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Category: Research

Posts in which we talk about research

One of the questions that seems to come up a lot when I ask what people want me to blog about is underpants. Did they? Didn’t they? Didn’t they feel naked without them? When I asked on FaceBook what topics I should think about covering in the next few months, this one again floated to the top, so here we go …

comfort 1815 no drawers

“Comfort”, 1815. No drawers.


The earliest depictions I’ve seen of drawers on women are 14thC German allegorical images on the topic of the woman “wearing the pants” in the family. In all of them, a man is usually also reaching for them, clearly desperate to reclaim the “power” they represent or is being beaten with a distaff or stool (or both). Clearly these images cannot be taken as documentation for women wearing underpants. In Textiler Hausrat, by Dr. Jutta Zander-Seidel, she states: “Underpants were not a usual component of women’s clothing in the 16th and 17th century [the eras of study in her book]. . . for the general populace, the use of these garments are not known before the beginning of the 19th century.”


Extant linen women’s drawer’s, c. 1820


The earliest drawers that I can document for women are from the 16thC and are Italian. They are documented in Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion 4. They are voluminous, split-crotch drawers with embroidery all over them. Clearly not mere “underwear” and not a fashion that I’ve seen outside of Italy. It should be noted that these are commonly depicted as the fashion of Venetian courtesans, who wore open gowns that displayed them.

Gilray, 1810. Woman in drawers.

Gilray, 1810. Woman in drawers.


So when DID women start wearing drawers of some kind? As Dr. Jutta Zander-Seidel states, the early 19thC. Knee-length drawers of peach coloured stockinette are reported to have been worn as early as 1806, but they were considered fast and unladylike, and from everything I’ve see and read, were not commonly adopted until later. They had a split crotch, usually being made up of two entirely separate legs on a drawstring waistband. An illustration from 1810 shows a lady wearing them, so it can be construed that they were becoming more accepted by then, but given the numerous examples of women NOT wearing them, they were clearly not universal. I see more frequent examples from the 1820s onward though.


Extant pantalettes, c. 1830s


Another thing that crops up in the 1820s is pantalettes. Unlike drawers, these were meant to show just below the hem of the skirt. You see them first in the teens (there’s a report of Princess Charlotte scandalizing people by wearing them). Again, their adoption does not seem to be anywhere near universal, and they were gone by the 40s, relegated to children’s wardrobes. Like drawers, they were made up of two separate legs. I see very little representation of these in art, but if you look REALLY closely you will occasaionly spot them peeking out from under a skirt here and there.

1822 pantalettes

Street scene, 1822 (you can just make out pantalettes under the skirt).


A note of warning for Regency authors: Beware of Bloomers. This garment was named after the famous suffragette Amelia Bloomer, and she is Victorian. So don’t use the term “bloomers” when you mean drawers or pantalettes.

Ok, now on to the good stuff: wearing them.

In my personal experience, they’re completely unnecessary. You’re wearing at least three layers of skirt (chemise, petticoat, gown) and all the fabric does a pretty good job of keeping you covered and discreet. All drawers really are is a major challenge when you need to pee? TMI? Sure. Here’s some more: when you can’t bend at the waist and you can’t pull them on and off, having to pee through a slit you need to hold apart while also holding up your skirt is a royal PITA (suddenly those sawhorse-looking stands for a lady’s chamber pot make a lot of sense!). Also, can we talk about chaffing? A bunch of loose fabric between your thighs combined with a little perspiration equals major chaffing. So yeah, in period garb I’m a fan of going commando and I won’t be putting my heroines into drawers.

One of the topics under recent discussion was all the different types of gowns a Regency lady would have worn and how people could possibly have told the difference. Morning Gown, Domestic Costume, Walking Dress, Promenade Costume, Carriage Dress, all of these appear somewhat similar when you look at the period fashion plates, and you’re not wrong to be confused (and there’s a LOT of crossover).

The first thing to understand is that the name used for the fashion plates describes the activity being undertaken more than the garment being worn. The second thing to note is that often the most distinguishing factors are the accessories rather than the gown itself. The same basic white gown might have been worn for morning activities around the house and then with a quick change of accessories, been transformed into something to wear on a walk into the village or out to pay morning calls (which are more like afternoon calls in real life) if one was in Town.

So let’s look at the prints themselves (these are all from Ackermann’s):


Very informal Morning Gown with a little pelerine over the shoulders.

