Volume VIII, No. 1, Fall 1980
by Rebecca Baldwin
Awakened by the cock's crow-ing, Great Aunt Sophie got out of bed and started her early morning ritual of dressing. After she put on her drawers and fastened them at the waist, she pulled on her chemise over her long white hair and smoothed it down over her body. Next came the corset. She molded it to her body, over her breasts and waist, hooked the fasteners up the front and tightened the long laces. Her face turned red as she strained to shrink her already small waist. Then she triumphantly tied the extra lacing around her shrunken waist. Over the whalebone corset stays, she put her embroidered, handmade corset cover. Finally, she slipped into each of her three full, ankle-length petticoats, all fastened at the waist. Great Uncle Dave's limp union suit which was hanging over the bedside chair, trap-door gaping, was her only audience. Finally, all her garments in place, she finished dressing.MENDecidedly, undergarments have come a long way in three generations. Actually they have come off a long way, because today we wear relatively little beneath our clothing compared to the layers of undergarments once worn by our grandparents. Although women's underclothing has changed the most, men's and children's underclothing were also quite different from their modern day counterparts.
Of the three, men's undergarments have probably changed less drastically, and some styles worn years ago are still not totally obsolete, especially in the winter. Today we classify all of it as long underwear, but they generally called their undergarments long handles or long johns. Men wore their long underwear every day, winter and summer, though in winter they might be of heavier material. They resembled old-time bathing suits and ranged from separate shirts and drawers to one piece union suits to B. V. D's, and were even worn to bed.
Shirts and drawers were made of ribbed cotton knit for summer and wool for winter. The shirt had long sleeves and buttoned down to about mid-chest at the neck opening. The drawers were long, close-fitting, ankle-length pants. Shorts had not yet been introduced.
A union suit was a close-fitting, one-piece garment also made of cotton or wool with long sleeves and legs. It usually buttoned from the neck to mid-torso.
Ervin Engsberg remembers, "There we wore two kinds of those big long union suits. They had the kind that the flap at the back buttoned up called droopy drawers. And then they had the other kind that were just split down the back and you'd just flip them out to go to the bathroom. They stayed pretty good the way they were made."
In later years in the summertime some men instead of cotton union suits wore shirts and drawers or B.V.D.s--a one-piece complete garment that covered the main part of the body. It was sleeveless and had legs down to mid-thigh.
Because in the cold winters men often needed extra warmth, they sometimes wore heavier, fleece-lined cotton shirts, drawers and union suits. Resembling sheep's wool, the fleece was a deep-piled, soft, bulky knitted fabric sewn on the inside of the cotton underclothing. After wearing them so many days, the fuzzy nap lining would begin to pill up and get rough, but that was a small inconvenience compared to the extra warmth they provided.
Although fleece-lined underclothing provided extra warmth, long underwear in general was a dire necessity for every man during winter, especially for farmers and others who worked outside. Grace Johnson added, "Everybody wore long underwear, in the wintertime. You never took off your long drawers until the frogs croaked. That's a sign that spring and warm weather's coming. It did keep you warm."
Jess Easley illustrated another way Ozark ingenuity warded off the winter chill. "One fall an old lady was talking about one of her boys. She said, 'Now, I've got him sewed up for the winter!' What she did was put on his clothes and sewed the stuff on him so it couldn't come off, and he was going to stay good and warm all winter. Just sewed him up in them! He didn't even take a bath all winter--slept in them and everything else."
Many Ozarkians in the early 1900's were poor and couldn't afford multiple numbers of anything, including undergarments. Frequently, they had only two or three different changes. As a rule, people changed their underwear once a week--unless, of course, they were sewed up for winter.
Before putting on the clean underwear that sufficed for special Sunday undergarments and lasted the whole week, Lois Beard said, "On Saturday night everybody took a bath in the wash tub on the kitchen floor. And they took a bath in the same water!"
"Saturday night," added Ervin, "our long johns got to where they'd stand up by their selves!"
"They changed underwear," Lois continued, "and then one of the wife's duties was to do the family wash. And in them days, they didn't have a washing machine like we have today. They didn't even have anything but the tub and the washboard. When they went to work, they sorted the clothes out, just like we do now--only each pile had to be washed separate, but they washed them in the same water. When you went to wash the fleece-lined underwear, there'd be pills in the water where they was washed. You'd think you'd have to throw that out to wash something else, but that water was too hard to get to do that."
