“You look so pretty!”

“Oh my gosh I want a dress like that!”

“Aren’t you hot?”

“How does your dress stay out like that?”

All of these are statements and questions we get as civilian reenactors representing middle to upper class women. While the dress looks very pretty, what most people don’t realize is that the secret is what is underneath.

During the Victorian era in the United States, a woman usually had on five to nine under pinnings. That’s five to nine layers UNDER the dress! I specify the location being here in the United States because in England, the ladies could be wearing far more, with layers and layers of petticoats as well as layers of skirts piled on. So, I’m going to let you in on the secrets. Gentlemen, you can step away here if you so desire. 😉

  1. The Chemise

This is a cotton layer which goes against the skin. It is usually cap sleeved or no sleeved with just straps, and ends somewhere between the lady’s hips and thighs in length. There may be detailing and trim around the neckline which will be scooped for comfort and to hide under the gowns. It is usually made of a thin cotton for comfort and breathing. It also adds comfort by providing a layer between the lady and the corset into which she is about to be laced, also allowing for some wicking of heat and moisture from her within the confines of the corset.


Lacing up the corset with chemise underneath. Photo shared by the corsetier, Larissa Boiwka. Miss James has her hair in rag curls.

  1. The Corset

These are not a thing of the past, at least not in the reenacting and living history world! The corsets are a mainstay of a woman’s wardrobe, whether one is in hoops, or a work dress with just a corded petticoat. These were the choice long before bras came to be. In addition to their obvious function, they helped a lady maintain her figure, provided the structure and shaping under her dress, and as I have found out through experiencing this at events, it helps distribute the weight of her hoops and skirts as she goes throughout her day. It is made of a thick fabric, boning which runs in strips from top to bottom providing the shaping and support, metal closures in the front, lacing to close, tighten and secure it in the back, and of course, special stitching and trim. No one may see it but the lady, her husband, and/or the woman who helps her dress, but it is nice to have that touch of femininity there, as you can see by these pictures shared by the corsetiere who created the corset for Hannah James on Mercy Street.


Shared by corsetiere Larissa Boiwka.

  1. The Corset Cover

This is another layer which went on top of the corset, made of either cotton or flannel (depending on the weather), but most often cotton. It would fit over the chemise and corset and was usually buttoned closed, generally coming down to the waist or top of the hips. This was to smooth the lines of the corset so they didn’t show through the dress, to prevent the corset from showing through a top such as a Garibaldi blouse, and ease how things fit rather than the corset rubbing against the dress all day.

  1. Pantaloons

We will leave the top for a moment and talk about the bottom half.

Pantaloons were loose pants made of thin cotton or of flannel material, which would be tied at the waist. They could be complete or crotchless in the back for ease of use in the outhouse or chamber pot. They would come down to the knee, calf or the ankle and either socks or stockings would be worn underneath. Trim or lace would usually adorn the bottom edge or bottom portion of the leg.

  1. The Cage or Hoop

A hoop is made of a material similar to boning, or metal bands which can be fastened with clips to hold them in place. This allows them to be adjusted to the size needed for a woman’s skirts. Hoops come in four to seven bone sizes, and their use varies depending on the size and weight of a woman’s skirts. For instance, a ball gown with many details and layers would be much heavier, and perhaps wider than her day dresses and would need a six to seven-bone hoop, whereas a day dress or tea dress would only require a 4-bone hoop.Cages can fit in this rule, or have many more rows. Cages are made where the hoop bands are fixed in place, and straps hold each hoop at its desired height and distance from the next. It is held in place by each strap attaching to a waistband, which the woman places around her waist and fastens it, usually with a button. A hoop skirt is usually a hoop which is made with the wires running through the fabric of a petticoat and is held up by the petticoat waistband. Today’s bridal hoops will give you an idea of the look.


Shared by Larissa Boiwka

  1. Under petticoat

Seeing as how the cage is only metal bands, held together with straps connected to a waist band, we have to preserve the lady’s dignity and modesty, so a smaller petticoat is worn underneath the cage to cover her. Particularly in case something devastating should happen, such as if she fell on her face and the contents under her skirt are exposed. (Oh my!) It would be made of cotton, linen, flannel, or even wool! Again, this would vary depending on the weather and climate.

  1. Over petticoat

Just as it sounds, the over petticoat goes on top of the hoop. This helps smooth everything over the bones of the hoop and give a nice appearance once the dress is added. For the hoop where bones are encased in the petticoat, this step would not necessarily be needed, as they are already in a petticoat. These petticoats could also be made of cotton, flannel, or wool as was needed for the temperature and climate. It might be detailed with tucks, or embroidery for femininity, or have flounces around the bottom to add bulk and hold out the skirt even more.

7a. Corded petticoat

If the lady were wearing an everyday or work dress, as we like to call it, she would not need a cage/hoop. In this case she would wear a corded petticoat. Corded petticoats are literally petticoats with cotton cords sewn into them in layers around the bottom and working their way up the petticoat. The size of the cords can range from fine to large, and can range from five to one hundred rows! The average is five to twenty rows, with larger cording used for the lesser number of rows, and the finer cording used for more rows. This cording causes the petticoat to stand out, thus holding the lady’s skirt out without her getting tangled in her skirts or having to wear a cage. In the reenactment world, we find this particularly helpful while we are cooking over the open fire, as we do not want to catch our skirts and cages on fire!

Corded petticoat

(Photo credit: etsy)

  1. Socks and stockings.

These are just as they sound. They could be made of many different materials and thicknesses, ranging from silk to wool. They would be worn under the pantaloons and of course, inside her shoes.

  1. Under sleeves.

If a lady were wearing a tea dress with pagoda sleeves, sometimes called bell sleeves, it would be inappropriate for her to show her wrists and forearms during the day time. Therefore she would wear under sleeves, which are worn over the arm within the bell sleeve. They are applied from the wrist to over the elbow and buttoned into place. They can be as plain as a simple buttoned cuff, or edged with ruffles or detailing. Not only do they add to the look of the dress, but they help her protect and maintain her fair complexion!


  1. Accessories.

No woman’s dressing is complete without the accessories. She would not go out without her collar if it is not part of the dress. Usually these were of cotton, silk, or whatever the dress was made of. However, due to the fact that they would have to be removed and cleaned well at each laundering and then sewn back in place, many women chose to go with crocheted or stitched collars which would be completely detachable and held in place by a broach. Also, no proper woman would be caught without her gloves, for it was entirely inappropriate for a woman to touch a man who was not her husband or relative with an ungloved hand. These gloves could vary from plain to detailed with trim, special fancy stitching, or be made of crocheted yarn. Depending on the dress and style, a lady might have removable or custom cuffs on her dress. Then there are also the details such as her fan, reticule, jewelry, bonnet, parasol, shoes, cloaks, capes, hair accessories, bonnets, and much more!

Hopefully now you can understand why it is MUCH easier for a woman in this era to dress with help, and why it generally takes a woman wearing hoops 45 minutes or more to dress! (I’ve done it in 15, but it was rush!).

So, the next time you see a lady in hoops, you now know that she has on between 6-9 layers, plus accessories besides her dress!

When people ask if we are hot, the answer is probably going to be yes, or in the winter we might be absolutely freezing!

“How does your dress stay out?” With a cage and lots of layers!

“How do you look so beautiful in it?” Well… we’ll just say thank you. Right ladies?