Skip menu to read main page content

Looking Underneath the Dress

By: Emily Bach

Over the course of this summer while working on the rehousing project, we have processed a variety of amazing garments. Each costume is beautiful in its own unique way, from a dress worn to the court of Emperor Napoleon III to gorgeous sequined flapper dresses from the 1920’s. Alone these dresses and garments are absolutely stunning, but they are not complete. When originally worn, these garments would be covering layers of undergarments designed to give a woman the desired silhouette popular during the time. Luckily, the Maryland Historical Society’s costume collection holds a vast variety of underpinnings that are absolutely fantastic. While processing these undergarments, we have come across several that made a lasting impression on us for being especially unusual. Each has its own unique history and gives us a glimpse into how society’s expectations and values influenced the lives of the women who wore these garments.



During the 19th century it was not uncommon for women to wear restrictive garments while pregnant as a means to disguise their condition. Within the costume collection we have rehoused one such undergarment: an 1850’s maternity corset. This peculiar item differs from other corsets. Rather than being laced in the back, this corset’s lacing is located on either side of the abdomen, which allowed a woman to loosen the garment as her stomach grew. Along with the unique lacing location, the back of the corset has no boning, except for one bone that runs across the waistline, creating an unusual bowed out silhouette. This extra amount of space provided additional room for the woman’s stomach as it grew.

As seen in the following maternity corset advertisements, the corset’s peculiar design was created to accommodate the bodily changes women could expect during pregnancy with the extra space they offered. Advertisements such as these appealed to pregnant women by claiming these maternity corsets not only offered comfort to the mother by providing back and abdominal support, but also gave the wearer a stylish figure. In bold on one advertisement are the words “Style and Ease”, emphasizing how women viewed staying current with fashion trends and silhouettes while pregnant was just as important as support.  Many middle and higher- status women attended lavish balls and parties, dressed extravagantly for late-night concerts, and participated in other public events, but pregnancy called for women to retire from these enjoyments. Doctors and physicians recommended intensive bed rest for pregnancy, so women accustomed to constant entertainment had to remain in their home for the majority of the day. Without events to attend due to confinement in the house, these women lost opportunities to display wealth and fashion in public. Refusing to abandon fashionable clothing, women wore these maternity corsets tightly to restrict abdomen growth temporarily, allowing women to hide their pregnancy for an extra few weeks or even months, providing them the opportunity to avoid bedrest for an additional amount of time.

In addition to the desire to wear fashionable clothes and attend public events, Victorian society’s expectations pressured women to continue wearing corsets during pregnancy. Victorian society depicted a perfect woman as meek and virtuous, even when married. Pregnancy contradicted this ideal image by providing physical evidence that women were sexually active. Because pregnancy proved women were not these demure creatures, women were expected to hide their pregnancy from public eye to avoid any discomfort for others. Along with virginity and innocence, women were valued for their femininity. During this era, femininity was based on a woman’s tiny waist. Because a woman’s abdomen grew with pregnancy, many women felt they lost their youth and beauty in the eyes of society. In a desperate attempt to hold onto her femininity she simply continued donning her corsets to create the illusion of a small waist, and therefore beauty. As can be seen in the interior view of the museum’s corset, the wearer still retained a tiny waist despite her pregnancy. The lacings on the sides of the maternity corset were meant to be loosened as the baby grew, yet women tight-laced these instead in order to maintain the preferred hourglass shape.


While exploring Pratt House searching for another box to rehouse, we opened one that held an extremely odd pair of pads of cotton wadding. After inspecting them more thoroughly, it became known that they were a pair of breast pads. These accessories had two special purposes. One was to fill out hollows that appeared in between the top of the bust and the bodice’s armscye, or armhole. Once these bothersome hollows were filled, the fabric would lay smoothly and create the preferred silhouette. In addition, these breast pads acted as sweat liners to protect the dress’s fabric from a damaging chemical response.

