Dutiful rummage in the knicker drawer
An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie and Sexuality By Jill Fields University of California Press, 392pp, $ 44
ACCORDING to Jill Fields’s thesis turned learned tome, early fashion adviser Mrs Pritchard, writing in her seminal 1902 book The Cult of Chiffon , declared that women on a limited budget should purchase ‘‘ one really good black frock, and combine beauty with utility’’. She cautioned that while a small amount of lace or jet should also be acquired to dress it up, ‘‘ the black dress must be very beautiful, to be a study in harmony, and, above all, it must never jingle’’.
There are few things less alluring than a woman who jingles. Jingling will ruin a perfect little black dress. For jingling substitute bling and the horror of the modern age is encapsulated because what Mrs Pritchard was really on about was vulgarity; she was simply too well- mannered to say so. Manners seem to have gone the way of the elegant outfit and if the bars and pubs of Australian cities on a Friday night are any guide, vulgarity is the new vulgarity. An Aussie night out is all a- flubber with tipsy girls flaunting muffin tops, belly button winkers and bum cracks a- gogo. Mrs Pritchard would have a fit.
Mrs Pritchard is only part of the passing parade in Fields’s survey, however, which is exhaustive and fascinating within the limitations of her chosen period, from the late 19th century to Dior’s 1947 New Look. And within the limitations of her sturdy, regulation grey serge academic prose style, it must be said. There is little evidence of frivolous pink chiffon here. This tends to make progress dutiful rather than simply pleasurable, although the subtitle should keep most going for a while. The result is more thought and light trained on previously unmentionable items of intimate apparel than even Hugh Hefner could have imagined.
The description itself is of interest: ‘‘ intimate apparel’’ is a delicious phrase that has everything to do with Janet Reger and almost nothing with sensible Cottontails. Not that Janet Reger’s influence on modern undies gets a look- in here, and that’s the real pity of the book. Closing at 1947 means the post- war changes in morals, mores and fabric technology were all just over the horizon. On the other hand, there is much to discover and even more to think about because, as Fields so painstakingly illustrates, through the ages what is and is not perceived as acceptable has been the curse and preoccupation of women from Cleopatra to Pink. Underpinning that preoccupation is one mainly invisible but omnipresent factor: underwear.
Intimate apparel ( a term first heard in the 1920s) is the foundation of the modern female. Quite literally so in the form of foundation garments. These instruments of torture were designed to force bodies into the fashionable and acceptable shape of the hour glass. For decades women, young and old, submitted to being trussed into creaking cages of whalebone and, while their husbands wondered why they became shrewish, had the vapours, fainted regularly and often took the easy option of dying in childbirth.
What we learn from Fields’s research is that when young women began leading more active lives and therefore rebelled against being laced into immobility, the manufacturers fought back with dire warning of what would happen to females if they went about uncorseted.
Reading the text of advertisements — and the language of the early copywriters — reproduced in the book is at once hilarious and horrifying. The huge profits of the corset companies were under threat so they retaliated with predictions of calamitous health outcomes and moral turpitude if women gave up their undergarments.
Money and politics come into intimate apparel more than may be apparent at first. Undies — knickers, pants, panties — for instance, used to be called drawers and were drawn about the nether regions, home- made and crotchless. While you would be right in thinking such an arrangement made things easier for the divine right of husbands to know their wives, it also meant women could attend to bodily functions relatively easily despite the unimaginable encumbrance of petticoats, under- petticoats, slips and various skirts. Again, it was the progress of young women out of the withdrawing room and into the world that meant clothes became more practical and less restrictive. Then, with the advent of divided garments ( trousers, gasp!) undies with a built- in crotch were essential.
That’s when the brassiere came into its own. As feet and legs became commonplace in daily view and the ankle was no longer the erogenous zone, the breast was reinvented and once again became the new black of erotica. Consequently, because they were no longer merely propped above an allencompassing corset, something else was required to present the cleavage for general delectation. And along came the bra. Support and comfort naturally came later.
Looking back over the more recent histories and surveys of women’s fashion, it becomes obvious that underwear — the foundation on which fashion is built — has had scant attention paid to it until Fields came along. The fact is, Freud and co went straight from penis envy to the sexualised ankle without pausing at the garments that underpinned and caused so much female rage and frustration. And why should they? Few men wore corsets and, if they did, it was their choice. Even Roland Barthes’s The Language of Fashion remains fixedly on outerwear.
It would be interesting to know what Fields
makes of the recent blurring of under and outer wear: a generation that has never known the lacy petticoat is suddenly wearing them as outer garments. Is this a sexualisation of a garment or the opposite? What seems clear, however, is that Mrs Pritchard is still spot- on in her instruction to buy something good and make sure it’s black; she could have been talking of underwear and probably was. Just be sure not to jingle. Diana Simmonds is editor of SAM, the University of Sydney alumni magazine.
No jingle belle: Women have been breathing more easily since the demise of the whalebone corset