A question I see pop up often, and one that continues to spark much debate in online costuming communities and between historians of dress is: Did early modern women wear anything under their skirts? If so, did they wear drawers?
Susan North’s recently published book, Sweet and Clean?, is one recent scholarly text that has tackled this question. In the book she offers ample evidence for the use of drawers by men during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. When it comes to women, she writes that ‘drawers for women, [is] a question that continues to baffle dress historians’. She offers examples of women wearing drawers in the eighteenth century to argue that it was indeed possible for women to wear such an undergarment. However, she does not provide evidence for the seventeenth century.
Most surviving evidence of drawers being worn by women comes from sixteenth-century Italy, where sources described sex workers as wearing these garments in gender-bending displays of eroticism and the subversion of social norms.
Early modern English ballads depict men and women fighting over what could be drawers or breeches, or, more literally, fighting over who wore the pants in the relationship. The wearing of drawers by women in the context of this type of moralising literature made their husband into a cuckhold, thus undermining his authority and threatening early modern ideas of masculinity.
However, moralising literature often tells us more about anxieties early moderns held, rather than the reality of what was actually happening, especially when it comes to dress practices. In this blogpost then I want to set the record straight that, yes, women could and did wear drawers in the seventeenth century.
The earliest example from the seventeenth century is a pair of drawers on the effigy of Queen Elizabeth I in Westminster Abbey. Funerary records show that these were specially constructed in 1603, as a warrant relating to funeral expenses noted,
‘And to John Colte for the Image representing her late Majestie with a paire of straight bodies a paire of drawers…’
Janet Arnold examined these drawers and noted they were likely made of fustian and gathered into a waistband that had worked eyelet holes similar to those on breeches. Whether this is a garment that Elizabeth wore (Arnold does not mention if they appear in her accounts) or if they were made to pad out the hips and legs of the effigy (they are stuffed with what appears to be hemp) is unknown.
By the 1630s, Queen Henrietta Maria’s accounts contain multiple references to drawers made from linen and wool.
In May 1631 her French tailor George Gelin billed the wardrobe for:
‘18 pare of Holland drawers for her majesty binded with ribbon for the making of them’.
On 17th August 1639, Henrietta Maria’s other tailor James Bardon
‘delivered into the office of her Majesty’s wardrobe two pair of woolen drawers for the mend & bordering of them’.
While it is possible that the queen’s drawers were the result of French influence on her wardrobe (she was after all a French princess), there is also evidence that non-royalty wore these undergarments around the same time too.
In 1642, the probate inventory of the widow Elizabeth Burges of St. Nicholas Parish in Bristol recorded
‘one payer of cotten drawers at s. j [1 shilling]’
Here cotton likely referred to a woollen fabric rather than cotton-fibre textiles. Whether these drawers belonged to Elizabeth, or another family member such as her husband is unclear.
In the 1660s Samuel Pepys made ambiguous references to the morality of his wife Elisabeth’s drawers as he was frequently concerned about whether she wore them when visiting her male dance teacher (who Pepys often suspected she was having an affair with).
He recorded in his diary on the 15 May 1663 that
‘But it is a deadly folly and plague that I bring upon myself to be so jealous and by giving myself such an occasion more than my wife desired of giving her another month’s dancing. Which however shall be ended as soon as I can possibly. But I am ashamed to think what a course I did take by lying to see whether my wife did wear drawers to-day as she used to do, — and other things to raise my suspicion of her, but I found no true cause of doing it’.
On 4 June of that same year, Pepys again wrote that
‘I whiled away the morning up and down while they got themselves ready, and I did so watch to see my wife put on drawers, which poor soul she did, and yet I could not get off my suspicions, she having a mind to go into Fenchurch Street before she went out for good and all with me, which I must needs construe to be to meet Pembleton, when she afterwards told me it was to buy a fan that she had not a mind that I should know of, and I believe it is so’.
Rather than wearing drawers indicating a lack of morals or a proclivity to promiscuity (as it did with Italian courtesans) it appears that Pepys was more concerned with whether his wife might allow her dance teacher easy access to her nether regions by not wearing this garment.
