Beneath Historic Fashions
Reprinted at Fashion Worlds October 2004 with permission of NPR
By Scott Simon
History's unmentionables come out of the closet in a new calendar from the Costume Society of America called Underwear: Beneath Historic Fashions. The calendar depicts undergarments from the early 18th century to the 1960s.
Some scholars wonder about the place of knickers, bustles and thongs in history, but as calendar editor Sally Queen tells Scott Simon for Weekend Edition Saturday, underwear can tell us much about how people's habits and behaviors change over time. "Clothing is really culture at the most personal level," she says.
For instance, in contemporary society, "many fashions of underwear have become outerwear," she says. This shows how "we are a more open society in what we are wearing." The trend started earlier than most people believe. One shot from the calendar, from the Cowgirls Museum and Hall of Fame, depicts a woman wearing a spangled rhinestone brassiere covered by a sheer blouse. The year: 1950. "I was quite surprised with the date," says Queen.
Undergarments, at least those made for women, have been designed with appearance in mind for six centuries, says Queen, though for most of that time the garments have been meant for an audience of one. Men's underwear has generally been "less interesting and more utilitarian," she says. That's why "the majority of garments in collections are women's clothing… To look at the men's side of underwear is different." One page of the calendar (April) does depict men's undershirts from the 18th and 19th centuries.
Even the English language has been influenced by undergarments. Several popular expressions make reference to underwear: "Loose woman" comes from the connotations associated with uncorseted or loosely corseted women, Queen says. A similar case is "shiftless"; a shift was an 18th century support-providing undergarment, and Queen says the term was meant to characterize someone "without support."
Many people believe that underwear for women has changed as it has because of feminism and changing social attitudes. To a large degree, that's true, Queen says, but there are other factors as well. In the past, undergarments were often designed for their "body-shaping" features. But these days, thanks to the increase in exercise and athleticism among women, "the body has become its own foundation" and women no longer need to rely on cloth and whalebone for this purpose, she says.
"The choice," says Queen, "is do we want to spend three hours a day in the gym to sculpt the body, or do we want to put on a piece of cloth?"