How to get naked, Victorian style

Novelist Deeanne Gist presented at the annual Romance Writers of America conference on the intricacies of Victorian underwear, and the futility of ripping bodices (there's more shirts underneath 'em):

It took an hour for Ms. Gist to squeeze into a dozen layers that a lady would have worn in the 1860s--stockings, garters, bloomers, chemise, corset, crinoline or hoop skirt, petticoats, a shirtwaist or blouse, skirt, vest and bolero jacket. By the end, workshop attendees were skeptical that seductions ever occurred, with so many sartorial barriers.

"How did they ever have hanky panky?" asked novelist Annie Solomon.

With great effort, it turns out. Women wore blouses under their corsets--making actual bodice ripping fairly pointless. Corsets fastened in front and laced up the back and couldn't be undone in a single passionate gesture. "You'll see pictures of corsets on bare skin. That's completely historically inaccurate," Ms. Gist told her audience.

How to Undress a Victorian Lady in Your Next Historical Romance (via MeFi)


  1. 1. Just take off your knickers, or don’t wear any.
    2. Be lower class– fewer clothing.
    3. Be seduced either in your morning outfit or your tea gown– fewer encumbrances.
    4. Have your affair with a fellow country house guest, and rendezvous when you’re changing for dinner.

  2. This isn’t going to be much help to writers of period romance(save for the genre’s persistently creepy questionably-consentual subset…); but I’m guessing that servants couldn’t afford all that stuff, and could simply be fired and replaced…

  3. The writer in me is highly amused. The perfectionist in me is well pleased.

    Well played, Ms. Gist. Well played.

  4. Did she skip the part where lots of pantaloons/pantalets actually had a slit in the middle? Corsets may be fairly snug and layered over chemises, but squishy body parts can certainly be accessed without unlacing. Or is the idea that you have to be completely naked to have sex? Regardless, I appreciate her presentation; I do enjoy reading romance, but inaccurate clothing descriptions and interactions are right up there with lousy characterization and TSTL heroine/Alpha Male pairings as far as things that cause me to throw a book against a wall.

    (gladly, the general tone of Rapiness seems to have faded)

    1. I agree that most bodice-ripper readers and writers would have no idea that people do not have to be naked (or nearly so) to have sex. In a time when people didn’t bathe often and homes were not well temperature-controlled, getting out of clothing wasn’t such a great idea for many reasons. But the books aren’t about historical realism; they tell a story people want to read, bodice ripping and all.

    1. Actually, that is not the case.

      From Wikipedia:

      “The table provides support for Gautreau, and echoes her curves and stance. At the time, her pose was considered sexually suggestive. As originally exhibited, one strap of her gown had fallen down Gautreau’s right shoulder, suggesting the possibility of further revealment; “One more struggle”, wrote a critic in Le Figaro, “and the lady will be free”. (Perhaps unknown to the critic, the bodice was constructed over a metal and whalebone foundation and could not have possibly fallen; the shoulder straps were ornamental.”

  5. “How to Undress a Victorian Lady in Your Next Historical Romance”
    Very, very slowly, probably across four chapters…
    Actually, nerdycellist has it right, underwear was often just two separate legs joined at the waist, possibly why we now refer to a ‘pair’ of pants or knickers, when it’s actually one single item these days. It’s why the Can-can was considered so outrageous; nothing much was left to the imagination. So-called ‘French Knickers’ were one piece but very loose in the leg, allowing for much fumble-room…
    Ah, the good old days, you only have to look at Victorian photo porn to see they weren’t *that* straight-laced.

  6. That swish and swaying made my day. And I could watch at least another 15 minutes of that action.

    1. Agreed, let’s bring back some swishing and swaying to modern fashion. If only it didn’t look so bloody difficult to sit down on.

  7. Go to 1:32. I believe that is a shot of the knickers with the slit in the middle for “easy access”. Come on, people still made waste back in those days, no one was going to take 16 minutes to get undressed just to piss.

  8. I thought they were bare on bottom anyway. So they could just squat and piss. So just throw the skirts up and go to it!

  9. The corset stays were made of whale bone.
    In Salem, MA, the homes of the skippers of old had a front door and a door beside it. Both were opened to admit hoop skirts.
    There is a hall in Salem where the upstairs ballroom is mounted on springs for that soft feel. The rich have always had their pleasures.

  10. Speaking as someone who spends a lot of time in Victorian clothing; hanky panky is actually easier than in snug jeans and panties. The numerous skirts and petticoats compress, the hoop folds up like an umbrella, and the pantaloons usually have an open crotch. That last item makes elimination much easier as well. And corsets don’t need to be removed to have fun – for one thing, they function like Wonder Bras and most women look better leaving them on!

  11. Gentlemen also sometimes carried small knives to cut a lady out of her corsets if she should get the vapors and salts were not readily available. They were for use only in emergencies, of course.

  12. Corsets were sometimes boned with whalebone (actually, baleen), but they also used steel, reed, and cording to stiffen the corset body. Cording was a very common cheaper option and worked very well.

    I am in fact taking a break right now from making a Victorian corset, and believe me when I say they are labor-intensive. They’re also more comfortable than you might think, if you get one that fits properly.

    The other important reason, by the way, that you can’t just rip a lady out of her corset is that if you attempt to undo the busk without loosening the laces first, you run the risk of breaking the busk! (The busk is the thing in front with the hooks and eyes. It used to be a single piece until the split busk was invented roundabout 1830, much to the relief of women everywhere.)

  13. It wasn’t that long ago, the origins of these Victorian things!

    It reminds me of that store in San Francisco near civic center When I worked in that area I would stroll
    through the aisles and bask in the opulence!

  14. As a fan of corsetry, I can agree with those who say the implied concerns just don’t exist. Remember, the only real obstacle to a true lie-down is the hoop skirt, and that ties on independent of all other garments. Since position can remedy even that obstacle, there’s really no issue to a tryst fully-clothed (BTW guys, think about how much of seduction is imagination. A lot of the Victorian woman’s sex appeal was in what she implied rather than showed).

    It is true that women visited their doctors for “medical assistance” but that probably had more to do with social attitudes about relationships between men and women and their places in the household than with clothing. (Freud didn’t really help things when he came along in 1905 – yeeeowch!)

  15. “stockings, garters, bloomers, chemise, corset, crinoline or hoop skirt, petticoats, a shirtwaist or blouse, skirt, vest and bolero jacket.”

    I had to go to the house of ill repute at least 3 times before I finished that list. Lordy!

  16. I used to collect Victorian undergarments. No seriously, I did. I lived in London, and they were available in the street markets (yes, like Portobello). Cheap. Handmade lace. Quite lovely. And, yes to the previous poster, the bloomers were split in the crotch. The camisoles were very low cut and laced with ribbon, and corsets laced up over the cami and below the bust. Many layers, yes. But accessible. Bought my collection for around $150. and sold it later for over 1000. Probably worth 5 times that now. Anyway.

  17. Well Bloomers DIDN’T have a central slit. That is their defining feature. They were in fact designed with the INTENTION of making (nonconsensual) sex more difficult. But since as other have pointed out that makes other things more time consuming they weren’t all that popular.

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