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An Intimate Look Into a 19th Century Woman's Wardrobe

Visitors to Seabury Tredwell's home in the mid-1800s, located on then-fashionable East 4th Street, might have spent an antebellum evening listening to music in the parlor or conversing with one of the wealthy merchant's six daughters, who lived with him, their mother, and a handful of Irish servants in the handsome Greek revival townhouse. But unless they were out-of-towners lodging with the family, such guests would rarely have cause to ascend the stairs and enter the private sleeping rooms, where a Tredwell girl would begin and end each day with the tedious process of dressing and undressing, piece by piece.

Those private spaces and the pieces they held are now on display in Unmentionable and Never Seen: Foundations of the 19th Century Woman, an exhibit running at what is now the Merchant's House Museum in the (once again) fashionable East Village.

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Underthings of the past have the potential to thrill or repulse, depending on the circumstances. It's certainly exciting to imagine what might've existed beneath layers and layers of petticoats designed to give women skirts as wide as doorways; but it also prompts a wince upon the thought of being laced tightly into a corset and saddled with accoutrement designed not to give comfort and pleasure to the wearer but to shape the body to the styles of the day (and, in some cases, protect expensive gowns from the potentially damaging skin of the wearer).

Like the bricks of the house helped it stand, so too were a woman's undergarments her own personal masonry.

Unmentionable and Never Seen

Photo: Courtesy of the Merchant's House Museum

The exhibit is staged in a Tredwell bedroom so that we might think of a daughter waking up, bathing, and beginning the process of dressing to enter the more public parts of her home. Textile curator Pamela Long pointed out that while the dressing routine it might seem overwhelming in 2016, for the Tredwell women and others like them of the time, "it was just considered proper, and it wasn't optional — this is what you wore everyday."

What you wore started with the chemise, meant to protect the wearer's skin from everything else she'd put on and is best understood as a precursor to the modern slip. Long drew attention to the lace and pintucks on the edges of the garment, likely sewn by the wearer herself. While wealthy families like the Tredwells might have had itinerant dressmakers visit periodically to keep their fashions updated, underclothes (with the exception of the corset, which could be bought ready-made) were made at home, allowing wearers to add as little or as much detail as they liked to a garment seen by virtually no one. One stocking on display is embossed with the name Adelia E. Tredwell, a cousin of the family. No one, Adelia could be certain, would mistake any other stocking for hers.

Over the chemise went the garment most commonly associated with 19th century underclothes: the corset, laced from the top and bottom to meet in the middle. A woman would need assistance getting into her corset in the morning, but could tighten it herself during the day. While historical corsets are usually imagined in shades of white, Long said they were often a light gray — a precursor, perhaps, to today's nude bra. Over the corset went a corset cover, meant to protect delicate dresses from being snagged by the foundation garments' architecture.

Your sisters might help you lace a corset over a chemise, a servant might fasten the corset cover so that it would remain secure, but for the most part, every layer under a dress would remain entirely unseen by anyone save for the wearer.

And underneath it all were the drawers, a set of pants that split in the middle. Tredwell drawers match the chemise, and it's nice to think of a young Tredwell woman wanting her underthings to match, despite the fact that they'd always be hidden. (The exhibit catalogue notes that drawers are "the most unmentionable of unmentionables," largely because they existed in part to facilitate easy use of a privy or chamberpot.)

Seeing these garments in their natural habitat reinforces how entrenched in daily life they were — unless very ill, women did the full routine every day of the week — and also how intimate they were. Your sisters might help you lace a corset over a chemise, a servant might fasten the corset cover so that it would remain secure, but for the most part, every layer under a dress would remain entirely unseen by anyone save for the wearer. Stepping into the upstairs bedroom where they're displayed, you half-expected someone to rush in and shoo you out for trespassing.

That bedroom is on the museum's third floor, and climbing the stairs to the fourth allows visitors a peek into what would have been living quarters for female servants, young women who arrived from Ireland by the boatload to see work in New York. A servant girl would rise before and retire after her mistress and be on hand to help her dress while wearing a corset of her own. According to Long, servants (and, for that matter, many others whose social and financial status were solidly below the Tredwells) would wear chemises and corsets of their own, and perhaps even a few layers of petticoats — again, because even if you spent twelve hours a day working in a hot kitchen, that was just what you wore.

The Merchant's House isn't a large space relative to others in New York where one might go to learn about the history (or the future) of fashion, but that, and the size of the current exhibit, is what makes it such a pleasure to wander through— it's a quiet, close discovery that invites the thought of hearing the swish of a gown's skirt on the stairs, and smiling at knowing the secrets underneath it.

Unmentionable and Never Seen: Foundations of the 19th Century Woman, is on display through Friday, July 8th, at the Merchant's House Museum at 29 East 4th Street.