Women's Underwear, Morality and the Gender Divide Part II
In Part I I introduced women’s underwear and its tumultuous transition from a scandalous, female invasion into the realm of strictly male attire to a social requisite of modest female dress. I explained how the two mainstream explanations for the widespread acceptance of female underwear for the first time in Centuries only tell half the story, and that powerful social forces centering on an interplay between modesty-concealment, and eroticism-display led to the development of new constructs of the female identity. As usual, when it comes to men and women, there’s always a lot more to it. If you want to catch up, read up on the previous post here.
A series of heavy and uncomfortable versions of an increasingly predominant fashion silhouette in the 1840s raised health and well being concerns for women, and led to the development of the Bloomer Costume, the very first bifurcated dress for women, hot on the heels of the newly adopted bifurcated underwear. The response was its complete rejection by society through its association with the women’s rights movement, its perceived attack on masculinity and rejection of femininity due to its trouser-like design and the propaganda that depicted women in trousers as having a pathological disease or nervous disorder.
Enter the hoop skirt in the mid 1850s: fashions answer to quell the controversy. While its lightweight and rigid metal structure removed the need for layers of petticoats to achieve the sought after bell shape ideal and allowed it to be adopted by women of all social classes, the swing of the skirt recurrently exposed women’s legs, and sometimes even genitals. Paradoxically, the matter of modesty cemented the adoption of drawers together with the crinoline cage into modern day appropriate dress, despite the fact that the open crotch and ease of exposure set a match to widespread male fascination with the semi-concealed focal point of female intimacy.
Frills, embroidery, lace and the other general decorative ornamentation of drawers that followed, facilitated by innovations such as the sewing machine and coloring dyes, were an important milestone in the construction of the identity of modern female underwear, as they were expressly produced and worn with the intent of being seen, revealing the delicate, yet contradictory relationship between concealment and display.
What is interesting to see is that the propagation of decorative, luxurious, and erotic undergarments coincided with a time of increasing emancipatory opportunities for women in educational, physical and intellectual endeavors. In particular, the widespread, yet debated acceptance of female cycling trousers and the modern Edwardian ideological framework that brought frivolity to fashion, acted as the final blow to outmoded Victorian morals, deep into the reign of fashionista King Edward VII.
This radically altered the expression of the interplay between modesty and eroticism which fragmented the female identity into strikingly opposing facets: the athletic Gibson Girl and the progressive New Woman, both marking different yet serious advancements in women’s freedoms and rights, and the Feminine Beauty Ideal, symbolized by frivolous, luxurious and sexually explicit lingerie. This split in meaning, where the pretty cannot coexist with the practical was reinforced through the selection of drawers available: closed crotch drawers and camisole sets covered more of the body, had minimal, geometric-like decoration and plainer, stiffer fabric that just screamed ‘ordinary’ and ‘function’ – whereas open crotch sets were in soft, flimsy fabrics with laces and ribbons, creating a very different set of meanings with sexual access at the foreground. A woman wearing a more covering plain drawer set would probably identify more with its modest features, whereas one with a more revealing, decorative set might be more comfortable with its sexual implications: either way, this classification in itself creates defined identities based on sexuality, or its preferences.
During this time the commercialization of female sexuality was well underway, bringing lingerie to movie screens and department store window displays, resulting in an ironic twist: the modest tradition of presenting the bridal trousseau, a woman’s collection of undergarments and other precious items that would mark her transition into married life, became indecent – a contradiction that marks our society to this day.
The universal acceptance of less bulky, closed underwear brought on by the new 1920s boyish silhouette and World War I cannot be separated from its context of exploding public controversy on women’s rights in an increasing number of hot topics, such as reproduction and sexuality, completely reconfiguring acceptable norms of sexual expressions and the sexual politics behind gender power play.
