Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Victorian Underwear Research Workshop

by Anita Mae Draper

One of the most informative workshops I’ve ever attended was at this year’s Romance Writers of America (RWA) conference in New York City. Presented by historical romance author Deeanne Gist, the workshop was entitled Bottoms Up: a Look at Victorian Women’s Clothing from the Inside Out.

My mistake was volunteering to be the moderator for this class because it precluded me from taking photos and video at will. After introducing Deeanne, I spent the next 10 mins handing out entry forms for her draw. A spot at the back of the room enabled me to hand entry forms to latecomers interspersed with taking photos and footage of the presentation. And then the last ten mins was time-keeping duties for the hour-long workshop. (I've been trying to make a video of the footage I took at the workshop, but I'm having horrid technical problems. I'll add it if I'm able.)

So why all the interest in Victorian women’s underwear? Because writers today take pride in the historical accuracy of their stories. Every detail, both commonplace and rare, should be questioned and researched. And the task can become quite daunting when the information sought isn’t readily available. (Check my website for a short article on why I research to the best of my ability.)

Victorian underwear was one of those hush-hush topics so necessary to daily life that few people bothered to record the details of what it entailed. Because of this lack of common knowledge, several myths pervaded. From Deeanne’s workshop and my later research, those myths are shattered.

Common Myths

Myth: A corset is worn next to bare skin.

Fact: Laundering a corset is next-to-impossible. To alleviate the necessity, women wore a chemise beneath the corset to absorb the sweat and grime of daily life.

Myth: Every woman wore a corset when it was in fashion.

Fact: Corsets hampered breathing and interfered with household tasks and chores. Although most women wore corsets in public, the rigid structure of the device precluded the wearing of a corset all hours of the day except women of leisure and those most conscious of current trends that they'd forgo comfort for fashion.

Myth: A woman could lace her own corset properly.

Fact:  Corsets were laced in the back which necessitated a second person, such as a lady's maid, to ensure it was laced properly. As demonstrated at the Bottoms Up workshop, a woman couldn't lace her own corset and have a tight fit. And a loose or ill fit negated the whole purpose of a form-fitting corset.

Myth: A woman could shed her corset in moments, whether by allowing it to slip down or sliding it over her head.

Fact: A properly fitted corset took almost as long to unlace as it did to lace up. There was no quick and easy way to get it off.

After the presentation, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) posted this story complete with video and slideshow:

How to Undress a Victorian Lady in Your Next Historical Romance
Authors Who Crave Verisimilitude Learn to Unlace a Corset in a Good Bodice Ripper

The WSJ slideshow is made up of photos taken of Deeanne at her Bottoms Up RWA workshop.

Deeanne borrowed a coat/dress/luggage rack from the Merriott Marquis to hold all the apparel she would don during the presentation. When it was over, I helped her and Heather return it to the Bell Captain. As she walked away in her full outfit, I watched people stop and smile as she passed them. It wasn't until she'd entered an elevator that I realized I hadn't even taken a photo of her in her 1860's dress. So, thank you Keli Gwyn for providing me with this photo.

I appreciate the length Ms Gist has gone for accuracy in her research. And I'm grateful she's willing to share that knowledge with the rest of us.

Find out more about Deeanne Gist and her best selling books at http://www.deeannegist.com/ .

Thank you, Keli Gwyn for taking the gorgeous photo of Deeanne in full costume.

Do you have a story about Victorian fashion, or something you've discovered in your fashion research? What about fashion in the movies? Do you remember Scarlett O'Hara wearing the dress made from green drapes? She always reminded me of Peter Pan:

Anita Mae Draper is retired from the Canadian Armed Forces and lives on the prairie of southeast Saskatchewan, Canada with her hubby of 30 plus years and 2 of their 4 kids. She writes stories set on the prairies of Saskatchewan, North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming. Anita Mae has semi-finaled in the Historical Romance category of the ACFW's 2011 Genesis contest and finaled in the Inspirational category of the 2011 Daphne du Maurier, the 2011 Fool for Love, the 2011 Duel on the Delta and 2009 Linda Howard Award of Excellence contests. You can find her at http://www.anitamaedraper.com/


  1. DeeAnn is just stunning in that gown. She could be on the cover of her own books.

    Corsets sound like torture devices.

    Wow, Anita, you did a fantastic job with this. Thank you. I love it!

  2. I'm still stuck on the horrors of the corset in Siri Mitchell's "She Walks in Beauty." Among high society women the corsets were abused and sometimes even led to death. Not quite "the good old days" in my estimations.

  3. Hey Suzie, thanks. Yes, Deeanne really carried off the complete look. I only wish I had more pics to show you.

    'Torture device' - yeah, that was it all right.

    The wikipedia article on corsets shows 2 advertising pictorials - one for men, and one for all the women in the family including infants!!!

    In my footage of Deeanne's workshop, she said girls as young as 7 wore them. This is so astounding. What kind of figure would they have at that age? And why on earth would they want to show little girls with curves?

    It plainly boggles my mind.

    Anita Mae.

  4. Dina, I haven't read Siri's book yet although it's in my tbr pile.

    In defense of corsets, however, I have to say it would solve one problem - bad posture.

    To imrove my posture, my mom made me wear a metal X brace for a year when I was in Grade 7. I hated it, but it went along with the rest of my abusive childhood so I didn't think it was strange. And now as I've passed the half century mark (yikes!) I'm glad she considered it was important enough to take drastic action. Yes, I slouch when I'm relaxed, but it's natural for me to sit with a straight back when I'm typing which as you know takes up most of my day.

