On August 24, 1863, San Francisco’s elite flocked to Maguire’s Opera House. Ladies wearing diamonds and furs rode up in handsome carriages; gentlemen in opera capes and silk hats were also in attendance. It was an opening night such as the city had never before seen. All 1,000 seats in the theater were filled with curious spectators, anxious to see the celebrated melodramatic actress Adah Menken perform.
Adah was starring in the role that made her famous – that of Prince Ivan in Mazeppa. It was rumored that she preferred to play the parts in the nude. Newspapers in the West reported that the audiences found the scantily clad thespian’s act “shocking, scandalous, horrifying and even delightful.”
The storyline of the play was taken from a Byron poem, in which a Tartar prince is condemned to ride forever in the desert, stripped naked and lashed to a fiery, untamed steed. Adah insisted on playing the part as true to life as possible.
The audience waited with bated breath for Adah to walk out on stage, and when she did, a hush fell over the crowd. She was beautiful, with dark hair and large, dark eyes. Adorned in a flesh-colored body nylon and tight-fitting underwear, she left the audience speechless.
During the play’s climatic scene, supporting characters strapped the star to the back of black stallion. The horse raced up a narrow runway between cardboard representatives of mountain crags. The audience responded with thunderous applause. Adah Menken and her revealing undergarments left the ticket holders in a state of shock – and scandalized the West.
Bold women like Adah Menken who dared to break fashion traditions paved the way for a less confining order of dress for ladies throughout the frontier Victorian women rarely, if ever, spoke of intimate garments. Considered too improper an item to even make by hand, undergarments were acquired solely through newspaper, magazine, and catalog advertisements.
Corsets were one of the most popular mail-order unmentionables. In the never-ending quest to reveal a figure under yards of material in skirts, blouses, and capes, women wore the close-fitting cincher to highlight their waist and hips. Corsets were of lightweight material and constructed with whalebone, or wooden or metal pieces to stiffen the fabric. They were designed to constrict the waist and lift the bust while creating a smooth line under a tight-fitting bodice. Members of the medical profession – particularly female physicians on staff at the women’s medical college in Philadelphia – declared such constraints on the form “an enemy to female health.” Churches, too, proclaimed that “tight lacing” morally opposed the laws of religion.
Contrary to the stories that have circulated for centuries, a properly fitted corset did not prohibit breathing, and women did not have lower ribs removed to permit tighter lacing of corset ties. There were some women who tried to squeeze their waits beyond the standard two inches usually provided by the coreset. Those ladies suffered for their fashion.
“A belle of the ball in San Antonio purchased a new silk dress that fit so tightly she had to wear a corset for the first time in her life. She was several times compelled to escape in her bedroom to take off the corset and “catch her breath.”
Pioneer Mary Maverick, 1841
Underpants, or pantalets, were believed to prevent disease and infection. They were made of flannel, angora, calico, or cotton, and the legs extended to just above the ankle. In the winter months, lamb’s wool underwear was worn.
A loose shirt-like undergarment, known as a chemise, was worn over the underpants. The chemise came with either short or long gathered sleeves and was trimmed in lace from the drawstring neck to the hem. It was worn more for modesty’s sake than a protection from the elements. Also available was a combination drawers-and-chemise outfit known as a “union suit.”
The brassiere, as it now called, was once referred to a “bust improver.” According to the Handbook of the Toilet, the device was made of an air-proof material and promised that its user would get a “sylph-like roundness to the waist without restraint or pressure.” An 1855 Sears, Roebuck and Company advertisement assured ladies that the “bust improver” would “add a fullness to their dress.”
Bustles also added a fullness to a woman’s dress, sometimes in the back and later the sides. This “dress improver,” as it was more commonly called in 1849, provided the skirt with a domed shape. It was replaced by the crinoline in 1856.
The last item on every woman’s list of undergarments was stockings. These extended above the wearer’s knees and were held in place by leather or silk garter. In 1860, stockings came primarily in two colors, black and magenta. By the early 1880s stockings were offered in a variety of assorted colors including yellow.