The 5 Essential 18th Century Underthings

If you’ve been in the costuming community for a while, then you’d know how difficult it is to find resources that show you how make your own reproductions for period appropriate clothes in one spot. Especially for the underthings! After a while, you begin to loose track of the online resources that you’ve accumulated, and sometimes you loose them for good, it seems.

Just a couple of minutes ago I got so frustrated that I couldn’t find even a list of things to make that would be essential for an 18th century woman’s day-to-day wardrobe. You end up spending possibly hours on researching the same thing trying to get “the look,” and after a while you stop and start all over later. *its maddening!*

In this post, I hope to alleviate some of our mutual frustration by combining all the essential undergarments into one post so it’s easily accessible for you (and I) to refer to while making our 18th century projects.

1. The Shift

British Museum | 1766-1780

The shift was underwear of the 18th century. Even though it looks like a comfy night gown to us 21st century viewers, this simple bit of fabric was literally all the underwear women wore… think about it this way: the shift is the equivalent of panties (speaking of panties, there was no such creation made yet). The Shift was the ultimate coverage and modesty provider a woman wore closest to her body.

The history of the shift sort of remained the same from the 16th through to the early 19 century, with only a few changes in design according to its function. For example, the fullness of the sleeves in the early 1700s were quite full, rounded, and puffy. However, for most of the century the sleeve length remained about 3/4 long, and the fullness became more narrow as the court styles demanded a close fit due to the lavish bodices and tight sleeves. By the time of the American Revolution, the length of the sleeves began to shorten again, until the end of the century where the sleeves were almost removed due to the new “grecian style” of the regency period.

Since for most of the century women wore shifts with fitted 3/4 sleeves, here is the pattern/design I used from my research:

Materials

Because this garment was frequently washed, almost exclusively worn (even to bed), and the laundering process was quite rough on fabrics, choose something hardy, practical, and affordably accessible.

I purchased 3 yards of unbleached muslin, though a light, semi-transparent/loose weave, cotton/cheese cloth would work just as well. Use matching thread (I used unbleached cotton). Unfortunately, for the first shift I made, I didn’t have enough fabric, so I ended up doing a lot of piecing and patching together, so it doesn’t look like a perfect shift (but as I continuously say: Piecing is Period!).

I used this pattern: as it was the most material friendly pattern I found, was less confusing, and seemed most historically right, though you could follow Bernadette Banner’s tutorial as she recreated a shift from a direct historical source. (Which reveals that both patterns are roughly the same, just explained differently).

2. Stays

I’m not going to talk much about Stays, as I have already written several posts about them. But merely know that Stays were a foundational garment, primarily used to support the bust and the back due to the heavy layers of skirts and panniers. They were not designed to be tight laced, though some women (the scandalous, frivolous, and conceited kind) did.

3. Skirt Supports

Just like every century, the exterior shapes, silhouettes, common designs, and foundational garments all changed, or slowly introduced a new fashion trend.

Having the correct skirt supports is crucial for making your project look like the real thing or a cheap costume.

The most beneficial thing you could do while planning to make your supports, is conducting specific research first. Don’t use generalized searches like “Marie Antoinette 18th century fashion.” Rather, I’d encourage you to look up specific dates and narrow your field, for example: “1740 Royal Court Austria.” By doing this, you are studying and looking for the “common” shapes women wore in that place and time in history. Once you have a general idea of the shape you want, you can begin to start planning and researching patterns.

Panniers

Seamstress going to sell her work | 1778

In the image above, you see a woman carrying panniers, a narrow and long skirt support mostly worn by courtesans, wealthy ladies, duchesses, or by royalty at the grand courts.

Resources:

For Grand Panniers, refer to: Angela Clayton’s blog.
For Pocket Hoops, refer to: American Duchess. Or for self-drafting, refer to: Dreamstress.

Bum Supports

If you’ve been jumping around researching and reading blogs from your favorite historical designers, you will have seen the image above everywhere, and then some. Mainly because this political satirical illustration is an excellent depiction of the different varieties of “bum padding,” and suggests that there was some creative liberty in achieving the “current” style back in the day too.

Resources:

For modern historians, I’d say that these two designs are essential for beginning your 18th. century underpinning collection:

Traditional Roll and similar patterns: Demode
“Quartered-Pillow” Rump: The Lady Victoria

4. Quilted Petticoat

Why “quilted?” Why not just make a regular petticoat? Well you can, but should make both! Because remember: perfection is in the layers. The weight and structure of the quilting adds extra shape to the exterior garment layers. Because it’s a petticoat, the order of layering is entirely up to you, it can be either an interior or exterior petticoat (as shown above).

Of course, making a quilt petticoat is entirely optional, but something that I would highly recommend.

Resources:

As I said before, I would encourage you to make both a cotton and quilted petticoat. Fortunately, the patterns I’ve listed would work for both!

Pannier Petticoat: Yesterday’s Thimble
Quilted Petticoat (Minimal Fabric): American Duchess & National Trust Collections
Quilted Petticoat (Full Length): Rockin’ The Rococo

5. Embroidered Pocket

Costume Plate (Tricoteuse 1793)

Pockets! Even if gowns didn’t have pockets sewn into the skirts, pockets were always utilized! Besides, how else are you supposed to carry your fan, smelling salts, house keys and cell phone to get those insta worthy pictures?

18th c. pockets could be worn in the interior layers, or on the outside for a more casual look. I’ve seen them in multiple sizes, but most vary in lengths from the waist to the mid thigh (different for everyone). They could range from heavily embroidery for grand courtesans, to the simplest of patchwork for the poorest folk.

Resources:

Pocket tutorial: Decor To Adore
Period Hand-Embroidery Stitches: Tea in a Teacup
Video Showcasing 18th C. Pockets: CrowsEye Productions
American-Colonial Embroidered Pockets: Metropolitan Museum
Patchwork Pockets: KDD & co

That concludes my list of Essential 18th Century Undergarments that you can make yourself! Now don’t forget the rest: The stockings, garters, shoes, neckcloth, and the other small accessories to make the look complete.


Happy sewing!

My favorite resources not linked above:

–> 18th Century Costume Glossary and Terminology: for garment examples & definitions
The Lady Victoria: Excellent source for tutorials and inspiration
A Fractured Fairytale: Stunning blog of gorgeous costumes from 18th-20th c. (tutorials included)
–> Featured Image: Nicolas Lavreince (aka Niklas Lafrensen), Young Woman at Her Toilette, c. 1780, Swedish working in paris

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