    Although I repeatedly told Jess not to slouch and often told her of the results of the habit, she continually slouched. At 20 yrs old, she walks with a curved back. Yes, she can straighten it - for now. But within seconds, she's back in her slouch. I'm very much afraid of what her posture will be like when she's my age. :( Perhaps a strong hand and a corset (or a brace) would have alleviated this situation. All I know is the pain I feel for failing her in this regard.

    Anita Mae.

  5. Loved the post and I too saw the article in the WSJ. (funny place to find the article but hey! Great!)

    I happen to be listening to Courting Trouble by Deeanne Gist and I'm loving it. It's unexpected and winding up to be an absolutely wonderful book. I appreciate the research that goes into any novel.

    I'd love to hear what resources other historical novelists have used. There's nothing like hands on knowledge like Deeanne provided.

    Hope you get things worked out so we can peek at that video!

  6. Ahhh! This is my favorite blog post today...for many reasons. First, I LOVE DEANNE GIST. I've read all her books up to MAID TO MATCH (which is an awesome example of what poor ladies' maids had to deal with.) Another good book which features the horrors of Victorian dressing is Siri Mitchell's SHE WALKS IN BEAUTY.

    Most of my characters are too poor or too unrefined for corsets. But I plan on having them mentioned in my 3rd manuscript.

    Good post! I'm a HUGE fan of Scarlett O'Hara!

  7. Deb... Courting Trouble eh? Are you sure it's Deeanne Gist's book you're listening to and not thinking up ways to spice up your life? LOL

    I have 2 main problems with the video:

    1. Since Deeanne is in her 'underwear' I promised to show her the YouTube before broadcasting it. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to contact her. :(

    2. The first few times I tried to upload to YouTube, it stopped in the middle due to an error in the wmv file. Not sure why, so I completely redid the video. This time, I was able to save 99% of the wmv file before my computer stopped responding and I had to reset the Windows Media File program. Of course when I brought it back up, the new video was gone because it hadn't been saved which means I have to start it all again.

    After several hours wasted when I could've been working on my manuscript, I've decided to wait for Deeanne's go-ahead before spending more time.

    The thing is, the 6 mins of footage is so informative to a history writer. :(

    Anita Mae.

  8. Hey Britt, glad you stopped in for a visit. My tbr pile is growing as we speak. LOL

    Most of my characters are too poor or too unrefined for corsets. But I plan on having them mentioned in my 3rd manuscript.

    Girl, do I hear you there. It really takes a special writer to do the research to bring their novel up a notch like that because it's not only the wearing of a corset that's a pain, it's the challenge of writing about it accurately.

    I wish you all the best in your writings. Keep us informed on how it's going, okay?

    Anita Mae.

  9. Britt, I absolutely love Maid to Match. It's one of my all time favorites. I never would have thought about a character being too poor to wear a corset, so thanks for that comment!

    Anita, for the life of me, I can't figure out why they'd make a corset for infants. I did read that right, didn't I? Isn't that what you said?

  10. This is a really cool post! Thanks for sharing!

  11. I know, Suzie, but you can read it here on the Wikipedia Corset Ad.

    The whole ad seems to imply corsets are to be worn for health and comfort. HA! Right.

    I can see the health part if they're riding motorcycles for long periods, but otherwise, the benefit is lost on me.

    Anita Mae.

  12. And thank you, Faye, for stopping in and telling us how much you liked it. We thrive on accolades. :)

    Have a great day!

    Anita Mae.

  13. wow! What an ordeal just to look good! I can't even imagine!!

    As I read this and other topics by the "Inkies" I've been so impressed with the amount of research you do for your writing. As a reader, I take it for granted and don't think about it (Most of the time) BUT I am grateful that you do your utmost to make your books as accurate as possible! Thanks, from an avid reader!

  14. Thanks Elaine! Anita has done some amazing research travels for her last two novels. I hope we all get to read the result in print (er, well, that or Ebook...you know what I mean.)

  15. You're welcome, Elaine.

    And it's because of appreciative readers like you that we try to write the best books possible with the information at our disposal.

    Even if that means going all the way to New York to get it. :O


    Anita Mae.

  16. Why, thank you, Deb. I believe you've done just as much research.

    It's just that you're already in New York and don't brag and blog as much as me. :D

  17. Very cool article and video.

    I loved Scarlett's green velvet dress, but I will never forget Carol Burnett's take on it -- curtain rod and all. :D

  18. Fascinating stuff! It's the kind of information I need for my novels too. Thanks for sharing Anita. I just absorbed it all like a thirsty sponge!

  19. Fantastic, post, Anita.

    You guys are going to convert me to historicals sooner or later, I can see that now. I'm wise to your fiendish plot!

    I just picked up a copy of Maid to Match, so you can note your progress. LOL.

  20. Thanks, DeAnna. I found Carol Burnett's spoof of Gone With The Wind yesterday while looking for a photo of Scarlett's Peter Pan hat. Carol is soooooo funny, as is Vicky Lawrence playing Prissy. :D

  21. Hey, you're welcome, Amanda. A thirsty sponge - good analogy. :)

    Anita mae.

  22. Really Barb? You picked up Maid to Match?

    Hey Inkies, our plan is working. She's falling for it. :D


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