19th Century

Witches Britches


Back in October when I did the talk on Steampunk fashions for Aethercon I really wanted to make something to illustrate the introduction of aniline dyes in the late 1850s.

It’s one of the things that has always confused me about Steampunk fashion.  Why do you see so few chemical brights in Steampunk attire, when the discovery of aniline dyes was THE big textile innovation of the Victorian era?

The problem with talking about aniline dyes is well…me.  Or, more precisely, my stash.

I don’t know if you have noticed, but it tends to be on the muted/colours you can achieve with natural dyes side.  The only aniline-accurate colour that I have in any quantity is black, which isn’t very exciting.

So I had a massive search through my ENTIRE stash (this is quite an undertaking), and found the single other piece of fabric in an aniline hue that I own – a 3/4 length kimono jacket in self-striped mauvine-ish satin.

Since I only had a 3/4 length jacket to work with, I was really limited in what I could make.  In a nice way though, it gave me a good excuse to not stress and make something I always need more of: drawers.

I was inspired by later 1890s drawers.  It’s a nice period in drawers: the shape is much more modern, there are some examples of silk drawers and coloured drawers from this period, and aniline purple had a slight resurgence.

The drawers were a breeze to sew up.  I carefully matched the alternating diagonal stripes all along the side seams, and even got a match over the CF seam.  I went to all this effort even though the seams in the original kimono don’t even remotely try to match the stripes, and I had to use some the original seams  in my drawers.

My side-seams are sewn selvedge to selvedge, and my rise seams are flat felled, for maximum strength in vintage satin.


I trimmed the drawers with some gorgeous lace I inherited from Nana.  It’s nylon, and not remotely historically accurate, but the drawers weren’t ever going to be more than an exercise in historical plausibility, and the lace is so pretty!

Madame O wore the drawers with the 1890s corded corset (now hers) for my talk at Aethercon, and looked lovely.

Afterwards, the drawers served double-costume duty.  Historical they may be, but they made perfect Halloween witches britches for a little ‘lounge around and eat Halloween candy while reading my favourite witchy novel’ photoshoot. It was the closest I got to dressing up for Halloween.

It’s really hard to make my house look gloomy and witchy.  I did manage to get my familiar to pose with me with the help of my wand though.  She’ll do anything for that wand!

So what kind of witch would wear these britches?  What to wear under your dresses is obviously an important question if you are a witch.  After all, you need to be able to maintain your dignity and modesty as the wind whips around your broomstick as you fly off to your coven meeting.

Not  Granny Weatherwax  – she’d recommend thick woolen numbers with padded bottoms (broom handles don’t provide a lot of perching surface) and the ability to repel any attempt at her ankle, much less anything higher up.  Nanny Ogg probably went without and took every effort NOT to maintain her dignity and modest in her youth. These would be the type of britches that Magrat longed for.  Or perhaps they would be more Perdita’s style, though I’m sure Agnes never agreed!

And, since it is Thursday, how about a bit of bonus terminology?

Witches britches are actually a thing.  They were a peculiar Antipodean  fad of the 1960s — tight mid-thigh knit knickers with lace trimmed hems (think bike shorts with rows of ruffles or lace at the bottom) meant to be worn under miniskirts and seen when you bent over.  They were apparently part of the historical revivalism in fashion at the time, and were inspired by turn-of-the-century drawers.

You can see a picture and read a bit more about them (the ‘school approved colours’ part is hilarious) here.


  1. I’m confused what’s an aniline dye? Is it particular colours? How do you tell?

    • Aniline dyes are dyes synthesized from coal. They were first discovered in 1856, and became widespread in the early 1860s. There are specific aniline colours – mauveine, aniline green, aniline black, aniline brown, and aniline pink, all of which have had different names over the years. They had the advantage of being cheaper, brighter and more durable than the plant, animal and mineral dyes that were available before them. I believe some aniline dyes are still in use, but in most cases I don’t think you can tell if a fabric is dyed with an aniline dye or a later type of synthetic dye. It’s something I’m still researching.

      • I remember reading about the discovery of mauveine… a very long time ago. It sounded very exciting! 😀
        One thing I am not sure about is that the “aniline” watercolours we used as kids were told to be slightly toxic. ??? – So we were only allowed to use them when we were older kids.

  2. Shell says

    The bike shorts with lacy trim and worn under skirts thing actually came back in the 80’s/90’s, too. I had no idea it had earlier roots.

    • Oh dear, you are dreadful!

      Those were one of my inspiration pieces. I’m still waiting for black and purple striped silk though!

        • Daniel says

          Sorry, it’s a misquote.

          ‘Magrat Garlick, standin’ there bifurcated,’ said Granny, sticking her nose in the air.

          ‘Just so long as she got the young man’s name and address,’ said Nanny Ogg amiably.

  3. Perdita, yes! She would see them in a shop window and nag at Agnes to buy them. They’re very cool.

  4. karenb says

    I had witches britches when I was at primary school. Mine were red with black lace. I remember us girls all showing each other our new witches britches. The phase didnt last long.
    Lace was itchy back in those days and I didn’t think they were very comfortable.
    As for the aniline dyes and steampunk I havn’t come across much ‘correct” information on steampunk clothing choices. it seems to be whatever the individual fancies. I love the colours and textures of today’s fabrics and dont really want to be restricted to fabrics choices and colours that were available back then.
    But having said that I do find it interesting learning about the fabrics,dyes and sewing methods that have developed over the years.

    • Elise says

      There was actually a really interesting documentary on PBS the other night. It talked about how science and history came together in the study of medicine.

      Apparently, had it not been for new chemical garment dyes, we never would have understood the cells we were examining through the new-fangled microscopes! The documentary spent some time describing why the dyes worked.