As we hit the middle of August, there is no denying that this intense heat causes the burdensome, yet inevitable, natural cooling response known as perspiration. One of the amazing parts about working with the costume collection is discovering little quirks that add personality and a story to a garment and its wearer, such as the sweat pads we frequently find in dresses. Just as we struggle with protecting our clothes from pesky stains today, women in past centuries dealt with the same discomfort, showing that these women were not as different from us as we may sometimes think. They discovered clever methods and fashion inventions to fight against the damaging effects of perspiration, and many frequently depended on underarm liners to preserve their fabrics.

Before delving into this ingenious creation, it is important to understand why perspiration is so damaging to clothes. Sweat has an acidic chemical makeup, which over time stains exposed fabric. Sadly this is an occurrence frequently seen on garments in the costume collection. Often times the fabric underneath the arms are stained brown or yellow due to sweat. Fading also results from perspiration because sweat is largely water. Repeated exposure to water dissolves the dyes, causing the fabric to fade.  Worse than staining, perspiration’s acidic nature weakens the fabric’s structure, causing deterioration of the garment. When sweat deteriorates the structure of the textile, it often leads to splitting, causing severe damage.

Because dresses were more expensive in past centuries than today, women began protecting their garments from soiling. While rehousing dresses from the costume collection, we have frequently come across underarm padding sewn into bodices to protect the fabric. These liners were simply layers of cotton or linen textiles with filling sewn together to create a padding to absorb any perspiration. Not only did this protect the integrity of a garment, it saved families money. Stained dresses required professional care to remove the stains, which could be expensive. Underarm liners also prolonged the life of a dress or bodice, which meant women did not have to replace dresses as often. These liners allow us to gain an understanding of how these women lived frugal  lives and stretched the life span of their garments for as long as possible.

We have seen first-hand the benefits of these liners. One wedding dress we rehoused hosted prominent liners. There is minimal soiling to the dress’s outer fabric, largely because the liners absorbed the damaging body oils and sweat, as seen by the staining on the liners. The liners attached to the bodice are loosely sewn in, which would allow the wearer to replace them periodically when they became too damaged themselves from the oils.

In contrast, we have seen the damaging effects of minimal sweat protection in a 1920’s silver wedding dress. In the following pictures you can clearly see how the chemical makeup of perspiration has stained the underarms a combination of orange and purple. Not only does the dress showcase extreme staining, the fabric has deteriorated severely, leading to splitting. Because of the lack of protection, this dress requires repairs to stabilize its underarms.

Although a small clothing item, the tiny underarm liner has protected garments for centuries as well as provide the perfect smoothed out silhouette for women.


One of my personal favorites of the collection is a pair of 1830’s sleeve plumpers, an accessory that created giant, voluminous sleeves. The adoption of these giant sleeves began in the 1820’s when dresses featured small puffs at the top of the arms. This trend of puffed sleeves expanded to a dramatic volume beginning in the 1830’s. During this decade special sleeves were introduced called gigot sleeves, which translates from French to “leg-of-mutton” due to its memorable shape resulting from a very wide shoulder tapering gradually down to the wrist. Gigot sleeves became popular as they helped women achieve the desired silhouette of the time, a dramatic hourglass shape. “Wasp” waists were a popular physical feature women attempted to achieve. It was a silhouette that showcased an abrupt transition from a natural-width rib cage to a dramatic small waist. This wasp waist was achieved with the assistance of the decade’s bell-shaped skirt and gigot sleeves. Both drew attention to the waist and created the illusion of a tinier torso since the skirt and sleeves were so large in comparison.

In order to produce and maintain the puffed sleeves that characterized the 1830’s, women required these sleeve plumpers for support. These accessories were pillow-like constructions made of a thin cotton fabric and a down filling. The plumpers had ribbons to attach onto corresponding strings on the wearer’s corset’s shoulder straps. As you can see in the following fashion plates, women truly required plumpers in order to create such volume or else gravity would cause the sleeves to simply lie flat.

