Friday, June 22, 2012

The Eternal Question of Underclothes

Pantaloons were not for gentlemen alone. According to several websites, ladies wore them also., without citing a source, declares:
Women took to wearing dress pantaloons in Napoleonic France. Knee-length and ankle-length versions were worn as undergarments under the light muslin Empire-waisted gowns.
Pauline Weston Thomas, in an excellent article at, states:
Women's pantaloons were made of light stockinet in a flesh-toned nude colour and reached to just below the knee, or even all the way to the ankles.
And she offers a sketch of her notion of period pantaloons:

copyright Pauline Weston Thomas

Despite these opinions, and speculations, we have very little documentary evidence of pantaloons as underclothes. It could be that pantaloons became popular first for children, particularly girls, and spread gradually throughout adult society. However, I did come across an interesting item in the June 1806 Fashion notes of La Belle Assemblee. Under 'General Observations on the Fashions for June', LBA says:

Walking dress pantaloons of corded cambric, trimmed round the bottom with lace or fine muslin; a smooth frock dress of the same material is much admired; the novelty of this dress (though several made their appearance in the Gardens last Sunday) was not so conspicuous, as trains of thin muslin were worn over to disguise, in some measure, the singularity of its effect.

These would seem to be more along the lines of the later 'bloomers' of Amelia Bloomer (who was born in 1818); a garment that was part of a costume, and meant to be displayed.
This bathing or seaside costume of 1810 seems to show something similar.

But an article, also in La Belle Assemblee, this time from 1807, mentions pantaloons again. It comes up in a recounting of the rivalry between Madame Tallien and Madame de Beauharnois, both leaders of fashion during the French Revolution. Madame Tallien had apparently lovely arms and Madame de Beauharnois fine legs, with the following result:
Having better shaped thighs than well-formed arms, she[de Beauharnois], under a clear muslin gown, put on flesh-coloured satin pantaloons, leaving off all petticoats...
The article goes on to say that "epigrams [were written] on the motives of the wearers of pantaloons."

It leaves us wondering--were pantaloons underwear or were they fashion statements?

The word 'pantaloons' comes from the Italian, specifically a character in the commedia dell'arte who first wore the garment. The word 'pantalettes'--a diminutive form of the word pantaloons--seems to have developed some twenty years after 'pantaloons' was in common usage. Pants are, in North America, trousers, but in Britain pants are still underwear.

And so we are left, as always, with more questions than answers.

'Til next time,

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