Victorian Fashion: Unmentionables, Cat’s Pajamas and Nightwear

I love the euphemism unmentionables. I love the irony of the word. After all, once said, they are mentionable. Imaginations must have been stirred by the mere mention of unmentionables. But beyond the intimate world of  private conversation, unmentionables were described and depicted in the public sphere – in catalogs, journals and magazines. The boom in popular magazines for homemakers, you might say, allowed a peek under the petticoat.

Gibson Girl Style, Antique Postcard, I Saw Everything Going On

Gibson Girl Style, Antique Postcard, I Saw Everything Going On


Images of prepubescent boys flipping through the Sears catalog or Ladies Home Journal make us smile in this day and age.  As late as the sixties, television censors would not show the brassiere on “real women.”  Things do change. Imagine wearing a corset. Imagine needing another pair of hands to pull laces tight or undo them at night. Imagine the Bullet Bra . . .

Imagine the Bullet Bra

Imagine the Bullet Bra


For many of us, comfort is our top priority; especially, as we address increasingly complicated lives. Yet, in one way, life has become simpler because of the complexity of the digital age. We may choose to work at home – forget the alarm clock, the long drive and the scramble for a cart at the supermarket after work. We have come full circle to the days of the Industrial Revolution. In those days, women often worked from home doing “piece work” in the textile industries. However, they were not paid well nor treated fairly. And most importantly they did not see how their circumstances could change in the future. They were working yes; but they were working for companies that looked to profit with little concern for their workers. The internet has changed all of that for us . . .

Women Workers at Home Making Baby Booties

Women Workers at Home Making Baby Booties


We can work at home without a boss – and in total comfort. A child of the sixties, I lived through the dastardly turn to polyester. I rejected the discomfort of a bra that rarely came in a 34AA – unless they were for teenagers.  I longed for the purity and comfort of cotton. Over the years, I hunted and gathered soft cotton nightwear which became an obsession. I am sure that the scarcity  fueled the obsession initially. After all, it is not any fun at all to hunt for things that are readily available. And the beautiful soft pieces that I did find were costly.  Too expensive to purchase as a young mother with many children who did not care about their pajamas. Or the dangers of melting polyester in a fire. But still, I hunted for that label, 100% Cotton and the other equally important label, SALE.  . .  . Indeed, I now have more than I ever needed. Fashion changed and cotton was ubiquitous. Happy Days!

Habits. They are hard to break. I still keep an eye out for unmentionables. I am drawn to the fine detailing of hand made embellishments and beautiful fabric that must have required hours and hours of work. Lately, I have been very lucky. I found seven pairs of cotton long underwear – brand new no less.

Vintage Long Underwear


They were made for warmth and comfort. There is no elastic waistband, instead there are three nice old buttons. There is a tie on the back to adjust the waist size – and two pleats for the derrière. The cuffs are extra long and once again – no elastic.


Three Nice Vintage Buttons on the front of the Union Suit.

I quickly and excitedly announced the good news to the world on Etsy.

We have wonderful long underwear for the Big Freeze this Winter.

Not in those terms exactly. Soon, I was dismayed that there were not too many interested folks out there. After some thought, I decided they were not very popular because the waist was large, very large – about 38 inches to be exact. Yep, that might be the problem, I said. But they will shrink, I argued. I decided the only thing to do is TEST. I laundered them with cold water and my eco-friendly laundry detergent. And boy they did shrink – a lot. They now have about a 32″ waist. But the miracle is that the inside is now the softest terry cloth kind of fabric. They are, indeed, the cat’s pajamas.


Soft Terry Cloth Inside of Vintage Long Underwear


Hard to be comfortable without warmth. But hard to be fashionable in a pair of long underwear unless, they are worn under something that speaks to that other side – the feminine side. Like an antique white night gown or a beautiful robe . . . like this Victorian Robe.


Victorian Robe


Just look at the detail at the cuff . . .


Victorian Nightwear – Detail of Cuff with Lace and Tatting


This beautiful handmade nightgown was rarely worn by its owner. I suspect it was part of a trousseau. It is sized for a petite woman . . . what a pity for me!  But some lucky woman will find this and it will fit perfectly, I am certain.


Lace at Neckline on Victorian Robe


Warmth and comfort and something beautiful to wear. This is one of the best times in history to live. Hmmm. I cannot believe that I just wrote that. I will leave it there to ponder over the course of the next few years. And as I ponder, I will, no doubt, wake up everyday and choose something soft and easy to wear while living the good life . . .