When Women Let it Be Known They Had More Than One Breast
We’ve been looking at surprising things you don’t know about 1816. That was the year Pittsburgh got big enough to become a city. This time we learn that women, for the first time in 300 years, publicly displayed the fact they had two breasts.
Pittsburgh became a city during the Regency Period, the most popular time for today’s romance novels. The sexiest versions of that genre of books are called “Bodice Rippers.”
That indicates a focus, at least today, on bosoms. No small amount of that attention comes from those standing behind bosoms.
In other words, the Regency Period particularly appeals to women. Why?
Let Donna Hatch, an author of those romance books, explain:
“Regency men were civilized and treated women with courtesy.
When a lady entered the room, gentlemen stood, doffed their hats, curtailed their language, offered an arm, bowed, and a hundred other little things I wish men still did today.
But they were also very athletic; they hunted, raced, fenced, boxed, rode horses. They were manly. Strong. Noble. Resolute. Honorable. And that is why I love them!”
Hmmm. Sounds a lot like me.
Granted, the novels typically take place in England, but let’s assume Pittsburghers and other Americans tried to emulate them.
We know from previous posts that waltzing was a big deal here and that there were plenty of seamstresses and fancy dressmakers to meet the latest fashion demands.
In the 1500s and 1600s — long before the first European women made it to the three rivers here — they made themselves flat with boards stuffed under their bodices.
When they arrived here in the 1700s, they permitted themselves bosoms. But, it had to be one bosom, a smooshed confluence of breasts.
Then came 1816.
Something called a “divorce corset” arrived from England. Actually, catalog drawings and patterns arrived.
The name does not derive from its effect on marriages. It comes from its effect on breasts. It forced them to travel individually. They became “divorced.”
It’s hard to imagine now, but people back then would not associate the word “divorce” with marriage.
They always stayed unhappily married.
For one thing, in Pennsylvania, they had to get the Legislature to grant a divorce. That meant publicly airing dirty laundry. It didn’t happen.
But, for a while, women granted divorces to their breasts and had no problem buying a corset that promised that. It came with a piece of padded steel in front, triangular at the top, that achieved an amicable separation.
Divorce Was Actually Trial Separation
The style only lasted a short time, according to various fashion experts, but my study of online portraits shows plenty of divorced breasts gracing canvases well before and after 1816.
If the “experts” are correct about it being a short-lived style, I may know why.
1816 was the worst year to send breasts off on their own. It was particularly cold that year. Summer never came because of a volcanic eruption.
At any rate, they say the mono-bosom soon returned and stayed another 100 years. Seamstresses went back to sewing little pillows inside dresses to fill in the cleavage area.
Then, the roaring 1920s sent the pillows and corsets into fashion’s dustbin. Flappers danced with unsupported, “divorced” bosoms.
By the 1930s, with factory-made, elasticized bras being made in great numbers, women’s breasts again resumed their supported, but separate 1816 positions.
They have remained there since, if you don’t count sports bras.
I am not inclined to sort through women’s underwear, but there seems to be a great deal of female interest in how women of 200 years ago dressed, so I will accommodate them.
Romance writers have already done the research. Bodice Rippers among them want to accurately describe the clothes as they come off. We’ll take their information in reverse and dress our Pittsburgh heroine.
We’ll call her Abigail.
The first thing she puts on is her chemise. It is white linen and extremely simple. It may have a drawstring at the neckline. The length can vary. You don’t want it hanging below your skirt.
Next Abigail is laced into her corset. Despite stereotypes fostered by Hollywood and 19th Century cartoonists, she could lace it herself. The corset had been called “stays” (there being two, one on each side). That term was on its way out. Corsets typically were white, lightly boned cotton or linen. Most had a steel, padded “busk” running down the front to smooth the profile, improve posture and to lift and separate the breasts . It also kept the corset from rolling up under the ribs.
Next, our heroine, Abigail, puts on her petticoat. She thinks of Garth or Heathcliff. Is he healing after that bare-fisted boxing bout on the river barge? She feels, she feels all . . . Well never mind. . . In the previous century, women wore multiple skirts and all were her petticoats. During the Regency Era, only a single petticoat was called for, and since the waistline was so high, most were made like jumpers or pinafores. It might tie in the back, or it might button. The worldly Heathcliff could figure it out. I don’t know about hapless Garth.
Our lady’s legs must be covered. She did that with white silk or cotton stockings held up by metal spring garters. You might be thinking of leg hair. She wasn’t. It wouldn’t even occur to her. Other body hairs also were never in danger. American women didn’t shave underarms until about 1915 when sleeveless dresses came into vogue. Despite the leggy look of Betty Boops in the 1920s, few women shaved their legs until the 1940s. That’s when skirts got short again and stockings got more shear. American women began removing “objectionable” pubic hair only in recent decades. Moslem women, the epitome of modesty, ironically have been doing it for centuries. They remove all body hair before their weddings nights and often keep it that way. Men, too.
If she’s just going to hang around the house, Abigail may put on a chemisette to support her breasts comfortably. Typically, it had a high collar that buttoned or tied up the back. A drawstring at the bottom could be tightened and tied just below the bust.
Now Abigail has all her underwear on. Wait! What about panties? Surely she wore something like granny pants! Nope.
According to the experts, Abigail went “commando.”
I’m sure the lack of indoor plumbing and the use of chamber pots and outhouses had something to do with that.
I have seen something called pantalettes. They were essentially crotchless cotton leggings.
Ready for another irony? Underpants did exist, but they were worn only by the loosest of women.
A woman wearing underpants was doing so for the benefit of a viewer — to look sexy in theater, dance halls and bordellos. Ordinary women had little reason to think a lack of underpants made them any more exposed. Their dresses were long enough. When they squatted bedside or roadside, it made her less exposed.
As to menstruation, I refer you here.
Next post we look at dressing up:
What men and women wore in their quest for romance in Regency Pittsburgh. Also, the myths wrapped up in corsets.
Leon J. Pollom, writer/researcher