All Dressed in White:

Antique Lingerie Dresses


      From about 1897 through 1915, the basic style worn by of all ages—from blushing maidens to middle–aged matrons was the pure-white frothy, lace-trimmed gown known as the “lingerie dress.” At the turn of the century, Sears Roebuck’s catalog featured more white laces and sheet white embroideries than any other type of material, and more than half of the ready-made dresses they offered were made of white, lace-trimmed cloth. Every American mail-order catalog, clothing shop, and dressmaker reflected this trend.
      Fashion plates from more elite magazines like Harper’s Bazar and down-to-earth publications like The Delineator all showed the same kind of filmy gowns—which, true to their name, deftly impersonated undergarments. The floral whitework, romantic puffing and shirring, delicious lace inserts, rich silk ribbons, and detailed pin-tucking featured on the new white dress had once been reserved for a Victorian lady’s “unmentionables,” but by the late 1890s, it seemed that undergarments had reached such a spectacular level of extravagance they could no longer bear to be concealed.
      Daring as this style might have seemed at the time, there was ample historical precedent for it. For example, in 1780 Marie Antoinette refused the rigid and angular fashions of her day and adopted the softer, more fluid “boudoir look” of an all-white outfit that was called a chemise a la Reine (or the queen’s chemise). The style, which seemed so shockingly brazen at first, persisted through the revolution until the early 1800s. The sheer, slender, high-waisted white style of that day is now synonymous with the “Jane Austen era.” Made of the gauziest, most delicate fabrics, Empire gowns were supposedly worn slightly damp by the most provocative Parisiennes—because when the fabric was wet, it clung, revealing every feminine curve. Perhaps because the white dress has been popular for more than a generation, when it finally went out of fashion in the 1820s, it stayed out. For the rest of the century, white appeared rarely, and then almost exclusively in evening wear for the wealthy. But by the late 1890s, the white gown had made a spectacular comeback.

      With sewing machines available to achieve a dressmaker’s wildest fantasy, the new version of the all-white look was far more flamboyant than any seen before. Ruffles and decorations proliferated in typically exuberant Victorian style. If a few frills were good, more were better. Flimsy “invisible” dresses of gauze, net, and fine silk, usually in shades of white, were embellished with tucks, pleats, and—most importantly—lace.
“There wad hardly any part of woman’s dress which was not adorned with this most expensive form of decoration,” writes one fashion historian. “Real lace in such quantities was often unobtainable and a compromise was discovered in Irish crochet, for which there was then a considerable vogue...Both Parisian and London dressmakers regarded it with the highest favor. For light evening bodices or for dressy ‘afternoon blouses’ there was nothing more fashionable.”
      Machine-made laces played an even more important role in the democratization of the lingerie dress. Once all women had dreamed of floating on a cloud of lace, but only the rich could indulge in the fantasy; now nearly every woman could add the new, fairy-tale lingerie dress to her wardrobe. An immigrant farmer’s wife was as likely to wear one as a nouveau riche miss—although the first’s dress might be cotton with machine-made lace and the second’s would most likely be silk with “real” lace. In 1894, Ladies’ Home Journal pointed out reassuringly, “White gowns are usually counted on as expensive...they soil so easily and necessitate visits either to the laundry or the cleaners that cost so much...Yet with care, one may be worn for an entire season.”
      Fashion magazines also commented on how extravagantly decorated lingerie dresses were: “There has probably never been a season when fashions were more charming or more elaborate,” The Lady noted in 1902. “Not only are the fabrics of exquisite texture, but they are embellished with miraculously fine hand-embroidery, appliqué lace insertions, and with trimming of many kinds...Ball gowns of soft textures are much tucked, with insertions and medallions of lace, and flounces or frills surround the hem. The appliqué craze has reached such a height that even flowers and artificial foliage are now arranged in this fashion. Garnitures of pearls, groups of butterflies or dragonflies, velvet or satin edges with pearly beads are favorite adornments.”
      Even so, lingerie dresses really weren’t much more difficult to make than any other Victorian style. Patterns were readily available and fashion magazines frequently gave readers tips for sewing them easily at home. :ace, even appliqué, was no harder to apply than any other sort of trim. According to books and magazines for home sewers of the period, lingerie dresses were typically made at home by constructing the garment in part of whole, then laying down the lace on top of the fabric. The lace was then stitched in place and the fabric beneath it cut away.
      Though white dresses long enough to sweep the street obviously soiled easily, they could also be surprisingly practical. Unlike most other types of Victorian dresses, which were made of un-washable silks, velvets, satins, and wools, lingerie dresses were most frequently fashioned from cotton, making them easy to wash at home. Fabrics could be relatively inexpensive, too. Sears sold sheer “white dress goods” for about 22 cents a yard, machine-made laces for as little as four cents a yard. The company’s 1906 catalog features ready-made lingerie dresses for $4.75; a really elaborate example ran about $11. These prices were about average for most mail-order fashions of the period.
      Even in its heyday, however, not every woman admired “the little white dress.” In her book From A Girl’s Point Of View, Lilian Bell complained: “A word with you, you dear, unsophisticated man. I have heard you, with the sounds of your $150-a-month salary ringing in your ears, gurgle and splash about a girl who ears ‘simple white muslins’ to balls; and I have heard you set down as extravagant and too rich for your purse, the girl who wears silk. There is no more extravagant or troublesome gown in the world than what you call a ‘simple white muslin.’ In the first place, it never is muslin unless it is Paris muslin, which is no joke if you are thinking of paying for it yourself, as it necessitates a silk lining which costs more than the outside. If it is trimmed with real, handmade lace, that would take as much of your salary as the coal for all winter would come to. If trimmed with ribbons, they must be changed often to freshen the gown, whose only beauty is its freshness...If it can be worn five times during the winter, the girl is either a careful dancer or else a wallflower. In either case, after every wearing she must have it pressed out and put away as daintily as if it were egg-shells, all of which is the greatest nuisance on earth. Often such a gown is torn all to pieces the first time it is worn. Scores of ‘simple white muslin’ ballgowns at $100 apiece are only worn once or twice.”
      The Delineator had kinder words for the lingerie dress in 1902. “More sheer than ever are the fabrics displayed for summer gowns...white is in highest favor and for all occasions...Indeed, the entire Summer outfit may be in white...White batiste is a dainty fabric and suggests fascinating toilettes when associated with the embroidered batiste or white all-over lace. These dresses are made unlined and are intended to be worn over colored silk foundations.” The idea of a sheer dress that could be transformed and worn on several occasions simply by choosing different colored slips was new and especially popular and practical for ladies with limited wardrobe funds.
      Another reason for the enormous popularity of the white lingerie dress at that moment in history may have something to do with the suffrage movement. White is traditionally associated with youth and purity, and a vote-seeking woman who appeared young, innocent, and girlish must have seemed less threatening than the earlier generation of feminists in their radical Bloomer outfits or masculine suits. One man who’d just attended a suffrage conference noted approvingly, “When an audience expected to find a fierce and strident virago and found instead a young lady whose voice, dress and manner were not only quiet but exquisite, then indeed they were startled to attention.”
      As women moved from the restrictions of the Victorian era into the relative freedom of a new century, they exchanged the enormous weight of opulent, often unwieldy fashions for more practical, tailored clothes. The lingerie dress represents a moment when women stood on the brink of unimaginable changes—all dressed in white.




(c) Copyright 1990 by Kristina Harris