Friday, March 28, 2008

Undressing for bed?

Away with silks, away with lawn,
I'll have no scenes or curtains drawn ;

Give me my mistress, as she is,

Dress'd in her nak'd simplicities ;

For as my heart, e'en so mine eye

Is won with flesh, not drapery.

Lovely words from Robert Herrick, but it's quite possible that his naked mistress would have been, by our standards, quite well-dressed:

I drank bohea in Celia’s dressing room:
Warm from her bed, to me alone within.

Her night-gown fastened with a single pin:

Her night-clothes tumbled with resistless grace,

Her bright hair played careless round her face;

Reaching the kettle made her gown unpin,

She wore no waistcoat, and her shift was thin.

Yes, it was quite usual for women in the early eighteenth century to wear some sort of waistcoat as their night attire, and although Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in 1716 doesn't mention it, sexy Celia would almost certainly have been wearing a night cap.

Just to make things even more confusing, according to historical costume expert Cathy Decker, during the Regency period, "Undress" meant simply casual, informal dress. It was also called "dishabille" or "deshabille," the French word for the same type of dress. Another clue is anything "negligently worn" or "à la négligé" is probably either undress or designed to resemble closely undress. Undress is the sort of dress to be worn from early morning to noon or perhaps as late as four or five, depending on the engagements one had. Compared to half dress and full dress, undress was usually more comfortable, more warm, more casual, and much cheaper in cost.

In other words, clothes to slop around in at home, rather than some sexy little nothings for the boudoir.

You begin to suspect that there wasn't a whole lot of the full Monty in the Regency. For one thing, you didn't need to take your clothes off for any sort of sexual contact (drawers were to remain crotchless into the Edwardian period); if you did, you'd then have the problem of lacing oneself back into the stays, which were nearly all back-lacing, unless you'd had the foresight to wear side lacing or front lacing ones.

Where it gets really interesting, of course, is that you would only undress completely in front of your inferiors--your personal servants. So nakedness, or its absence, implied a certain level of power, and we talk quite a lot here about power and power shifts. But nakedness also implies vulnerability and trust. So was there an added frisson here, on the rare occasions when one or both (or all!) participants got their clothes off, that rules were being broken, the social order turned upside down?

What do you think?

10 comments:

Kate Pearce said...

I think that's always been part of the allure for me, the clothing, the glimpses of an ankle or the line of neck and shoulder. I find it terribly hot, much more so than the shove it all in your face attitude of today :) (okay I'm obviously an old fogey)

Jane said...

What a fascinating post. I didn't realize being naked in bed wasn't the norm. Were maids and valets the only people to see naked people?

Anonymous said...

Jane, you temptress....invite me to your budoir and let me see what you wear to bed! I highly doubt it is lawn.....

Thankyou for inviting me. I shall be hanging about this place, a voyeur amongst petticoats and silks. And while I am here, I will share with you, that my mistresses wear only flesh to bed. There's nothing quite like the feel of heated, soft flesh in the middle of the night.

Hugs and kisses,

Lord Albie Craven-Moore
(the randy and naughty mascot for the LIT ladies and their Lust In Time blog)

Jane Lockwood said...

Lord Craven-Moore! What an ... energetic young man you are! I trust, however, that you wear a nightcap to protect yourself from unhealthy night humors.
May I add also that Mr. Lockwood is rarely home before dawn, my nightwatchman frequently sleeps on duty, and my maid is entirely discreet.

Jane Lockwood said...

Jane (other Jane!), people tended to recycle day clothes that also doubled as underwear--shirts for men, shifts for women--if they didn't actually have nightshirts or nightgowns. I guess the theory was it kept the sheets cleaner, because laundering sheets must have been very labor-intensive.
As I wrote the blog I found myself thinking of my 20-something daughter whose messing around the house clothes/pajamas seem to be interchangeable. I quite often myself asking if she's dressed or not; I really can't tell!
Another example I meant to include (and quite honestly I find a little of Cleland's deathless prose goes a long way) is a scene in Fanny Hill in which one of her lovers likes her to take everything off so he can admire her female form; she thinks he's nuts!

Celia May Hart said...

Yes, I don't mind the inaccessbility as an allure -- or even the hot quick tumble where there's no time to remove clothes -- but today's audience wants it all off, though, don't they?

Isn't this a case where we often cede to modern demands in writing historical?

Jane Lockwood said...

Isn't this a case where we often cede to modern demands in writing historical?
It might be interesting to attempt a blending of the historical/modern sensibilities.
One thing I found very interesting about the two poems I quote is how much sexier Lady MWM's poem is than Herrick's. You really feel in the moment, and you can see the falling away of the gown.

Pam Rosenthal said...

I love the post and you're absolutely right, Jane L., about Lady MWM's poem -- she sets quite a standard for kinetic erotic writing.

I also love the painting. Who was the artist?

And seconding your response to Celia's but today's audience wants it all off, though, don't they? (LOL, I can hear your voice, Celia):

Yeah, today's audience does want it all off, but in recognition of the fact that it didn't all come off then, I try to have a lady in a shift somewhere in my pages (in the coming one, The Edge of Impropriety, in a shift in the bathtub (with him in there too)

flchen1 said...

Very interesting, Jane! I do agree with Kate that it's often the hint of what's under that is almost more enticing than the completely bare. Plus, especially in historical times, I'd imagine that traipsing about without clothing would be a lot colder and without central heating, it might be a lot less fun!

Jane Lockwood said...

Pam, I don't know who the artist is--I grabbed it online in a big hurry (just try finding a google image under such terms as undressed, nightgown, going to bed).