In writing my Darcy Saga, and specifically my soon-to-be released Darcy and Elizabeth: Hope of the Future, bedroom wear has frequently contributed to the plot. Go figure! Long ago I researched, and am content with my conclusions and how I’ve chosen to describe the pretty underthings and nightgowns worn by Elizabeth. As a writer one can employ “creative license” here and there, even in a historical novel. I have always stuck as close to the facts as possible, while also bearing in mind that my novels are unabashedly romantic.
Whether women in the past wore sexy undergarments is a topic which can lead to heated discussions. And I’m not referring to the worn garments effect upon a male! For reasons that frankly boggle my mind, there are those who maintain that women prior to the American sexual revolution, begun in roughly the 1960s, would never dream of donning a lacy chemise or frilly corset with the idea of arousing a man. As I see it, the desire (pun intended) to entice the male sex is obvious in the outer wear of most fashion eras, including and arguably especially during the Regency Era — those low-cut bodices and push-up stays weren’t accidental.
Personally, I think it is abundantly clear that women all through the ages and in every culture have been well aware of their bodies, the effect of their curves upon the opposite sex, and how to accentuate their physical attributes. Men, I should add, have never been immune either. Tight breeches, anyone? Fashion ideals and cultural norms have varied as in how to entice, or what was considered attractive, of course. Nevertheless, it is illogical to believe the garments worn in the privacy of the bedchamber when alone with her husband would never be pretty, at the least, and possibly seductive.
One question is, just how prevalent or popular was the concept of attractive undergarments and/or nightwear? Another question, how similar is our modern vision of “sexy” or “seductive” to those ideas of two-hundred years ago? Both questions can be answered, to some degree, by viewing extant samples of period undergarments. Aside from the images included within this blog, check out my Pinterest board: Regency Undergarments
Undergarment have always served several purposes. Providing a layer of protection between the costly outerwear fabrics and the skin was essential. Body oils, sweat, grime, etc. needed a barrier, a shift/chemise and petticoat designed, in part, for that express reason. Undergarments also added a layer of warmth, particularly useful in cold climates. Additionally, depending upon the fashion, the fancy embroidery or lacy hems and bodice edges of an undergarment often “peeked” for a pretty accent. Corsets, or stays, were designed to sculpt the figure by cinching the waist and lifting the breasts. As the photos above reveal, beautiful corsets were not unusual. Whether colorful or of a plainer beige, elaborate stitching designs and embroidery are often seen. Interestingly, the majority of the extant stays from the Regency are white or a shade of beige. My guess is this relates to gowns of the era being of pale colors (largely) and thinner material. A bright red stay, for instance, would have limited use.
For night wear, there appears to be no definite indication of separate garments worn just to sleep in. This may be because nightgowns were similar in style and sewn of the same fabrics as a chemise, thus labeled as the latter. Or, more likely, women wore a chemise to sleep in, much as men wore their shirts. Extant undergarments as a whole are rarer than outerwear due to the harsher wear and more frequent washings. There are period examples of robes for women, just as there are for men (banyans), many of which are quite lovely and ornate.
As seen above, to the right, and in the handful of others on my Pinterest board, lace edges and ruffles were common features. Fabrics were typically cotton or muslin, some quite thin. Bodice cuts ranged from barely above the bosom to high on the neck, with most falling somewhere in between. Considering the fashion of the day for gowns were low cut, narrow bodices, a true chemise/shift and accompanying corset/stays would require the same design. Meaning, examples like those above, appear to make more sense as what we would call a “nightgown,” but this is admittedly conjecture.
Referring back to my questions above, in eras where a woman’s body was hidden under several layers of garments, the merest flash of an ankle was racy and enough to arouse an interested suitor. The Regency was a brief fashion period of “less” and “loose” for outerwear, nevertheless, a woman wearing nothing but a chemise would have been daring in the extreme! Our modern eyes may not readily see the sex appeal, but to a Regency man, any of the chemises I’ve posted here would have been wildly sensual, particularly on a woman he loved and desired.
What about a Regency lady wearing something more titillating? A skimpy babydoll or teeny strapless number, or whatever one imagines when hearing the words “lingerie” and “negligée”? As far as the names themselves, word etymology, as noted below, makes it fairly certain that neither term would likely have passed a Regency woman’s lips.
If the earlier dated “negligée” was spoken, the meaning was not quite the same as what is envisioned today. Does that mean no one on the entire European continent ever created something out of sheer lace or that fell to mid-thigh or even higher? Your guess is as good as mine! I have my own ideas. Tell me what you think!