Certainly washing a week's worth of grime out of the underwear in a tub of already-used cold water was quite a chore, and drying undergarments in the wintertime was no easier. Dorothy Davis said, "I can remember hanging my dad's union suits out on the line in winter and they'd freeze dry! "WOMEN". Freeze-dried long johns insulated the men but women needed extra warmth, too. They also wore one piece union suits of separate shirts and drawers made out of a fine-rib knit. Long underwear wasn't particularly feminine and Ola Engsberg remarked, "We had to get dressed very carefully because we didn't want anyone to know we had them on." Women hid their long underwear, which they wore only in the winter, under their several layers of other undergarments. Although they wore more layers in the winter than in the summer, women basically wore the same types of undergarments year-round. From the skin out they wore: chemise, corset and corset cover on the upper body and bloomers (also called drawers), petticoats, stockings and garters on the lower body, and later on in the '20's, one-piece teddies.
Certainly, the numerous undergarments customary to women placed a bigger burden on the family pocketbook than did the undershirt and drawers, or union suits men wore, even if the women, too, had only a few changes.
"My grandfather had twelve children," Grace remembered. "He raised seven of them and of those seven, five were girls. That cost him in those days! Dressing girls cost more than it did boys cause they had more things." Expensive ready-made items were available from stores, but women combated the high cost of providing a family with underclothing, especially women's layers, by making many garments themselves. Although they had to buy some underclothing, like corsets, they made others like corset covers and petticoats quite economically from muslin, a plain-woven sheer to coarse cotton fabric.
"Mother usually went to town in the fall when she sold the turkeys," Lois said, "and she'd buy a whole bolt of unbleached muslin--she'd make us girls slips and panties. The reason they'd buy unbleached muslin was because it never got dingy. [It was also cheaper.] It got whiter with each washing. The bleached muslin would get dingy, but the other would always get whiter. A whole bolt is what they would usually buy at a time."
The first layer of women's underclothing was a shimmy, short for chemise. It was a light weight, one-piece white undergarment worn next to the skin underneath the corset. It was often handmade! of cotton and trimmed in lace.
A corset was a boned supporting undergarment, often hooked and laced, extending either from above or beneath the bust or just from the waist to below the hips with garters attached to hold up stockings. Grace said, "They put on their corset, which covered their bust and hips, on top of their shimmy. They were the old-fashioned corsets, like a combination is now. The corset fastened in the front, [sometimes with hooks and eyes] and laced in the back with drawstrings. You had to have somebody to lace it up for you. You could have it big or loose and they'd keep pulling the laces in to make them tight. I've seen my mother have her laces pulled up so there was so much string, because she was little, that she'd have to wrap the strings around her waist and tie them in front! Now those corsets were full of what you call stays that fitted right in. They were made of whalebone. Then they had some kind of metal. It was sort of like celluloid or plastic. They didn't have plastic in those days but it was that hard. They would bend with the body. You got used to them. They just accepted it for that was just something you wore. You were a lady, you had to dress like a lady. It would be hot in the summertime, of course, you can imagine, but ... My goodness, you had to keep your figure. You had to have that hourlgass figure!
It wasn't straight line. You had to have curves. As soon as you began to show some of your figure, all young girls started wearing corsets. When you got to be in your teens--a young lady--you would wear corsets so you could keep your shape and look feminine. They didn't want to look like men, they wanted to look feminine."
"I remember well the first corset I ever had," Lois added. "My dad bought it for me. It was off-white satin, and it had stays in it. I don't think I was more than twelve years old when Dad bought it for me. I didn't wear it for everyday, I just wore it when I went dressed up somewhere--for Sunday. It keeps your shape pretty when you get a corset early in life. It laced up the back and hooked up the front. Of course, you got it to fit you by the lacing. One of the big jokes of the older days was that Mama had to tighten her corset down. When she'd get it on she wanted to look more slim. Oh, that little tiny waistlines"
The third layer, a corset cover, was worn over the corset to cover up the stays. The corset covers, usually very decorative and feminine, were sleeveless cotton garments that sometimes buttoned up the front. "The corset covers," said Lois, "were a little fuller than the corsets. The decorative embroidery was about two inches wide and had a beading for ribbon. Those corset covers always had ribbons. And if they didn't have a crocheted yoke, they had one of embroidered eyelet deal. They were very beautiful."
Bloomers or drawers were the first layer worn on the lower body, excluding the long underwear worn in the winter. The predecessor of these bloomers was part of a costume designed and named in 1894 after Amelia Bloomer, an American pioneer in feminism. The costume consisted of a short skirt worn over long loose trousers gathered closely around the ankles. The pants part of the costume then gradually shortened to a full, loose garment gathered at the knee which was worn by women athletes and then to underpants of a similar design gathered just above the knee.