A domestic costume is exactly what it sounds like. Something informal and meant to be worn strictly indoors when at home. These are pretty much universally made of white linen fabrics and they’re gussied up with some kind of robe, pelerine, mantle, or shawl for warmth. These tend to be on the loose side, and were probably worn with jumps rather than stays. They’re also invariably shown with caps (roll out of bed, hair not done, probably still in curling rags, put your cap on). While your hero is having breakfast downstairs in his banyan, your heroine is having breakfast (probably in her room) in her Domestic Costume. In a family situation, the mother and elder girls might also be eating downstairs in this attire. And they might wear it all morning while they wrote letters, went over menus, etc.


Morning Gown. Note the gloves and the very high collar. She has a loose, open robe over the gown.

When it came time to receive guests or to leave the house, she would change into a morning gown. Morning gowns are just a tad more formal than domestic costumes. So she’d likely put on her stays and have her hair arranged (though still in a cap!). Most of these outfits are shown with some kind of over garment, usually in the same fabric as the gown), and sometimes with gloves. This is the state in which she could come downstairs for a meal if there were guests or if she were a guest.


Walking Dress. She now has a bonnet and a colorful mantle on, as well as a parasol.

If she were walking into the village or going out to pay morning calls, she would swap out the simple over garment for a cloak, coat, spencer, etc., put a bonnet or hat over her cap, and maybe grab a muff or parasol depending on the time of year.


Promenade Dress. Note the halfboots, the veil, the watch and chain, the ridicule. She’s out to see and be SEEN! (and quite interestingly, NO HAT!)

A promenade costume is usually just a fancier update to accessories. It’s meant to be showy because you’re wearing it in the afternoon at the park or other location where fashionables went to see and be seen (you even see in the descriptions in Ackermann’s that the gown part of the “costume” is called a “morning gown”). And you pretty commonly see halfboots instead of slippers in the description and illustration.

So there you have it, your heroine might have changed costume four times today, or she might have just swapped around her accessories if she were frugal or not wealthy enough to have brought 50 gowns with her to a house party.

In my last post I talked about the difference between morning gowns and walking costumes and other “informal” types of dress. Today we’re going to take a peek at riding habits.

Habits are something you’re probably all familiar with, at least in concept. They’re composed of an extra-long skirt and a spencer jacket. They might also involve a waistcoat and a habit shirt (worn with a cravat), or with a chemisette with a frill for a more feminine look.  Sometimes they follow the high-waisted silhouette of the Regency era, and sometimes they don’t (a rare chance to show off your heroine’s waist!). Most often, they’re made of wool of some kind (stuff, bath coating, kerseymere, etc.), but there are extant examples of summer habits made of linen.

Habits are worn with some kind of hat, gloves, and either pumps or low half-boots (yes, pumps!). No tall riding boots for women as far as I can document (I’ve seen ONE cartoon of a woman in riding boots, but she was also shown with 5 o’clock shadow so we can hardly take her adoption of a masculine boot seriously).

First is this sketch of an extant 1810 habit by Janet Arnold for her book, Patterns of Fashion. It’s particularly great because Arnold details all the innards of the garment, including just how the skirt stays up (it’s really a “bodiced petticoat”), and we get to see the watch pocket, and the fact that their are hook and eyes connecting the jacket and the skirt. The pattern also lays out the series of tapes on the inside of the skirt that can be used to loop it up invisibly so that the train/length is hidden and you can walk.

1810 habit

Habit, 1810 (sketch by Janet Arnold)

1810 habit detail

Detail of 1810 Habit.

Here are couple of basic habits. They could be masculine in style (as is the à la militaire one from 1817 with its “lacing”), or they could be  feminine and frilly (I can’t find a public source for this one, so I’m sending you to Candice Hern’s site for all the filly glory).


Habit, 1803

1817 habit

Habit, 1817





I  say all the time that I’m a pantser, not a plotter, but I’ve come to realize that’s only partially true. I do plot, or at least I research towards plot. When I’m in the “thinking” phase of starting a new book, I have a go-to list of resources that I always check out to see if anything sparks.

The Annals of London


I absolutely love this book. It goes year by year from 1065 to 1999. For each year, it lists significant events and strange goings on. So stuff my characters might well have known about, talked about, been interested in, etc. Take for example 1789. There are only five entries.


Excerpt from The Annals of London. Click to enlarge.

How many of these might make it into my book? At least four of them. Clearly the frozen Thames and entertainments would be great (in fact, I used them in Lord Sin). The Shakespeare Gallery? Could make a useful outing or meeting place for my characters and add a little period flavor to the book. The Italian Opera House burning down? Oh, hellz yeah. Now we’re talking. Obviously I’d have to research the circumstances, but that could add drama in so many ways. Bridge opening? Yep. Another good detail to use for an outing or meeting, and you always need those (you can only write so many balls, LOL).

