Du­ti­ful rum­mage in the knicker drawer

An In­ti­mate Af­fair: Women, Lin­gerie and Sex­u­al­ity By Jill Fields Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 392pp, $ 44

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Diana Sim­monds

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.