Taking a look at the undergarments worn by women in the 18th century is fascinating. They had a lot going on under their dresses to help them conform with the fashion of the times. Before we get into the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’, let’s start with some definitions.
What Is A Corset?
Corsets, or ‘stays’ as they were known in the 18th century, were the fully-boned undergarments worn to support a woman’s breasts and mould the body into fashionable shapes. In the time of Marie Antoinette and her years at Versailles, the fashion was a cone-shaped torso narrowed tightly at the waist.
‘Boned’ is a term used to describe the hard panels sewn into the corsets to keep the body in the right shape. They were sometimes wooden busks, hard reeds or, most commonly, made of whale bone which is where the name comes from.
A woman would be laced into her stays every morning, kind of like how you lace yourself into boots or running shoes.
What are Panniers?
When ladies fashion called for wide skirts, they needed help to push them out. The panniers were invented for this purpose.
Panniers were hooped petticoats worn under dresses to expand the width of the skirt, leaving the front and back practically flat. The word panniers comes from the french word ‘‘panier’ which means basket since they looked a lot like baskets strapped to a woman’s waist.
These panniers were made of wood, whalebone, metal or reeds. They expanded skirts as wide as several feet at each side. So large that many women had trouble getting into carriages or through doorways.
The iconic silhouette of the time was that of the rectangular dress, accentuating the smallness of the waist and largeness of the hips. Not many women had this figure naturally, especially not once the hips were padded out to 6-feet in width! The width of panniers could range from modest to extreme depending on the occasion with the largest of skirts saved for formal occasions. It was very much a case of ‘the larger the skirt, the wealthier the woman’ so ladies would wear the largest, most elaborate skirts that they could afford to balls or to the royal court.
You might think it’s very strange to wear tight corsets and large hooped skirts every day. How could a woman get anything done if she couldn’t bend at the waist or fit through a doorway? Well, in truth, many women did not. An 18th century woman’s world, if she was wealthy, was all about being beautiful, graceful and desirable. Her role in life was to make a good marriage and run the household. Sadly, this meant that she did very little besides sit doing domestic tasks such as sewing or reading, taking walks or visiting friends. Wearing these elaborate gowns with everything going on underneath was not such a hindrance to her lifestyle.
Servants, on the other hand, varied in the width of their panniers. A ladies’ maid working for the royal family, for example, might wear a small panniers skirt under her maid’s uniform, though a kitchen maid would have no need of one.
Poorer women did not have such elaborate dresses. Their corsets were of lesser quality and therefore not as rigid. Without the huge panniers to get about in, their clothes did very little to hinder their movements.