One of the pleasures of watching film adaptations of Jane Austen stories is the abundant collection of extraordinarily hunky men who populate these dramatizations. (Okay, so maybe not every story; how can we forget the anomaly of P&P2005’s disappointingly goofy Mr Bingley?)
While we’re enthralled with the lovely gowns and dresses of the female characters, let’s face it: we just adore seeing those hunks in their well-tailored costumes. Now, show of hands: who amongst you has wondered what the guys are wearing underneath those form-fitting outfits? (If you’re over the age of consent and haven’t raised your hand, I presume you’re crossing your fingers with your other hand.)
The Regency era was a period of fashion flux. Ladies had recently abandoned their structured hoops and bustles, which essentially rebuilt the shape of a woman’s body, for a resurgence of classical Greek-style dresses that followed the female form more closely. Gentlemen dressed to preserve the distinction of rank, then they adopted more “democratic” styles, then re-adopted styles that could be worn only by the leisure classes.
Two factors influenced the evolution of undergarments during this period. The first was a growing sense of prudery, tempered by the generally greater permissiveness that often characterizes periods of war. (The Napoleonic Wars dragged on from the late 1700s to the early 1800s.) The second, and possibly of greater influence, was a startling concept taking root: the notion of personal cleanliness. Prior to this period, people bathed infrequently and not very effectively. Whole families – sometimes whole villages – shared responsibility for heating bath water and then shared the same bathtub in succession according to age and rank. Children were at the end of the long line of bathers, and by the time they were granted access to the tub the water was generally rather murky – I know: yuck, right? – leading to the admonition to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater when emptying the tub.
As the Regency era progressed, those who could afford it indulged in regular ablutions in their own private bathtubs. They changed and laundered their clothing more frequently, no longer relying on perfume to cover up unpleasant body odours. No less a figure than George “Beau” Brummell himself – confidante to the Prince Regent and acknowledged arbiter of men’s fashions of the time – declared that for a gentleman to be properly dressed in society he must first be scrupulously scrubbed clean.
This led to gentlemen changing their clothing more frequently, as shirt collars and cuffs, as well as cravats, had a tendency to soil rather easily. Underwear likewise was changed more often to maintain that cleanliness.
Men’s underwear mostly took the form of drawers: underpants that generally reached to the knee under breeches or longer under trousers. These were fastened with ties at the waist and the knee, and fashioned of various fabrics depending on the time of year: Lighter cotton or linen drawers would be worn in summer, while flannel or wool were preferred for winter wear. Under trousers, gentlemen often wore stockinette (stretchy knitted cotton) drawers that extended the full length of the lower torso and leg, usually ending in loops around the feet.
When a gentleman’s breeches were particularly form-fitting, they might have had drawers attached to the inside, like a lining. These drawers were removable for laundering. Or he may have simply tucked his shirt deeply into his breeches or trousers to eliminate the bulk of an extra layer.
During this time, mens’ shirts were considered underwear. The collar would be long, perhaps six inches or so, and unless turned down over the tied cravat would extend up to cover part of a gentleman’s face. The front neckline was fastened with one or two buttons, and may have featured a frill that peeked over his waistcoat (or, as we now call it, his vest). Shirt collars and cuffs may have been adorned with ruffles, and gentlemen of leisure would allow an inch or two of their shirt sleeve to extend beyond the end of their jacket sleeve, a luxury not possible for working men whose cuffs were tucked under longer jacket sleeves to keep them clean. Fabrics used for shirts were generally light linens and cottons. When we saw P&P1995’s Mr Darcy dive into the pond without his jacket or waistcoat we actually saw him in his underwear – the equivalent of the modern tee shirt or undershirt. Likewise when P&P2005’s Mr Darcy roamed the fields of Netherfield in search of Elizabeth, he was also in his undershirt – even if it did not have a pack of cigarettes rolled up in the sleeve!
Fashionable men, including the Prince Regent himself, wore corsets to create the appearance of a slim-waisted figure. Corsets tied in the back and required the services of a valet to tighten them.
Gentlemen of the time normally would change their clothes, and their cravats, at least twice a day to ensure a tidy appearance, altho’ drawers were usually not changed more than once a day. The average gentleman kept a wardrobe of fifty to sixty shirts, about half as many cravats, and maybe ten or twelve pairs of drawers. Nightshirts were similar to day-wear shirts, altho’ about a foot longer in length.
Here are a few examples of Jane’s gentlemen with their undershirts showing, along with a video that truly charmed me. I hope it charms you too! Please note that I do not own the copyright to any of this media. Film stills are the property of BBC; video is the property of ZZ Top.)
(Part Two: A peek under Lizzy Bennet’s muslin gown.)