Embroidered Undergarments Through History

10th August 2018

By Nancy Williams

I was searching the internet when I came across a glorious photograph of a pair of embroidered women’s knickers from the late 16th Century. It’s probably best not to ask what I was searching for at the time! However, the picture made me wonder how much embroidery has been hidden from view by virtue of the fact it was worked on undergarments.

Linen embroidered knickers c.1630 (source)

These knickers were apparently worn by a Venetian courtesan in around 1630. They are embroidered in blue thread using double running stitch and repeated gaily across the drawers is the statement “I want the heart”. One can only wonder whether this request, worked in such delicate stitching, actually produced the desired result?

My research then turned up an exhibition held a couple of years back at the V&A in London. Entitled “Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear”, the display showed the changing styles of both men’s and women’s undergarments across the course of history.

Silk Chiffon knickers, 1930s – The Royal Pavillion and Museums, Brighton and Hove (source)

Looking through the images, my eye was caught by these silk chiffon knickers, embroidered with birds and hunters. Apparently, their wearer, Lady Betty Holman, was so pleased with the stitching that she decided to show them off to a group of Iraqi women in the early 1940s with the hope of breaching the language barrier. I was thrilled to read that it worked – the women were delighted.

You wouldn’t need a common language to admire the workmanship, to say nothing of Lady Holman’s pluck!

Stocking worn by Queen Alexandra c.1900. Victoria and Albert Museum, London (source)

Finally, Queen Alexandra proudly displayed a glimpse of these hand embroidered stockings around 1900. Although it was somewhat scandalous at the time, it soon became completely acceptable for women to expose their stockinged lower legs to the world and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Queen’s action was instrumental in that. I’d say the scandal would have been hiding the vivid red poppies and intricate hand stitching away.

Nowadays our undergarments are mass produced and generic. But just imagine putting on something you had spent days or even weeks days embroidering. Would you want to cover it up?

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