Namely, to win reproductive rights the campaign was forced to separate the issue of reproduction from recreational sexual activity. Interestingly, this distinction into what was once a single physical act has, in my opinion, led to the diverging general views of sex for reproduction as more mechanical, less fun, and other forms of sex as the more fulfilling manner to express one’s sexuality. Our accompanying “accessories” have grown in much the same ideological expressions: cold, sterile, emotionless medical equipment and processes for reproduction and eclectic, colorful, playful range of erotic toys for recreational sex.
“ Namely, to win reproductive rights the
campaign was forced to separate the issue of reproduction from recreational sexual activity “
The open crotch finally became unacceptable when women leveled the playing field by demanding equal rights in domains once exclusively masculine, and modesty was paradoxically the catalyst that propelled closed drawers into the mainstream.
The tensions occurring from the destabilization in the balance of power in gender politics subsided into a reversal of meanings: the open crotch thus became sexually transgressive and the closed crotch, once attacked from all angles, now became the mark of a respectable woman, in a context of increasing status and changing expressions surrounding women’s sexuality.
Just to make a point out of this, the last ideological framework depicted female ‘passionlessness’ as a necessary attribute of her respectability: this idea muted the open crotch’s scandalous erotic inferences. The open crotch’s association with propriety simply could not make sense in a context where women were learning to appreciate their new found freedom of movement – let alone the more powerful notion that women had a right to, and wanted, sexual expression.
In a way, the universality of the closed crotch is ideologically linked to the first donning of trousers, although the latter occurred first. Ironically (isn’t it funny how that keeps happening), during the war women’s work trousers were sometimes called ‘Bloomers’ to mark them as the feminine counterpart of actual, ‘manly’ trousers – what was once the trigger for anxiety, became what alleviated it when more and more working class women were seen in public in trousers during the war.
As with every coming of the ‘modern,’ the past needs to be identified and understood as outdated in order to highlight its inferiority vis a vis the present we live in. The Victorian era was labeled as prudish, old fashioned and ridiculous in line with the bulky fashions that accompanied it, and the new step ins, closed crotch drawer’s new post war name, were associated with the freer lifestyle enjoyed by pleasure seeking flappers and the new tenets of respectable marital sexuality. This actually helped perpetuate the myth of Victorian prudery, when actually any historian will tell you that they were having much more sex than we are now in our so-called period of sexual liberation.
A review of pop culture in the 30’s, as well as of introductions into the dutiful wife’s lingerie wardrobe at the time, showcase this new world of idealized sexual femininity where the moral wife and the erotic prostitute become both sides of the same coin: sexual excitement and fun were now requisites of a dutiful wife willing to keep her husband, the cornerstone of the modern progressive woman. As Jill Fields astutely states, “ Fortunately, the lingerie shop is a stop on the road to marital bliss that is accessible to all” – now why does that concept sound familiar?
By demanding that sexuality be an openly acknowledged fundamental of the female identity, women had to give up their identity as the moral superior of men, relinquishing in this way a powerful source of domestic power. Why should man listen to the moral wisdom of a woman if she herself succumbs to the same passions as he?
I find it incredible how an item as simple as underwear can become a powerful magnifying glass into the cultural undercurrents of historical societies. When put alongside social and cultural information, the changes in women’s drawers begin to stand out as signifiers of the latent changes that were underway, becoming simultaneously the channel and embodiment itself of social pressures continuously reconfiguring idealized norms of the female identity.
Fashion, and dress can be broken down into a set of meanings, which if deciphered provide invaluable information about the past and how people lived, in turn enlightening our present.
History is interesting because we get to see that things don’t just happen - they take decades and decades, even centuries, to unfold, when the original pioneers of an ideology and their peers are long dead. So, clearly we can’t ask them. We’ll just have to do a shit load or research to hope to avoid the inevitable chain of Chinese whispers that happens when information is passed down generations.
Fields, Jill. An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie, and Sexuality. Berkeley: U of California, 2007. Print.