Women's underwear, morality and the gender divide
Over the last couple of years, it seems like the convoluted topic of adjusting gender boundaries in the wake of shifting social paradigms is one that we are faced with on an almost regular basis. While it may appear that we are at a major turning point in redefining the ideology behind the construction of gendered identity with new age concepts such as the gender theory and gender fluidity, we are in fact simply repeating history.
The seemingly mundane topic of women’s underwear is in fact inextricably linked with the fascinating discourse of gendered clothing: historically, men wore trousers and women wore dresses. It wasn’t until the 19th Century with the introduction of women’s drawers, an item whose identity and name itself had since then strictly belonged to men, that female underwear became the crux of a social tension which put into question gender boundaries.
Not only; the introduction of what became underwear as we know today came at the same time that Victorian ideology and morals crumbled on their way into the 20th Century, bringing into question fundamental pillars of a traditional society such as women’s propriety, sexuality, freedom, respectability and of course, the power interplay between the sexes. Thus initially, design upheld distinctions in gender: separate sections of oversized cloth joined at the waist band, leaving an open exposing seam that ran from front to back – open crotch for women versus closed for men; decorative openings and frills versus simplicity and practicality, tangibly symbolizing the new struggle between genders.
There are two complementary mainstream explanations for their introduction into mid century Victorian women’s respectable code of dress: that the many layers of petticoats and corsets required an open crotch to facilitate elimination of bodily waste, and that the shift to a closed crotch was the result of changes in outerwear. Although these are perfectly viable, powerful social forces were also at play, which would explain why although closed crotch drawers were increasingly available from the 1870s, open crotch drawers were the select choice for another 40 years, and why, while underwear certainly did follow the shapes of transitional fashions during the 20th century, it did so too in the previous one, adjusting in length and volume in line with that of their skirts – only those adjustments didn’t shake the very fabric that held society in place.
The void in reasoning can be filled by a cultural analysis: in a period of shifting morals where women were increasingly demanding sexual expression and respectability, two forces simultaneously worked the contradiction on either side – consumer culture increasingly commercialized female sexuality while public discourses as well as cultural and medical texts attributed voracious erotic behavior to women of different races in a manner which helped define white middle class female sexual propriety: a sexual appetite was in conflict with the social tenets of status and respectability, a remarkable deterrent when one considers the importance of these characteristics as often the only means for a woman to secure a social standing and financial situation through marriage.
No – the missing link lies in the interplay between drawers’ erotic implications of easily accessible female intimacy and the modesty afforded by concealment of the body, a duo that was quickly becoming the new feminine ideal.
For centuries both men and women wore gender neutral chemises as undergarments, suggesting that the distinction was not required or necessary – or at least, fashionable. It wasn’t until the early 19th century, when industrialization hit and the bourgeois replaced the aristocracy, filtering their society and values through and into the middle class, that considerable gender distinctions in dress took place. The daily lives of men and women were becoming increasingly different, and clothing was a means to represent and enforce this - especially with regards to distinguishing one’s status from other social classes. With industrialization also came increasingly gendered consumption, cementing extravagant fashion, which previously belonged to all, as solely feminine.
Children were not exempt from the reach of divisions: the custom of dressing both genders in small versions of adult clothes eventually gave way to specialized clothing and activities for children due to the introduction of age based distinctions. Here we see the extent to which the construct of ‘social dress’ became fragmented. Little girls were thus among the first people in society to wear drawers, keeping the crotch closed so as to encourage active play and distinguish them from adult women. The transition to the open drawers thus marked her entry into adulthood, with the open crotch physically and symbolically signifying an end to the playing and, very obviously, her new status as a sexual partner, both to herself and to the men in her social circles.
Drawers went from a scandalous affront to morality to a required staple of Victorian dress; the ultimate defender of female modesty the lack of which, ironically, was considered immoral. The tables had turned. Not only, whenever fashion increased the length of drawers such that the symbolically male bifurcated garment was visible from the bottom of women’s petticoats, it caused such a controversy that it caused it to recede out of sight – a clear signal of regulation of gender distinctions.
Fields, Jill. An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie, and Sexuality. Berkeley: U of California, 2007. Print.