The English Year


This one is sort of the opposite of The Annals of London. It covers the year, day by day, with tidbits about special holidays and events. So I flip through this looking to see if anything particularly good is happening during the months when my book takes place (this sometimes helps me choose a location for a character’s seat or country home so I can use some particular tidbit. For example, this archery contest sounds like a lot of fun to write about, which might lead me to do put my characters at some kind of house party in Yorkshire so they could observe or participate.


Excerpt from The English Year. Click to enlarge.

Political Stuff

Since I’m writing about people in the ton, it’s very likely that they (or their father, or brother, or all of the above) are in Parliament as either a sitting Lord or an MP. There’s a very useful list of the Acts of Parliament on Wikipedia that can provide fodder for plot, both external and internal depending on your characters and the story. Especially in years when something huge happened. If I go look at 1788, the first thing on the list is the American Loyalists Act. That certainly sounds like it could be a plot point (albeit with a lot of research). A character fighting for almost a decade for compensation for remaining loyal to the crown? Yeah, that works. Want a do-gooder character? How about The Chimney Sweepers Act? Really want to get into it? The Slave Trade Act was also passed in 1788. It was supported by some Abolitionists and opposed by others because it merely regulated the trade. Basically, this lets me know what would have been on everyone’s mind (and what votes would have been important enough for a character to make sure he was present for the vote (something I used in Ripe for Seduction to get my secondary hero out of the way for an important plot point).


Who was being talked about and why were they being talked about? There are all kinds of resources for this, but one of my favorites is period cartoons. So I always spend a little time looking in various museum archives for cartoons (like what would have been posted in Ackermann’s windows). I also take a peek at the biographies on my shelves that might be of interest and in books like Decency and Disorder and George III: A Life in Caricature. I definitely always look to see if anything interesting was happing with Prinny!

The Plumb-pudding in danger, or, State epicures taking un petit souper. Gillray 1805

The Plumb-pudding in danger, or, State epicures taking un petit souper. Gillray 1805



Because I tend to write Corinthian-type heroes, I definitely look at what was going on with various sports as well. Racing and boxing are both fairly easy to research online. And it’s always fun when there was a big scandal in one of those.

Science and the Arts

I also love to glance through The Royal Society of London Philosophical Transactions (they’re on JSTOR, which most people can access via their library). Sometimes there’s a cool tidbit (report of an earthquake felt in Manchester) or information about new astronomy discoveries or other scientific experiments. Again, this is mostly just ideas for period color and to remind myself about what people would be reading and talking about.

So there you have it, my way of easing into a new book with research. And yes, I was once told by a very prominent agent (who I have a lot of respect for) that she was not the agent for me because, and I quote, “It’s clear you really love history; sadly, I don’t mean that a compliment.”

When you write historicals, you often run up against a lot of misconceptions (both readers’ and your own). I’ve had the rant about “no, our characters weren’t shorter” fight more than once. So often in fact that I did a blog post about it several years back. I’ve also tried my best to demystify the history of kilts and clan tartans (to much grousing) and have tackled thorny and unpopular topics like pointing out that croquet is Victorian and the hymen is NOT located internally.

Skull by Pedro WEINGARTNER

Skull by Pedro WEINGARTNER


Today I want to highlight a very interesting bit of historical archology that came to my attention recently: people used to have very straight teeth! It’s almost a gimmie that when you see a historical film or show the production will highlight the snaggly teeth of the characters that happen to be poor. But it turns out that’s anachronistic!

Janet Monge—curator of the physical anthropology section at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology—has studied a lot of skulls and she noticed something very interesting about them. To quote, “Nobody in the past had dental problems, like we are talking nobody.”

So what exactly got us to the point where we are now, where nearly everyone with a perfect smile had to invest a fortune in orthodontia to achieve it? Well, Monge has a theory… and it links like so many other negative physical developments to the industrial revolution. She says the change happened fast and it happened globally (the globally is a fly in the ointment in my opinion, as the industrial revolution didn’t hit across the globe all the same time), but her theory is still interesting. Her hypothesis is that it’s all down to bottle feeding! There’s a very verifiable difference between the development of the jaw an palate in babies that are breastfed and those that are bottle fed (bottles not requiring the same kind of sucking that breasts to in order to receive nourishment). So narrow faces with weaker jaws (but the same number of teeth) result in crowded and crooked smiles.

Silver Pap Boat

Silver Pap Boat

So, our characters would very likely have had beautiful, straight smiles, unless they were so unlucky as to have been “brought up by hand” and nursed on pap from a “bubby pot,’ “pap boat,” or “sucking bottle.” The snaggly teeth we all think of as a common thing pre-braces have really only been common for the past 150-200 years!

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