Chapter Seven: Dress For Undressing

To present themselves as sexually desirable it became expected of women to wear undergarments that fit that image. The Cunningtons maintain that the distinction between underwear as practical garments  and lingerie as seductive underwear developed in the Edwardian era when heavily ruched and decorated petticoats and camisoles deserved to be differentiated from woollen nightgowns and simple underskirts. While this Edwardian lingerie did not display nudity like later underwear designs did, they were erotic garments.

Embroidered Cotton Lawn Corset Cover

Embroidered Cotton Lawn Corset Cover & Split Drawers, c. 1880s-1890s, Great Britain. The Underpinnings Museum. Photography by Tigz Rice.

Date: c. 1880-1890s

Origin: Great Britain

Fabric: Cotton


A corset cover and pair of split drawers in fine cotton lawn with intricate embellishments and lace trims. The corset cover is fitted at the waist, with silk ribbonslot trim at the waist and bustlines allowing a small level of fit adjustability. It fastens with shell buttons and embroidered buttonholes behind a cotton placket. It is profusely embellished, with filet insertion lace appliqué at the neck and bustline and whitework floral embroidery. The back of the corset cover is split at the waistline, presumably to accommodate the additional volume of the fashionable  bustle silhouettes of the period. Such a garment would have ordinarily been worn over a corset to conceal the corset colour and lines from showing through outer garments (corsets were often brightly coloured, and hardware such as busks and petticoats could create unsightly lines through fine fabrics).

Cotton And Bow Lace Appliqué Chemise

Photography by Tigz Rice Studios Cotton Princess-line chemise with lace appliqué and embroidery. The Underpinnnings Museum.

Date:  c. 1910

Origin: United Kingdom

Fabric: Cotton


This Edwardian chemise is made of an extremely fine cotton lawn and would have been worn directly against the skin, underneath a corset. It has been cut with a princess line down to around the mid-thigh, where a band of decorative ribbon-slot embroidery has been inserted. A full skirt has been inserted into the bottom seam of this band. The garment buttons up through the centre back seam as far down as the band of embroidery. There are 5 shell buttons, with hand-worked button holes. The garment would have also fastened with a silk bow at the neckline, through the ribbonslot lace. The centre back seams are encased in a wide cotton lawn binding.

The sex appeal of underwear does not merely arise from sexual suggestiveness or the skilful display of a given body part. Both the Cunningtons and Steele argue for the appeal of the state of undress. Undergarments or ‘undress garments’ are erotic because they prefigure the nude body. Like petticoats or tea-gowns boudoir caps fall into the category of lingerie that is made to be seen, “hover[ing] on the borderline between secret clothing and fashionable dress” (Steele (1985) 208). This ‘state of undress’ is a concept used by dress historians to describe certain styles of undergarments which were purposefully exposed for erotic effect. Anticipating the naked body they hint to sexual intimacy without actually revealing the body. The Manchester Guardian in 1930 reminds readers that “Boudoir caps are worn as a complement to pyjamas and also with tea-gowns” (The Manchester Guardian, 24 Nov, 1930, 6). Accordingly, they belong to the state of ‘undress’ themselves.

Silk Ribbon, Cotton Tulle & Lace Boudoir Headband By Simonettes, c. 1925, USA. The Underpinnings Museum. Photography by Tigz Rice.

Silk Ribbon, Cotton Tulle & Lace Boudoir Headband By Simonettes

Date: c. 1925

Origin: United States

Fabric: Silk ribbon, lace and cotton tulle

Brand: Simonettes


A boudoir headband in fine silk ribbon, silk tulle, machine lace and silk ribbonwork rosettes. The silk ribbons interlock around the head, with a bow embellishing the crown. The centre back of the headband is made of a channel of silk ribbon, which would have originally been elasticated. Sadly due to the age of the garment, the elastic has now perished.

This luxurious boudoir headband would have been worn as a form of decorative lingerie, rather than for the purpose of protecting the hair as with traditional boudoir caps. The ‘cage’ effect of the interlocking silk ribbons would have offered little coverage to the hair. It’s a style that prioritises aesthetic over practicality. The style was patented on 05-12-25.

Ecru Embroidered Tulle Wrap Robe With Purple Silk Sash, c. 1920s. The Underpinnings Museum. Photography by Tigz Rice.

Ecru Embroidered Tulle Wrap Robe With Purple Silk Sash

Date: c. 1920s

Origin: Unknown

Fabric: Embroidered tulle, silk habotai


This robe is made from a base of profusely tambour embroidered tulle, with a repeated motif of flowers, foliage and swirls. The body of the robe is lined with a cream silk and the neckline trimmed with a purple silk habotai. The sleeves are cut in a flutter style, using two layers of unlined embroidered tulle. The robe closes with popper fastenings and a lavish waist tie, made from the same purple silk that the neckline is trimmed with.

Bow Lace Insertion & Ribbonwork Silk Camisole, c. 1920s, USA Photography by Tigz Rice Studios. From The Underpinnings Museum collection.

Bow Lace Insertion & Ribbonwork Silk Camisole

Date:  c. 1920s

Origin: United States

Fabric: Silk


A white silk camisole in a simple rectangular cut, gathered in under the bust with elastic. The top edge of the camisole is trimmed with 3 tiers of cotton Valenciennes-style leavers lace trim. The front of the camisole has profuse embellishment, with lace trim shaped into an appliquéd bow motif with the silk backing cut away. The centre of the bow motif has multi-toned silk ribbonwork in floral motifs. The camisole is sewn with a mix of machine and hand stitching, but appears to have had multiple contemporary alterations.

Tulle & silk boudoir cap with oversized flowers, c. 1920s, USA. The Underpinnings Museum. Photo by Tigz Rice
Tulle & silk boudoir cap with oversized flowers, c. 1920s, USA. The Underpinnings Museum. Photo by Tigz Rice
Tulle & silk boudoir cap with oversized flowers, c. 1920s, USA. The Underpinnings Museum. Photo by Tigz Rice

Tulle & silk boudoir cap with oversized flowers

Date: c. 1920s

Origin: United States

Fabric: Tulle and silk satin

Brand: Custom made


This boudoir cap is created from a crown of pink silk satin, edged with embroidered tulle and a narrow leavers lace scalloped trim. On one side of the cap, three elaborate rosettes are made of pleated silk ribbon in pink and blue. On the other side there is a large poppy made of metallic painted leather.