The basic, all-purpose undergarment worn by every woman was the shift (known in other places and eras as a “smock” or “chemise”). It was so universal that even the very poorest of women had at least two, to have something to wear while washing her other one. Although drawers (underpants) had been known since the Renaissance, they did not achieve universal popularity until the 19th century. Shifts were made of linen, because it was soft, hard-wearing, absorbant, and quick-drying. I sewed my shift entirely by hand, using French seams (very sturdy seams that enclose the raw edges and keep the shift from falling to bits in the wash). I used the cutting diagram and instructions from Meredith Wright’s book Everyday Dress of Rural America: 1783-1880.
Over the shift, a woman wore her stays (corset). Like a modern bra, the stays were the garment that gave foundation and support to the fashionable silhouette of the era. The stays I’m wearing in the picture are appropriate for a woman who would be working during her day–chasing after children or sheep, hauling water or chamber pots, etc. They’re strapless and “half-boned” (less rigidly boned), which gives the wearer much greater freedom of movement over the strapped and fully-boned stays of the upper class or for more fashionable wear. In the 18th Century, the ideal shape was concerned less with waist size (the focus for corsetry in the Victorian era) and more on posture — giving the wearer a lovely topline and shoulders. To this end, the stays are cut rather high in the back, which draws the shoulders slightly upward and back (wonderfully comfortable in these modern days of “computer posture!”). As would have been common in Charlotte’s day, I purchased my stays ready-made, from Jas. Townsend.
The next layer is the underpetticoat, here made of a violent bubblegum pink cotton broadcloth (not truly a period fabric, but what the seamstress had on hand at the time. Although cotton was becoming more popular for women’s wear, it was still expensive. Linen, wool, or linsey-woolsey would have been a more common choice for such a use). The function of the underpetticoat is to provide fullness to the skirts, as well as warmth. You can see it is cut quite short; covering the ankles for modesty’s sake was a 19th Century mania. Men and women of the 18th Century were vain about graceful limbs, and clothing was often cut to reveal long, lovely wrists, ankles, necks, etc.