Bare Necessities: A Talk on Victorian Ladies Underwear Ruth King

As the title suggests, the February talk focused on the informative topic of Victorian knickers. In her most entertaining and informative style, Ruth introduced us to the history and evolution of these basic but essential garments.

The concept of underwear as we know it emerged only in the 1800s. Until then, women wore a long shift under their dresses known as a chemise. During the 1800s, fashionable women of the day wore drawers, which were two separate legs joined at the waist. Longer drawers were called pantalettes. It was this particular garment, which gave rise to the phrase “a pair of…trousers, pants,” etc. as it referred to literally two legs of the garment.

Ruth also regaled us with the different names given to underwear in different regions. In London, some of the popular terms used to describe underwear were taxi teasers and wrist breakers while in Somerset they were known as flycatchers and apple catchers and in East Anglia names included anti-passions and sugar bags. The names were not intended to be sensual and attractive!

Another interesting fact presented by Ruth was the origin of the different types of underwear. In the 19th century knickers were sometimes called Bloomers, named after a lady called Amelia Bloomer. The 1840s saw the introduction of crutchless drawers, called gusset named after Queen Victoria’s drawers-maker, Florence Gusset.

Ruth passed around a variety of Victorian underclothes, including corsets worn to achieve a 13 inch waist and an hour glass figure. Many of the garments were beautifully embroidered and very heavy to wear. Corsets were restricting, and caused many problems with the diaphragm and breathing difficulties. No wonder Victorian ladies were given in to swooning episodes!

This entertaining talk coincides with an exhibition on Bare Necessities: an Exhibition on Underwear.

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