"Bloomers were above the knees and had elastic there and at the waist," Lois said. Sometimes a woman's or girl's bloomers were made out of black sateen instead of white unbleached muslin. Black sateen looked like satin only it was cotton. Once in a while, they'd be made of blue chambray, the kind of material they made the chambray shirts out of. Mother would buy several yards and our bloomers would be made of blue."
Grace remembered a slightly different style of underpants. "They wore what they called drawers in those times. They are pants that were almost like another petticoat because they were long and the legs were full. It made sort of a double petticoat--like open leg pants in those days, but they called them ladies' drawers. My mother made a half petticoat for me when I was five or six out of one leg of those drawers!"
Layers Upon Layers
"My next door neighbor, who lived across the hill from me," Lois Beard remembered, "died in November after I was married in April, before I was hardly eighteen. It fell my lot, and one other girl that was about my age, to dress her and get her ready for the burial. At that day and time, fifty-seven years ago, we didn't even have an undertaker in Lebanon. The body was almost always taken care of by the neighbors.
"She died in my arms from cancer. In those days it wasn't even thought of as cancer. It was liver trouble. Of course, all that cancer stuff just gushed out of her mouth and nose, and everybody left the house but just this girl and I that dressed her. Her family had to get out. It was pouring down rain, and even though the doors and windows were all open, it just held that smell all in. We had to hold camphor to our nose all the time.
"That night after she died, one of her girls said, "Now Lois, I'll show you where all of her things are. She knew she wasn't going to live, but she was up a-going till the last few days. Her shoes were high-topped, laced shoes, black, and that woman had polished them, tied them together and hung them over a nail right at the head of her bed. She had knitted her white yarn socks. All the clothes for her burial were in one drawer together. She wanted plenty of clothes on her. She had two-piece, knitted, long-handles--but she just called them underwear. There was a pair that came from the waist down to the ankle, and the top had long sleeves. She wanted that on her. After we washed her body and her hair and put her on a cooling board, we put that underwear on her. She had a pair of what we called unbleached muslin pants that were made with a band that pinned on the side with a safety pin. They came down to just above the knees a little ways. She had made them and bleached them out pretty and white. Then she had what she called a corset cover. That one had a crocheted yoke with a ribbon run through it. It was a pretty thing. She wanted a brown sateen waistband petticoat, a red flannel waistband petticoat, and a white, bleached muslin petticoat with wide crocheted lace. All of the petticoats pinned at the waist. On top of all that she wanted a thing that had just come out new--a combination slip and corset cover. It was just like we would have a petticoat, and it had crocheted lace at the bottom and crocheted lace at the top. Now I put all that stuff on her. That was her underwear. Her dress had to be quite a bit bigger than she was to get over all that!"
The second layer worn over the drawers was a petticoat, an underskirt usually a little shorter than the outer clothing and often made with a ruffled, pleated or lace edge. They were often made out of linsey-woolsey, a coarse, sturdy home-woven fabric of wool, or of linen or cotton, often unbleached muslin. Petticoats were usually like a half slip and had a band like a skirt that fastened or pinned around the waist. Women wore petticoats with corset covers, and they were equally as fancy with crocheted lace and handwork. Sometimes petticoats had shoulder straps and a top hem out of crocheted lace and were more like a full slip than a half slip.
"When I was a girl," Grace said, "everybody wore at least one petticoat. You never thought about going without a petticoat. If you wore a thin dress, you wore two petticoats. That's probably why they made their drawers so full because they would suffice in the summertime as a petticoat."
Ray O'Dell added, "If you wore a linsey petticoat, you didn't wear more than one in the winter. I've wore one many times. They were stiff and held your dress out from you. I thought they were colder. But you wore what they called bloomers then--they had bands on the leg of your panties that buttoned around the calf."
"I only wore one petticoat when I was growing up," said Lois, "but, of course, I had underwear and that pair of bloomers that are always full. Bloomers had full legs. They really stick out like a slip. Back when women traveled on a sidesaddle, they would never go without a petticoat. They always wore from two to three, and you couldn't even tell when they come unpinned, they'd have so many on.
"I remember one time a man took his horse to get his sweetheart to take her to a picnic. She came out wearing her riding skirt on top of all that. It was split for riding a man's saddle. He helped her up on the horse and when they got there, he helped her down, and one of them petticoats just fell down around her feet! That man said, 'Well, I'll be damned!' But do you know what she did? She just picked that petticoat up, rolled it up in her riding skirt, tied it on the saddle and went on. She wouldn't miss it!
"One time this happened in Phillips-burg when we were older. A lady came in to talk at the lodge. She had walked up on the stage and started behind the podium, and her silk pants dropped off just around her feet. That's been maybe forty-five years ago. That would have embarrassed most women to death, but she just reached down, stuck them under her arm and went ahead and talked the whole time--didn't bat an eye. Afterwards she just went off the stage, went to the rest room and put them back on."
