The visible and the non-visible. An inventory of clothes belonging to deceased patients of the Stockholm maternity hospital 1860-1870.
In mid19th century Stockholm pregnant women who lacked a home of their own usually gave birth at state-owned “Allmänna barnbördshuset”, free of cost. As with most maternity hospitals in Europe in the 1860s this public lying-in hospital had a towering mortality rate, mainly caused by outbreaks of puerperal fever.
When patients died, their belongings were returned to their relatives. If not claimed within three months, the rest was sent off to the state orphanage to be distributed among the wet-nurses and girls of that establishment. An inventory used for this distribution, compiled between 1860 and 1870, provides unique information about the dress of working-class city women in the wake of the industrial society.
The inventory shows that the publicly visible dress usually consisted of a skirt, with a jacket, combined with shawls and scarves depending on the season. Dresses were rare compared to skirts. The low number of hats indicates that working-class city women normally still stuck to the headscarf. Among a small number of fashion items appears the bonnet, the “beduin” (a knitted hood with frills) and the “Garibaldi-blouse” (a long shirt with wide sleeves, named after the Italian revolutionary.)
Under the outer skirt women wore one or two more skirts or petticoats. In wintertime, the inner petticoat was occasionally a stubb, a quilted or knitted, tight miniskirt worn for warmth. This item appears more frequently in the inventory at the beginning of the period that at the end, indicating a gradual disappearance of the stubb. The initially small number of drawers listed increases however, suggesting that drawers were gradually replacing the stubb. Nevertheless, women did not normally wear underpants even by the end of the period.
Joan L Severa comments in her book Dressed for the photographer: Ordinary Americans and fashion 1840-1900 the appearance of knickers in women’s dress in the 1860s in the following way: “Pantalettes seem to have been adopted by mature women by the late fifties, perhaps because of the undependability of large hoops [of the crinoline, LÖ] in certain circumstances. … Information on the wearing of this garment is scarce, however, since pantalettes were never a part of fashion discussion as they contributed nothing to the silhouette, though they are included in descriptions of sets of under-clothing” (Severa 1995 p 201). Similar findings are reported by researchers studying British women’s fashion of the same period.
To conclude, the inventory offers evidence about the existence and the type of women’s publicly visible as well as publicly invisible clothing from 1860 to 1870, including underwear, worn in an urban, working-class context. Regarding the non-visible, a majority of the deceased women did not wear underpants, although a growing number began to do so during the period. At the same time the use of the traditional short and warm under-skirt, “stubb”, dwindled. These facts indicate a change of habits concerning below waistline underwear, taking place in Stockholm at the same time as in the United States and in Great Britain, or perhaps slightly later. At the time when visible trousers, so called Bloomers, were highly controversial and were being worn only by a limited number of avant-garde females outside Sweden, working-class women silently started to adopt the habit of wearing trousers, in the shape of drawers, under their skirts.
Stockholm: Axl Books, 2012. 225-243 p.