How Victorian Women used the Privy in Multiple Layers of Clothing

When discussing women’s clothing and Victorian hygiene, one question comes up in the minds of many. How did Victorian women use the restroom with multiple layers of clothing? To the modern person, the idea seems impossible, but it was not nearly as complex as it may seem. In fact, the construction of clothing, particularly the undergarments, made a trip to the privy something of a breeze.

Breaking Down the Layers of Clothing

A women in the mid-Victorian era wore several layers of clothing. To start, she would put on a chemise or shift. This was a long, loose-fitting garment that looked similar to a modern day nightgown. Next, come split-crotch drawers, which compare to modern day underwear. At the time, split-crotch drawers were a relatively new garment. For centuries prior, women did not wear drawers. This garment functions exactly as it sounds: it covers the bum and splits down the middle. Soon, we’ll understand why.

Stockings and garters come next. We cannot forget the shoes, of course. The corset follows, providing bust support, a smooth silhouette, and even distribution of the weight of fabric. A chemisette or corset cover may follow. Chemisettes give the appearance of wearing a shirt underneath the outer garment. Corset covers conceal the top line of the corset to smooth out the outer garment. Additional options include false sleeves. The crinoline, or hoop skirt, ties around the waist, followed quickly by a petticoat layered on the top to smooth out the boning. Finally, the outer garment completes the look.

A Trip to the Privy

The key to an easy going experience lies in the split-crotch drawers and skirts. Looking at the layers of clothing, one thing stands out: not a single layer of clothing is blocking the ability to use the restroom. One needs only to lift up the skirts and crinoline and sit on the privy seat. Victorian women would not have to remove any articles of clothing to use the restroom.

But, the crinoline! The huge crinoline! However can one use the restroom with that?

Crinolines are malleable and light weight. Victorian women could easily press them together to pass through doorways, or lift them up to sit on furniture.

When in comes to using the restroom, there are a few options:

Photograph of the Necessary Chair and Chamber Pot
A commode and chamber pot at Wheatland

Option 1:

Let’s start with the commode and chamber pot, or the privy. To use either of these options, a women in the mid-Victorian era would simply lift up her skirts and crinoline at the back. The skirts and crinoline will press up flat against her back. Then, she would sit down. The split-crotch drawers make it easy to do the rest.

Option 2:

Women may also approach the commode from the front. She would simply gather her skirts and crinoline at the front and sit down.

Option 3:

Chamber pots did not always have to sit below a commode. For ease of use, Victorian women could simply hold the chamber pot in their hands, rest a foot on the top of the chair, and hold the chamber pot underneath the skirts.

For those who wish for visual aids (not at all indecent!), Prior Attire demonstrates using the restroom in Victorian clothing. Skip to minute 1:31 and watch through minute 3:18 for mid-century Victorian privy options.

What about Menstruation?

Split crotch drawers would do little in terms of protection during menstruation. Surviving discussions on this topic can be found in medical publications. In an 1852 publication by Charles Delucena Meigs, protection for menstruation came in the form of a T-bandage. A T-bandage was cloth “folded like a cravat” and tied around the hips with a string or ribbon. Meigs also makes note of patients describing how many times they changed out their T-bandage, totaling anywhere from 12-20 changes a day. Other options for lighter days included wearing thicker petticoats for absorption.

Early descriptions of tampons come up in an 1847 publication by Frederick Hollick. These consisted of linen rags, cotton, or sponge with thread sewn into it for extraction purposes.

Putting a Lid on the Matter

When it comes to using the restroom with multiple layers of clothing, Victorian women didn’t struggle as much as the modern viewer might think. One commonality that humans share throughout history is having to go to the bathroom. Because of that, historic clothing, no matter how odd it may seem to the modern eye, will function. When it comes to Victorian women’s clothing, that function came in the form of a split in the right place.

Gaining perspective from the history left behind at Wheatland, Museum Associate Stephanie Celiberti explores the world that James Buchanan inhabited, digging up the intricacies of daily life in the 19th century to better understand the ins-and-outs of those who came before us. By walking in the shoes—quite literally—of the Victorians, she challenges a new understanding of history—one that is tactile and present with our world today. 

From History From The House