Stockings comprised the close-fitting knit, usually cotton layer which covered the foot and leg. "Everybody wore cotton stockings," Grace said. "I wore ribbed cotton stockings. In the wintertime they were black because they didn't show the dirt. In the summertime we wore the white long stockings all summer long."
Lois agreed, "We never had anything else but cotton stockings. As long as I was home I wore ribbed cotton stockings which we fastened with elastic garters.
I was a crank about that when I was a kid. I would make them pretty tight, then roll the tops down so the stocking wouldn't bag. I couldn't stand that baggy stocking. And that's the reason I liked ribbed hose because they would stay up a lot better. Ribbed hose were not like the silk hose of today. They were more like a heavy bobby sock. Shoes were another thing that went along with that because you had to get them big enough so you could get them over those heavier winter hose. They were thick enough that you couldn't wear a shoe that fit too tight.
"Older women wore a finer stocking--it wasn't like a knit. It was more like the silk hose today only they were cotton. Usually they had beige colored hose, but they weren't called beige. They were tan hose."
Jess added, "They wore what was called a lisle stocking. They were a nice looking stocking, too. A type of cotton, I don't know how it was made, but it was real nice looking. Silk stockings was always fashionable to wear if you could afford them. I think they always had silk stockings as far back as I can remember, but not too many people wore them."
"We wore garters to hold them up," Ola continued. "They were fancy elastic garters and had many colors in them. You would see garters today that a bride wears, and our garters resembled that."
The one-piece garment called teddies, short for teddy bears, became popular in the 1920's as an alternative to the usual layers of underclothing. Grace explained, "When silk material began to come in for undergarments, the teddy bear came in. Women wore a corset or brassiere and put the teddy bear over to cover it up instead of a corset cover. Then the teddies took the place of one of the petticoats because it was long, down to your knees at least. And dresses were getting shorter at that time."
Jess remembered an incident in the early thirties. "One of the popular dresses at that time was what was called a Hoover apron. It was a wrap-around thing, started in the front and wrapped around and come back and folded over and tied. That was all there was to it. Maybe it didn't have much sleeves in it. A car stopped on the corner to let out a girl wearing one of these dresses. She jumped out and slammed the door. This garment flew up there and caught in the door, and she slammed it on it. The driver took off and whirled her around once. He went off up the street dragging the dress, and she stood there in her teddy bears!"
Just as men and women wore long underwear as their basic layer of underclothing, so did children. Their undergarments followed closely to that of their parents, often miniature renditions of their parents' styles.
"We kids," Lois said, "always had the one-piece union suits. They had a trapdoor and buttoned down the front past the waist so you could get in them. They were warm! After they were washed so many times, the legs would get to where there wasn't as much elastic in that knit, and you'd have to lap them over to put your stocking on over them."
Grace agreed, "I wore long underwear when I was growing up--just like the thermal underwear the school band wears in the winter now. Mine was a complete suit, a regular union suit."
Although boys and girls both wore union suits, girls wore additional garments, especially those that accented their femininity. Grace continued. "When I was a little girl, we wore regular little panties that buttoned. You'd have to unbutton the side, and they all had lace ruffles that were starched, I want you to know."
"We sometimes wore bras," Lois added, "but if we didn't, they were homemade of muslin. They were either buttoned up on the back or buttoned up under the arm--three or four buttons. They were cut in such a shape that they fit real nice. Then the princess slip went over that. They were usually made on a princess style with six seams, one on either side, two in the back and two in the front."
Girls also wore stockings similar to the stockings their mothers wore. "I wore cotton stockings," said Lois, "and boy, to get those on, because my legs were little, they'd have to be wrapped around my leg and held just so."
Ola added, "When I was a child in the summertime we wore white stockings. We never went bare-legged in the summer, not unless people went bare-footed. I never went bare-footed after I was, oh, twelve years old."
Besides having changed greatly in style and sheer number of garments worn, underclothing has drastically changed in its complexity. As the world in general has become more complicated with the passage of time, underclothing has become just the opposite. Simplified, streamlined and brief, today's garments might even be considered as wearing nothing at all by Great Aunt Sophie's generation.
Tired from her long day of hard work, Great Aunt Sophie reversed her earlier ritual as she prepared to retire. After removing her outer garments, she took off her underclothing layer by layer. She very carefully smoothed out each garment in the correct order over the back of a chair because she had to wear the same garments the next day, and the next, for at least a week. Finally, after donning her nightgown and checking her underclothing for rips and tears, she slid into bed.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.