In 1688, the linen draper supplied Queen Catherine of Braganza’s wardrobe with
‘fine frieze holland for drawers for her majesty’.
Although a bill does not survive, presumably it was Catherine’s seamstresses who made these linen drawers up, along with other goods from the linen supplied.
Both men and women could wear drawers during the seventeenth century, and tailors and seamstresses made these garments for both genders. It appears that, like North has suggested for the eighteenth century, women likely wore them for warmth or riding. Or as Pepys’ diary entries suggest, even modesty. Or perhaps the comment by Pepys about his wife being a ‘pour soul’ for putting on drawers was because it was summer and the weight of all her skirts would already have been hot. Timing of the queens’ bills suggests that woolen drawers were more common in winter and linen in summer, although a much larger sample would need to be taken to determine this.
Much more research is needed the make firm statements about the history of women’s drawers in the early modern period. As Pat Poppy helpfully points out in her comment below, most of these references relate to Francophile women living in England: Henrietta Maria was a French princess and Elisabeth Pepys’ father was French (her mother was not). Catherine of Braganza’s wardrobe, as my forthcoming book will show, was also heavily influenced by French fashions. So was this a French thing?
I will continue to update this post as I come across references. But what is certain is that drawers were certainly owned and worn by some women in seventeenth century England. How widespread the practice was remains to be determined.
 Susan North, Sweet and Clean?: Bodies and Clothes in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), 126-30.
 The National Archives UK (TNA), E 351/3145, fol. 25, transcribed and cited in Janet Arnold, ‘The “pair of straight bodies” and “a pair of drawers” dating from 1603 which Clothe the Effigy of Queen Elizabeth I in Westminster Abbey’, Costume, 41 (2007), 9.
Very excited to announce that my book Shaping Femininity has a cover image and pre-order links! See below for details!
About Shaping Femininity
In sixteenth and seventeenth-century England, the female silhouette underwent a dramatic change. This very structured form, created using garments called bodies and farthingales, existed in various extremes in Western Europe and beyond, in the form of stays, corsets, hoop petticoats and crinolines, right up until the twentieth century. With a nuanced approach that incorporates a stunning array of visual and written sources and drawing on transdisciplinary methodologies, Shaping Femininity explores the relationship between material culture and femininity by examining the lives of a wide range of women, from queens to courtiers, farmer’s wives and servants, uncovering their lost voices and experiences. It reorients discussions about female foundation garments in English and wider European history, arguing that these objects of material culture began to shape and define changing notions of the feminine bodily ideal, social status, sexuality and modesty in the early modern period, influencing enduring Western notions of femininity.
Beautifully illustrated in full colour throughout, Shaping Femininity is the first large-scale exploration of the materiality, production, consumption and meanings of women’s foundation garments in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England. It offers a fascinating insight into dress and fashion in the early modern period, and offers much of value to all those interested in the history of early modern women and gender, material culture and consumption, and the history of the body, as well as curators and reconstructors.
Table of Contents
Notes to the Reader
Introduction: Investigating the structured female body
1. The foundations of the body: foundation garments and the early modern female silhouette
2. The artificial body: courtiers, gentlewomen and disputed visions of femininity, 1560-1650
3. The socially mobile body: consumption of foundation garments by middling and common women, 1560 – 1650
4. The body makers: making and buying foundation garments in early modern England
5. The everyday body: assumptions, tropes and the lived experience
6. The sexual body: eroticism, reproduction and control
7. The respectable body: rising consumption and the changing sensibilities of late seventeenth-and early eighteenth-century England
Conclusion: legacies and misconceptions
List of Illustrations
In order to understand early modern undergarments, it’s also vital to understand the outergarments that were worn. In order to better educate myself I’ve recently been going through some of the engravings done by seventeenth-century artists, particularly the Bohemian Wenceslaus Hollar who worked extensively in England, and Abraham Bosse, a French engraver. I love, love, love the engraving styles of the early seventeenth century, and particularly the styles of both the artists that I’ve mentioned.