      It was a British series, and I wonder if I could find it…

      • I’ve heard other mentions of that documentary, and it sounds really good, and I really want to see it, but they haven’t shown it in NZ. Just stupid stuff about conspiracy theories and historical aliens (eyeroll).

    • Thanks for another story about actually wearing them!

      I agree that there isn’t any ‘correct’ Steampunk clothing – that’s the fun thing, it’s fantasy, so you can wear and use what you want, and I think that should be encouraged. However there are some overall trends, and the palette that gets used is usually quite muted and restrained. I think it is interesting to have the discussion about why Steampunk costume is mainly based on darks, brown and natural hues, when the biggest 19th century fabric innovations were bleach and aniline brights. It helps us to understand both Steampunk philosophy and Victorian textiles.

      • I can think of four reasons for the frankly brown palette of steampunk.

        1) It’s roots in the also rather monochrome and Victorian-influenced goth fashions.

        2) The pulling in of military influences (despite Victorian uniforms being rather more colourful than current ones, I think we’re getting the current, or at least WWI colours)

        3) Sepia-tone photography. I might be biased here, but I think this is where a lot of it is coming from. If a film-maker for instance wants to evoke ye-olde-time (even for pre-photograpy periods) what do they reach for first?

        4) The influence of non-textile materials – brass, wood, leather, gunmetal and so forth.

  5. Elise says

    Last post–Please tell Madame O that I would like her red shoes.

  6. Lynne says

    A delightful post! Great photos of you and your familiar and your favourite witch book. 🙂

    “I was there” note. I was in secondary school when witches britches came in. They were such a godsend! It wasn’t just the look. School uniform in winter included black stockings, nasty navy woollen gym tunic, and navy blue cotton interlock (at least fleecy-lined) bloomers. They looked awful. We hated them, and many tucked them up at the legs to pretend they were normal undies. The problem was, that for any girl who wasn’t very, very slim, the gap between the top of the stocking and the bloomers was a very cold and chafed zone. Think school-girls trying not to walk like gunslingers. Witches britches filled the gap! Firmly. And stayed in place. Bliss! I had black ones with black lace – very proper. And school didn’t care, except about the colour – from their point of view, girls were keeping the tops of their legs covered!

    This only lasted for a couple of years, and then panty-hose and heavier bri-nylon tights arrived, and we threw away our suspender belts with glee! I don’t think women my age have shown any enthusiasm for stockings as a retro item.

    • Oh, I was hoping you would come in with some first hand information! I only know from second hand sources, and there isn’t a lot written about them. Interesting to hear what caused the demise of witches britches – that it wasn’t just a fad thing.

      I prefer stockings to tights/pantyhose because those either ride up, or slide down and give you a diaper, plus there are the health issues.

      • Lynne says

        It was the comfort. They didn’t seem to sag, and if they did, they could be rolled at the top. It took us few years to work out the health issue existed, but I think most of us wore bikini type pants under the tights. Cotton gussets arrived quite a bit later. It really wasn’t that we didn’t like witches britches – I hung on to mine for years.

        Riding a bicycle in stockings and a skirt that ended just above the knee was not a comfortable experience! Nor particularly lady-like.

  7. Maria says

    I wore witches britches in the late 1960’s/early 1970’s. Hated them. Really, really hated them.

    Mine were white/cream. With scratchy lace. I’ve always suspected that reason that Mum made us wear them had less to do with the length of our skirts (being less then 8 or so years old we really weren’t wearing short, short skirts) or the weather (winter in Turangi – not warm) but more that Mum is Catholic – so there was that whole “purity” thing going on… (And the comments above about how long they were in fashion plus the colours available I think further backs my conclusions)

    I refuse to wear white/cream/flesh colour underpants to this day

    • Oh, that’s dreadful. I’m so grateful that my parents never forced me to wear anything. Though Mum was slightly disapproving of makeup and heels. Maybe that’s why I like bright red lipstick so much 😉

    • Lynne says

      That’s really interesting, Maria! I can see that the lace would have been very scratchy if you weren’t wearing them over heavy stockings, as we were.

      How what we wore as children colours our choices as adults! I ‘took a scunner’ to stockings, cardigans, and singlets, and swore to myself that I would never have been seen dead in any of them. Now, in my advancing years, I own several singlets and a cardigan! The shame.

      • Maria says

        No heavy stockings – bare legs. Oh I’m cringing as I write this – I can still ‘feel’ the sensation of the lace. 🙂

        I agree that what we didn’t like as children informs what we wear as an adult – I like my underpants to finish at the top of my thigh, not by my knees. On the other hand I also like stockings and stay-ups – never had to wear them as a child so don’t have any issues with them and just find them fun and just that little bit naughty… 🙂

  8. Demented Seamstress says

    I had never heard of witches britches, what a funny sounding name!

    When you’re riding on a broom, up above the clouds with freezing wind blowing up your skirt, undergarments are an important consideration. If I were a witch I would wear wool drawers and stockings and a quilted petticoat. It must be really cold flying on a broomstick in winter. Hmmm, flying goggles and a scarf might be good too.
    Those bright purple drawers are very nice looking. I don’t much like bright colours either, but these work very well with the black.
    I realize that these are the same colour as a rate the dress that I said I didn’t like the colour of, but that was because there was way too much of it in that dress. These are a much smaller piece of purpleness and therefore are not overwhelming.

    Madame O looks fabulous in them. Speaking of which, you promised us pictures of her in the bright green corded corset.
    You look fabulous in them too.

  9. LindaMB says

    My mum had a couple of pairs of ‘witches britches’ when we lived in England in the 60’s, no central heating, and a fire in the winter scorched oneside while the other half of you froze. My Dad called them passion killers :). I unearthed them from the bedding chest and now I have them, not sure what I’ll do with them, but they make me smile.

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