Our new costume display, ‘Below the Belt’, is an eclectic selection of the many types of clothing worn below the waist, taking in underwear, footwear and most layers in between!
Ladies first started wearing knickers, initially called drawers as they were ‘drawn on’, in the 1800s. They were generally worn by girls, rather than adult women, and were usually made of white cotton. As late as the 1880s, Cassell’s Magazine recommended that closed drawers rather than flannel petticoats be worn, indicating that even at this late date, drawers were not worn by everyone. Drawers came in different guises, some with open crotches (easier to handle when worn under large skirts!), and some closed. Petticoats were worn in layers with additional cages to support the fashionable skirt shapes, such as the 17th century farthingale, 18th century panniers, and the steel-ringed crinolines of the 1850s. By the end of the 1800s the cages and petticoats became much smaller and were worn only at the rear, forming the bustle.
As fashions changed, so did underwear. Women’s suspenders were invented in the 1880s. At first they were attached to a belt and later, to the corset itself. Suspenders were recommended by the National Health Society as a healthier option than constricting garters. By the 1920s knickers had become shorter, along with skirts, and by the 1930s both knickers and stockings were made from Rayon - a fibre made from wood pulp that mimics silk. The introduction of the synthetic fabric Nylon in the mid-1930s, alongside the development of new elasticated and rubberised fibres, saw underwear beginning to look like the items that we would recognise today!
Until recently men had worn a form of stocking, or hose, since the Middle Ages. Hose were worn under tunics, padded hose and later, under breeches. Typically hose were tied onto the wearer’s over-garments, or held up by garters. In 1589 William Lee, a clergyman from Nottinghamshire, invented the first knitting machine. This impacted on the quantity of hose and stockings that can be produced as prior to this they were hand knitted and only 6 pairs could be completed by a competent knitter in a week.
As machinery improved fashions began to change rapidly. Cotton lisle, a finely-spun and durable fabric, was first produced near paisley in Scotland in the mid-1850s. Cotton lisle allowed manufacturers to produce finer stockings with a shiny texture. These were the forerunners to the fine nylon stockings that were introduced by DuPont in 1939 in America. Nylons immediately proved extremely popular, so much so that during the Second World War when Dupont turned their factories over for the manufacturing of parachutes, there was a world shortage of nylons that saw them traded illegally on the Black Market. The first appearance of tights, or panty hose, was in the 1940s when film and theatrical costume designers sewed stocking onto underwear in order to the modesty of their dancers. Commercially produced tights and panty hose were introduced in the 1960s alongside with the introduction of miniskirts.
Until the Middles Ages footwear tended to be simple and functional, but by the 13th century fashionable shoes were being produced for nobility. These shows tended to be fairly impractical, for example in the case of the modish poulaines, the longer the toes the higher the wearers social rank. The toes of these shoes could reach 18ins in length, and the ends were attached to a fabric loop so they could be held up for ease of walking. The fashions of the 18th century saw the nobility wearing highly decorated shoes made of sumptuous fabrics such as velvets, satins and silks. It was more common for 18th century men to wear heels, often painted red, than women. This was due to the belief that men’s shapely legs were a sign of beauty. Women did also wear beautiful and elegant shoes, but they were hidden beneath many layers of skirts.
Mass production of boots started at the turn of the 19th century during the Napoleonic Wars. The engineer, Marc Brunel, developed machinery for the British Army that automatically nailed the shoes’ soles to the uppers, greatly speeding up production. However, the most significant breakthrough in shoe production came in from America in 1883, when Jan Ernst Matzeliger invented a machine which could make up to 700 pairs of shoes a day.