As a historian working on dress these types of engravings are also particularly useful to understand what types of clothing people wore and how they wore it. Although, keep in mind, that as an artistic medium these drawings can be prone to exaggeration or artistic licence. However, for the most part Hollar seems to have liked to draw people from all walks of life and in various social situations, so you can assume that they must have been somewhat realistic representations.
The prints below come from a particular work Ornatvs Mvluebris Anglicanus or The Severall Habits of English Women, from the Nobilitie to the contry Woman, as they are in these times, 1640. Although the British Library also dates some of the pictures to 1638. In all probability, many of these engravings were first sketched in the late 1630s and not published until 1640. There are no captions that accompany the pictures, but they appear to progress from elite dress to common dress and that’s how I’ve ordered the ones below. All of the pictures and more, are available via the University of Toronto’s Wenceslaus Hollar Digital Collection.
These fashionable elite women both wear the gowns of the 1630s that consisted of bodices with high waistlines and elbow-length full voluminous sleeves, a stomacher, a petticoat skirt and a falling lace collar. The bodices were often boned, as the extant example from the V&A is below with whalebone, buckram and canvas, and the stomacher would also have been stiffened with heavy fabrics, whalebone or a busk.
Bodice. 1630-1639. England. Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Although it seems that the bodice of the gown could also be incorporated into the skirts as the picture of the woman on the bottom depicts. A tailoring bill for Queen Henrietta Maria from 1634 mentioned “one Gowne of black satin, The Sleeves, Stomacher and forepart with a lace throughout.”
Women also wore foundational garments underneath such as the bodies and rolls.
A curious case is the ‘hungerline’ or French ‘hongreline’. When I was examining the household bills of Henrietta Maria of England, I came across numerous references to a “hungerline”, for example in a bill from 1632 it states that the Queen’s tailor made a “Satten hungerline imbrodered with gold and Silver sticht and garnished with whalebone and lyned with taffaty.” The bill also makes references to an un-boned “carnacion satten hungerline imbroidered and stitched and lyned with white taffetie…”
So it left me wondering – what is a hungerline?
According to French sources, a ‘hongreline” was a short French-style waistcoat that was derived in style from the justaucorps which was a coat worn by men (by 1690 it was described in Antoine Furetière’s dictionary as a short-sleeved shirt with large tabs). Alfred Franklin in Corporations ouvrières de Paris Du Douzième Au Dix-Huitième Siècle (1884) noted that it was common among rural women and servants in France. However, considering there is ample evidence of it in Henrietta Maria’s wardrobe and it is depicted on bourgeois women (see below), it seems that it was popular even among the upper classes. The style was probably brought to England by the French Henrietta Maria when she married Charles I in 1625. The only visual image I’ve been able to find that depicts a hungerline is this French one, from 1629, which unfortunately only gives us a side view.
Translation: “The clothing of a bourgeoise lady of Paris in a simple skirt and a modern style of hongreline when she wants to leave her neighbourhood.”
Isaac Briot, 1629. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.
Some French sources state that the main features of the hongreline was it’s “basques grandes/flottantes”, ie. the large and flowing lower part of the bodice. Another difference between a hungerline and a normal gown bodice or waistcoat, and the reason I have chosen Hollar’s picture above, is the sleeve detail. The drawing above depicts a sleeve that contains two parts – the bigger embroidered upper sleeve that stops at the elbow, and a lower sleeve that comes out from underneath and finishes at the wrist. The sleeves also seem to have been heavily embroidered as description in Henrietta Maria’s bills describe, and maybe even had decorative button detail that mimicked a man’s coat sleeves, as is very obvious on the next picture below. It may well be though that this style is one that will never be completely recovered from history.
Pomanders (from the French pomme d’ambre) were items of jewellery that contained fragrant aromatic substances such as ambergris, musk, clove or civet, and commonly hung from the neck or the waist. Popular since medieval times they were believed to ward off infection during times of plague (as it was thought that disease was transmitted through foul air). However, by the eighteenth century they were used mostly to cover up bad smells, particularly in cities such as London were the streets were often filled with household waste and excrement. They also took part in the social etiquette practices of the day.
