Saturday, October 17, 2009

Mentioning Unmentionables

Drawing of young woman of the Hunsruck wearing chemise under her work clothes from website

As I was struggling once again with Martha Heit's, "Kleidung im Trier Land des frühen 19. Jahrhunderts," planning my next post for this blog, a phrase caught my attention:

"If an embroidered undergarment of any kind was given to a young girl for the time when she would be a new bride, this was considered a very loving gift. Making the same kind of gift to a young man was an absolute taboo."

I couldn't help wondering just what kind of underclothing men and women wore in the 1800s. From information in Frau Heit's study of the "Official Gazette of the Trier Government" which sometimes caused me quite a bit of translation puzzlement, I finally was able to discern just what the lower class residents of the Trier area were wearing, or not wearing, under their outer clothing.

The Women's Undergarments in the Early Part of the 19th Century

For Sundays, holidays, and other celebrations, the women wore one or more petticoats as part of their costume. But for work days, their dress was plain and practical, and it started with a very basic piece of underclothing, the Hemd or chemise.

1800's chemise pattern from

The farm wife's or servant girl's chemise was calf length, and the material for the basic part of the dress used so efficiently that the sleeves sometime had to be made of other material, usually a finer weave. The ordinary chemise had a large square neckline so that the head could go through, or it was a smaller round oval with a drawstring opening that could be loosened for nursing. A chemise had no buttons. The women wore this thick, strong chemise, usually made from linen, both during the day and to bed at night.

A skirt and apron were worn over the top of the chemise during the day, the top of the chemise serving as both inner- and outerwear. Especially in winter a Leibchen (vest-like bodice) covered the top of the chemise. Sometimes this bodice was attached to the skirt, but it might be separate also. It was a style that had been worn since the end of the 15th century.

In the early 1800s, a church Dechant (dean) in Merzig wrote that in summer and even coldest winter, the women wore garments (the chemise?) that did not cover their bare arms, even in the church. But he concluded that this was not something that caused discomfort because a women never went without a large scarf or shawl that hung over her chest, back, and arms. This large shawl gave the Hemd or chemise, with sleeves that reached about as low as the elbow or just a little below it, enough warmth for the colder temperatures

The chemise sleeves, which were usually narrow, were worn above the elbow, so that the sleeves would not prevent a woman from bending her arm. However, in the Hunsruck, the sleeves of the chemise came below the elbow because the cut was much wider, in fact, quite full. Local folklore from this area says that these sleeves could be pushed up to stay above the elbow, but to this day there is a debate about how this was done because folk tradition also says that there was no button or band used at the bottom of the sleeve. Thus how the sleeves were kept up remains a mystery.

Frau Heit concluded that women wore only the Hemd as underclothing. If the breasts were supported, it was by the over-bodice which served as a bra. A corset was rare. The government Amtsblatt reports upon which Frau Heit's book is based, indicate that until about 1836 underpants were not worn at all. None of the inventories of the possessions of the women who died accidentally or violently mention underpants. Neither do the stores that were robbed list such articles of clothing.

The Men's Undergarments of the Early 19th Century

Not too much is written in the Amtsblatt reports about men's unmentionables. Frau Heit was able to find mention of only 14 pairs of underpants in all of the police reports she studied which covered the 20 year period from 1816 to 1836.

These 14 pairs of underpants were as follows: 4 underpants were made of linen, 2 of cotton twill, one each of flanell, baize (a felt-like material woven from wool), or leather. The underpants were usually short; but they could be long as well, with a stirrup going into (or over) the man's boot.

Until the coming of the washable jersey materials about 1858, the wearing of underpants by the male farm folk or the city commoner was somewhat unusual. As long as their shirts were long enough, underpants were superfluous. The shirts were made with so much material that they filled the trousers. This kind of hygiene was considered adequate.

And now that my ancestors are turning in their graves at my revelation of their "unmentionables," I can only hope that they will forgive me in the interests of social history.


  1. Diane Sorenson2:09 PM

    I just discovered your Blog and LOVE it! Saw in the Family Tree magazine and am amazed at how much I am wanting to do the same as you! My ancestors, the Rapp's came from the Wurttemburg area. Also in the mid 19th century and after a short stop in PA settled in the Racine/Kenosha area. I am writing a book as well. Thanks for all your insights!!

    1. Just wondering as I read your comment a couple years later... have you published the book? Is it available online, perhaps?


  2. I was at the computer, struggling with a blog post for January when your comment arrived. Thanks for the encouragement, and kudos for working on a book about your own family. I wish you much success. Kathy

  3. Thanks for asking about the book, Tom. It is about 40 pages shy of being finished - if you don't count the time for rereading and error correction. I plan to publish it as a Kindle book and will do some hard copies to give to people who have generously spent their time with me, giving me so much research help.