By Adam Welsch
With the Fourth of July holiday almost upon us, itâs time to think about picnics, parades, fireworks, and, of course, the American Revolution.Â Itâs a time of year when thoughts often turn to the Founding Fathers, like George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson.Â Of course, this blog is all about womenâs undies.Â Unless we want to break some very interesting new ground, those men simply hold no relevance here.Â But what about the women of the American Revolution â our Founding Mothers?Â As our nation celebrates its 234th birthday, itâs great time for these virtual pages concerned about lingerie to ask a very important question. Â What types of undies did Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Betsy Ross, and other women of late-18th -century America wear?
The ensemble of undergarments worn by women of that period was very different than that worn by women today, and you might be surprised to learn that it didnât include a couple of very key items.Â First, women of that era didnât wear any garments that were akin to todayâs panties.Â Thatâs not to say they âwent commando.âÂ They certainly wore unmentionables under their outer clothes.Â But underwear covering only the genital and backside areas was simply not worn at that time.Â Second, the bra had not yet been invented.Â Breast support delivered by a garment made solely for that purpose was still about a century away.
So what did Martha, Abigail, and Betsy wear underneath it all?Â Well, rather than a bra and a pair of panties, Marthaâs foundation at Mount Vernon would have been something called a shift.Â A shift was a loose-fitting gown, made of medium-weight linen, that fell to just below the knees.Â It had a neckline that rested just above the top of the breasts and sleeves that ended at the elbows.Â Nothing was worn underneath it, except for stockings.
Of course, conventional wisdom says that the corset was the most famous piece of womenâs underwear worn at that time.Â Well, yes and no.Â While what we think of as the very uncomfortable, highly-constricting, traditional corset (picture Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind or Kate Winslet in Titanic) did begin to take center stage around the turn of the century (1800), its precursor, the stay, was actually the âgirdle-equivalentâ worn during the time of the American Revolution.Â âA stay, you say, what in the world is that?â Conceptually, it was similar to a corset, but was shorter (not extending below the waist) and much less constricting.Â The description of the stay found in Wikipedia may be the best one available:
âThe predominant form of stays in the 18th-century was an inverted conical shape, often worn to create a contrast between (the) rigid, quasi-cylindrical torso above the waist and heavy full skirts below.Â The primary (functions) of 18th-century stays (were) to raise and shape the breasts, tighten the midriff, support the back, improve posture â¦ and only slightly narrow the waist, creating a V-shaped upper torso over which the outer garment would be worn â¦ Well-fitting 18th-century stays (were) quite comfortable, (did) not restrict breathing, and (allowed) women to work, although they (did) restrict bending at the waist â¦â
So the stay would have functioned as both the girdle and the bra of the American Revolution.Â It was made of leather or heavy linen, and would have allowed Abigail to perform the hard work of taking care of the farm while John was off attending conventions in Philadelphia and hob-knobbing with dignitaries in Europe.
But there were more items under those big dresses than just shifts and stays.Â Betsy, for example, would also have worn petticoats while stitching the Stars and Stripes.Â Petticoats were underskirts that simply hung from the waist.Â They were made from either silk or wool, and were worn to help âpoof outâ the ladyâs outer skirt, helping to visually shrink the size of her waist.Â Since these garments were supposed to be visible once a woman was dressed, however, many people donât consider them to be, strictly-speaking, underwear (though they certainly were under wear).
Finally, some often-overlooked undergarments of that time period were pockets.Â Rather than sewn into the dresses of the day, pockets were small bags of fabric that were attached to a ribbon that was tied around a womanâs waist.Â Though they would have been worn under several of their garment layers, our Founding Mothers would have accessed them through slits that were built into the seams of their petticoats and dresses.
So, as you sit outside this weekend enjoying a picnic, parade, or fireworks display in the intense July heat, imagine doing so while wearing a shift, a stay, several layers of petticoats, stockings, and a pair of pockets, all underneath your full-length dress with elbow-length sleeves.Â Youâll appreciate what Martha, Abigail, and Betsy must have endured at a time when air conditioning did not yet exist.Â Iâm sure youâll agree that George, John, and Thomas had it easy.