Guest Post by Jane Stubbs –
When you travel in a country where the toilet—if you can find one—consists of two places to put your feet and a hole in the ground, you soon stop wearing tight jeans. Suddenly, you understand why for centuries women wore long skirts.
This was brought home to me when I was writing my novel Thornfield Hall, which takes the events of Jane Eyre and looks at them from the point of view of the housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax. To get into the skin of my narrator, I made her clothes in the style of the era. Charlotte Bronte obligingly describes Mrs. Fairfax’s black gown and snowy apron. The dress took six yards of material and weighs in at five pounds. The skirt sweeps the ground, gathering dust, twigs, and the occasional smoldering cigar butt. It was usual to wear four or five petticoats, sometimes starched, to help the heavy fabric of the skirt stand away from the body. The main thrust of fashion at that time was to conceal the fact that women had legs. The young women of Jane Austen’s time, who soaked their single petticoat in cold water so it clung to their legs to show off their figure, were long gone.
A mannequin, dressed as Mrs. Fairfax, accompanies me when I talk to groups about the everyday lives of women in Victorian times. I shamelessly strip the respectable parson’s widow down to her underwear. She wears a corset stiffened with whalebone, as every respectable woman did to avoid social disgrace. Only loose women went without stays. The hooped petticoat Mrs. Fairfax is wearing in the photo, is an option which allows her to reduce the number of her petticoats without compromising her modesty by revealing she has two legs.
Her corset shows a new side to Mrs. Fairfax’s character; she is not just a sweet old lady. Her underwear is trimmed with scarlet satin and is laced in an unexpected way. She is not “strait-laced.” In that method, the lace is threaded into the loop directly opposite. This produces a neat row of parallel lines marching down the outside of the garment. However, this apparently simple method demands complex maneuvers behind the scenes. These extra steps make undoing the corset a tiresome and lengthy procedure. Little wonder that the term strait-laced is also used to describe a woman of determined virtue.
Mrs. Fairfax’s corsets, however, are fastened diagonally. To remove the corset, you need only tease open the bow and insert a finger into the loop at the top. With one swift pull the ribbon glides out and the corset comes free. A bodice ripper?
It is at this moment that a predominantly female audience, even a virtual one, will ask: Did they wear knickers? It is just not possible to give a definitive yes or no answer to the question. No diarist has obligingly written “I do not wear knickers.” Snippets of information come thick and fast. Someone has seen Queen Victoria’s huge drawers. Others wonder about the open crotch design or a panel at the back which unbuttons. Memories of rural privies abound.
Everyday practical considerations might help us find an answer. Did they have elastic? Rubber had been discovered but was used only to erase pencil marks. You have to wait fifty years before it is used for clothing. Victorian drawers would be fastened with loops, bows, and buttons. If you were lucky, you might have a drawstring. The practicalities of fishing about among the many petticoats for the release button persuades many that knickers were an optional extra, not a daily essential. The realization that all they had to aim at was a chamber pot or a hole in the ground supports this theory. The obvious way for women to deal with their natural functions under such circumstances is to dispense with knickers. Then they can simply arrange their skirts so as to avoid splashes and preserve their modesty.
Gillray’s cartoon of a woman relieving herself is titled Indecency because the woman has taken no steps to conceal what she is doing and, much more seriously, she is showing her legs.
These practical matters have made the rather bizarre fashion for the crinoline in the 1850s more understandable. Why else would a woman wear something closely resembling a bird cage tied round her waist? With her skirts draped over its metal frame, she need only sag at the knees over the chamber pot. There were snags with this new invention. It had an unfortunate tendency, if not handled carefully, to rear up and reveal all. Did women then start wearing knickers to protect their modesty?
Gillray’s cartoon begs the question, what else could a woman do? She could not go to a pub or a coffeehouse. They were reserved for men. In effect, a woman could go no farther from her home or place of work than her bladder would allow.
Fortunately, Prince Albert arranged the Great Exhibition in 1851 where women could for the first time “spend a penny” at a public flushing toilet. The railways which were crisscrossing the country also played their part by providing cloakrooms for ladies. Better toilet facilities played an important role in improving women’s lives in the second part of Queen Victoria’s reign.
Jane Stubbs is a graduate of London University. She has taught in various places of education throughout the UK.
Thornfield Hall (Atlantic Books, 2014) A respectful retelling of the story of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte from the point of the housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax.
A Family Affair (Amazon, 2021) follows the fortunes of three girls in northern England. They come of age as the reign of Queen Victoria comes to an end. In the background simmers a love affair forbidden by law.