Pomander. 1600-50. European. Victoria & Albert Museum, London
This woman wears a gown, falling lace band and also holds onto a fan. More interestingly though she appears to have a purse dangling from her waist. In the seventeenth century purses such as this were rarely used to actually carry money, as women such as the one depicted in this engraving rarely engaged in commercial exchanges that required cash. These purses could also contain mirrors (which is probably indicates what it was most commonly used for). They could also be used to carry around sewing materials or sweets, and other bits and pieces.
Purse, 1600-1630. England. Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Muffs in the seventeenth century, as they are now, were design to keep the wearer’s hands warm when outside. They are believed to have first come about in the sixteenth century, possibly originating from the fur trim that was common on the cuffs of a gown. Most muffs during this period appear to have been made from fur, although there are fabric muffs such as this one from the eighteenth century, so it is totally plausible that they were also made from fabric too. In my archival research on English royal wardrobes I’ve actually never come across a muff, well, in tailoring bills anyway. So I’m not sure exactly where they were sourced. Nor have I been able to find any extant seventeenth-century examples in museum collections. The best we have from the period is other drawings from artists like Hollar, such as:
In fact that there are SO many engravings of muffs by Hollar. It would seem that really really liked women’s muffs (double entendre intended)!
The woman on the left wears an over cape, a muff and has a purse dangling from her waist. Whilst the woman on the left wears a fashionable gown with a falling lace collar and holds a muff. What both women have in common is that they are wearing masks.
Masks were, believe it or not, worn frequently in the streets of England during the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Full faced masks were used primarily to shade the wearer’s face from the sun’s rays, as the wearers were usually aristocratic women whose pale skin reflected their position in life. They were held in place on the face by holding a glass bead that was attached to the mask between the teeth, which would have made it quite difficult to talk! Some of these masks have survived and were made from black velvet and silk/leather, such as this one found in the wall of a sixteenth-century building in England. Or the one below which comes from a fashion doll and dates to the 1690s.
Dolls Mask, 1690-1700. Victoria & Albert Museum, London
The masks in these picture though are not fulled faced, and so were probably not used for sun protection. Instead they could have been used by women to disguise themselves. Samuel Pepys, in a diary entry from 18th February 1667, describes such a woman at a playhouse he attended:
“And one of the ladies would, and did sit with her mask on, all the play, and, being exceeding witty as ever I heard woman, did talk most pleasantly with him; but was, I believe, a virtuous woman, and of quality. He would fain know who she was, but she would not tell; yet did give him many pleasant hints of her knowledge of him, by that means setting his brains at work to find, out who she was, and did give him leave to use all means to find out who she was, but pulling off her mask. He was mighty witty, and she also making sport with him very inoffensively, that a more pleasant ‘rencontre’ I never heard.”
Hats like this were worn by both men and women during the seventeenth century. Hats could be made from felted beaver or rabbit fur, such as the one from the Victoria and Albert Museum below, or from leather such as this example also from the V&A. They could also have really tall, narrow “steeple” crowns such as this one which were favoured by the Puritans who wished to distinguish themselves from the ostentatious cavaliers. Over the course of the seventeenth century vast amounts of beaver fur used in hat making in Britain was imported from their colonies in North America, making them more affordable as the previous European Beaver was scarce as it had been nearly hunted to extinction. According to the V&A the felting process involved the fur being removed from the animal pelt and then heated to fuse it together. It was then moulded into shape around a wooden form, dyed, trimmed and smoothed.
Felted Hat, 1590-1670. England. Victoria & Albert Museum, London
The woman in this picture is most likely a middling class city woman. Felt hats were common among all classes of people in the seventeenth century. They were used as riding headwear for elite women and as everyday wear for the gentry and middling classes. Hats were also particularly common in rural areas of Britain, understandably as rural people usually spent more time outdoors in fields. However, as felt hats were still expensive they would probably have had similar styles made from leather.
