashion dress, would therefore be an “invisible” dress, worn for comfort or warmth instead of fashion. Am I understanding correctly?

    Like

    1. the idea was that the fabric of the invisible petticoat/dress was so fine that it did not show as extra bulk; and therein lies the nature of the invisibility. Fabric both warm and very lightweight was now possible, quite a breakthrough

      Liked by 1 person

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