Women’s underwear during the First Empire
Underwear was originally worn to protect the wearer's skin from often richly decorated clothes that could irritate or scratch the skin. They were also intended to add an extra layer to keep out the cold and make warm conditions more bearable, whilst also resculpting the body to suit the popular fashions of the day. To meet these requirements, new specialised items of clothing, such as the corset, were invented. The Revolution and Directory periods saw the rejection of old Ancien Régime styles and the liberation of the female form (which resulted in the abandonment of constrictive pieces of under-clothing such as the shirt, the corset, and the panier – stiffened hoop dresses supported by whalebone inserts – which made up the gown “à la française”) but by the Consulate period so-called “decency” was beginning to make a return.
Fashion styles inspired by antiquity – simple forms with no petticoat worn – remained popular, but light or transparent fabrics were no longer acceptable. The new imperial regime in 1804 – seen as a return to order – also marked the return of the corset.
The corset – which sat low below the hips – was worn not only to support the bust and slim down the waist and pelvic area, but to avoid any hint of transparency. Large adjustable buckles were worn over the shoulders to hold it in place: at this time, whalebone had not been added, and so its rigidness was created through the use of selvedges and added cotton thread. The busk, a piece of hard metal or wood placed at the centre front of the corset, was used to flatten the stomach and hold the shape of the corset. The most popular style in 1808 was the corset known as “à la Ninon”, which featured a flexible cotton bodice with a small busk that felt less restrictive across the stomach.
During this period, the undershirt worn underneath the corset and against bare skin made its reappearance. Often made from woven white cotton, the shirt would hang down to the lady's thighs. In less well-off families, it could also be made from linen or hemp. The shirt's collar was generally open and often square, whilst the sleeves were usually short. Ladies would also wear stockings which went up to just below the knee and were held in place by garters. These stockings could be in cotton, silk or even wool.
Unlike in Britain or Austria, the use of drawers or under-trousers was not yet particularly widespread in France. When it did eventually arrive, following Napoleon's marriage to Marie-Louise (who had worn them since childhood), it was to prove a shock to the French population.
Emmanuelle Papot (tr. H.D.W.)