The 1629 probate inventory of Arthur Coke, listed in part of his late wife’s clothing “j  black beaver hatt with a bond of gold smythes – worke of starrs and half moones & iij  other bands of silver & gold”, indicating that the bands on these hats could be incredibly decorative as well. Hats could also be pointed, looking like what we now think of at witches hats, such as the one worn in the painting Mrs Salesbury with her Grandchildren from 1675-6.
Portrait of Mrs Salesbury with her Grandchildren Edward and Elizabeth Bagot, by John Michael Wright. 1675-6. Tate Gallery, London
Ruffs & Collars
It is interesting that this particular lady is wearing a ruff as by the 1640s falling collars were more the norm. I’ve certainly found no evidence of ruffs in all the probate inventories and household bills that I’ve looked at from the 1630s/40s. Maybe this is an anomaly?
A more common “ruff” from this period. Ruff, 1620-29. England. Victorian and Albert Museum, London
Ruffs were particularly expensive to produce and to maintain: firstly they required a lot of fabric, they constantly had to be re-starched and bleached, and setting them back into shape was also time consuming and costly in terms of labour. Yet looking closely at this picture and comparing it to the ones above, from her dress this woman doesn’t appear to be particularly elite. Possibly she is middling class which could explain why she is still wearing a ruff – fashionable tastes changed a lot more in the courts and among the wealthy than they did in the lower classes and if she was the wife of a merchant for example she could afford the upkeep of the ruff. Very intriguing indeed…
This woman wears a coif, a falling collar, waistcoat and petticoat. She appears to also be wearing an apron, which indicates that she was most likely a middling or common class woman. In her right hand she also holds a pair of gloves. Interestingly if you enlarge the picture and look really closely at the embroidered detail on the waistcoat it looks just like this one in the V&A which is made from fustian and embroidered with silver thread and spangles:
Waistcoat, English, 1630-40. Victoria & Albert Museum, London
During the early seventeenth century a waistcoat was one of the most basic items in a woman’s wardrobe. Both elite and common women owned waistcoats. A tailoring bill for the wardrobe of Queen Henrietta Maria from 1634 noted that she had ordered “one Petticoate & wastcoate of black Taby with twoe Silke & Silver Laces throughout.” The probate inventory of Agnes Hilling, a Widow from Clifton England in 1634 records that when she died she possessed “wearing apparell” that consisted of “three gownes, three pettiocoatts, 3 Wascoats, one Aperne, a bond and diveres other things of her Wearinge apparell…”
On the University of Toronto’s website this picture is listed as “The Kitchen Maid”. She wears a coif, waistcoat, and a couple of petticoats. She is carrying what I assume is vegetables and other foods for the kitchen that she works in. The most interesting detail of this engraving is her shoes, or really what I should say is attached to them. These under-shoes were called ‘pattens’ and were designed to lift the wearer out of the mud and waste of early modern streets. They were usually made from wood or metal and slipped over the shoes on the wearer’s foot. Although primarily worn by common or country women, this pair from the early eighteenth century have pointed toes to fit a fashionable woman’s shoe and a spot at the back for the heel to sit. The latchets are also covered in velvet which suggest that they would have been worn by a woman with wealth.
Pair of pattens, Great Britain, 1720s-30s. Victoria & Albert Museum, London
For all their benefits in keeping shoes out of the city street muck, it seems that pattens must have been terribly difficult to walk in. The Burlesque “Scarronnides, or, Virgile travestie a mock poem” a modern retelling of the fourth book of Virgils Aeneid by Charles Cotton published in 1665 proclaimed that, “But to the Church (forsooth) anon/ …They must, and slipping on their Pattens / They went, as who should say to Mattens.” On 24 January 1660 Samuel Pepys similarly wrote in his diary that, “I called on my wife and took her to Mrs Pierce’s, she in the way being exceedingly troubled with a pair of new pattens, and I vexed to go so slow.”