Not only are sleeve plumpers and gigot sleeves amazing on their own, they have helped us date garments as we processed and rehoused items. Along with the presence of gigot sleeves informing us a dress is from the 1830’s, the location of where the sleeve plumpers would have been placed in the sleeves can further help narrow down a date. In the early 1830’s fullness in the sleeves was very high in the arms, while the sleeve plumpers lowered as the decade progressed, with the trend cycling out of fashion temporarily in 1837. Two dresses from Pratt House that are now in our climate controlled work room are both dated to the 1830’s due to the presence of the leg of mutton shape of the sleeves. Due to the shape of these specific sleeves, most volume would have been placed high up in the sleeves, allowing us to date the dresses more precisely to the early 1830’s.


The last example of an unusual undergarment from our collection is a pair of panniers from the 1920’s. At first we could not identify this undergarment and we were extremely puzzled by its strange shape. When laid flat, the garment appeared to offer no support to shape a dress or skirt, which would make for a very inefficient structural undergarment. After Dr. Karin Bohleke visited the museum to help identify objects, we were informed they were 1920’s panniers, which became clear when we played with the garment and shaped them to how they would have been worn on the hips.

Panniers were wide hoops worn under the skirt that extended sideways and were extremely popular in the 18th century. The museum’s panniers are nowhere near the size of those favored in the 1700’s, but they achieved the same silhouette at a dramatically smaller scale with the Robe de Style dress.  Between 1915 and 1925 the flapper style dominated with a silhouette that challenged traditional feminine attributes. Hemlines rose with its highest height being just below the knees and waists dropped to give a boyish look. Women valued mobility over constricting undergarments and wore dresses that allowed them to dance, work, or simply walk around town with ease. Flapper dresses became notorious for their shapeless silhouette. Not every women preferred this trend, however, and sought to maintain a style they viewed as traditionally elegant, which the Robe de Style dress offered. This style of dress is characterized by its slim dropped waist paired with a wide skirt that was often ankle-length. Designer Jeanne Lanvin popularized the style and gained inspiration from 18th century court dresses, rebelling against the era’s move away from these restrictive period garments. Often the dress was a solid color fabric embellished with intricate beading, eye-catching embroidery, lace, or ribbon.  Because of how light these panniers were, the Robe de Style dresses were frequently made of velvet, organdy, and satin to avoid flattening the panniers.

Robe de Style Dress from 1926. Costume piece at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Robe de Style Dress from 1926. Costume piece at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As seen with our 1920’s panniers, they were made of extremely light materials. Because they were made of light netting and flexible wire boning, women could easily adjust the shape of the undergarment to perfectly highlight their hips. These dresses provided an option for younger girls and older women who sought a more modest style of dress while still retaining the dropped waist and raised hemlines of the time.


Each one of these undergarments helped women achieve the perfect silhouette favored in a specific time period. Not only did these garments help shape the body, they’ve helped us gain a better understanding of the roles and values held by women in the past. The maternity corset illustrate the measures women took to be considered fashionable and feminine. The invention of breast pads that doubled as sweat liners shows how much effort women put into preserving their clothing as a means to save money and ensuring their garments fit the body perfectly. Similar to how the maternity corset showed us the importance of a tiny waist in the Victorian era, the sleeve plumpers emphasize how women took dramatic steps to create the illusion of a tiny waist by wearing expansive accessories at the top of the bodice. Later in the 1900’s, panniers provided a fashion alternative for women wanting to show off their curves during a period of time where a boyish silhouette became popular, emphasizing how not all women embraced new fashion trends. While working with the collection’s vast array of costumes, I have constantly found myself awestruck by the beauty of the garments, yet the collection’s undergarments continually intrigued me. I am extremely grateful to have been a part of this amazing project and I could not have asked for a more exciting and interesting summer experience.