Freedom, Tyranny & Corsets pt II

Here’s the middle section of my farewell to fussy foundation garments. This whole thing hardly does my reputation as a serious historian any good (such as it is) – but it was such fun to write and deliver.

Let’s put this in perspective a bit. Underwear didn’t really exist before the 19th century, unless you count the codpiece, and that was more a matter of apparatus than anything else. Men’s breeches were often lined, for the sake of warmth as much as modesty, but under their gowns and bodices, women were fairly free-range, apart from a chemise. When crinolines came into fashion, with their wide and unforgiving hoops, so did pantaloons. This was pragmatically due to a number of mortifying wardrobe malfunctions involving ladies falling over and their skirts behaving like rigid funnels or satellite dishes, exposing their defenceless little legs and nether regions like an upturned insect’s. The passion for pantaloons was quite uncontrollable, actually – soon tables were wearing them, grand pianos, pet pugs. Amelia Bloomer debuted her enclosed pantaloons in 1851 – until then they tended to be open-crotched – and by then knickers were here to stay, slightly less voluminous with the passing of each decade.

For the Victorians, of course, who liked imposing things on people, underwear was all to do with control, and moral fibre. The whale-bones in a woman’s stays spoke of a disciplined, upright nature. Leave your stays off, and you would slob into moral degeneracy as well as physical flabbiness. Men wore corsets and girdles, too; a nice firm back and tightly-controlled stomach were the southerly reflections of that most essential of masculine attributes, the stiff upper lip. No-one ever built an Empire in skimpy underwear. Except the Romans. And the Greeks.

Personally, though, underwear could be dangerous, and terribly obstructive.  Especially for Edwardian women, who felt compelled to have themselves laced so severely that their ribs splintered, and their babies miscarried. Even in the 1920s, when waists were abolished, they bound their chests to nothingness. In the 1930s, getting dressed and undressed was tediously time-consuming. You coffered your breasts in a sort of fabric bosom-cupboard; enveloped yourself in your dreary knickers from thigh to waist; wriggled into your elaborate Spirella corset, coaxed intransigent stockings up your legs, and clipped the tops into your slightly knobbly suspenders. It took so much time and effort, and added inches, and unsightly bulges and corners, to the silhouette.

The fifties were better, but this was a grim decade. Everyone was supposed to conform to the perfect family image of hand-knitted wholesomeness; women were supposed to be all perky and neat, so underneath her full skirt with its nipped-in waist, or her turtle-necked sweater and slacks, a lady’s closest friends were her roll-on and her highly-structured brassiere. Image was so important in the fifties, and you have to concentrate very hard if you’re rigidly maintaining a ‘look’. I defy anyone to relax and think about things that really matter, while the lower half of their torso is gripped in an elastic sort of surgical stocking thing, and their top half architecturally cantilevered with steel ribs and multiple rows of metal hooks and eyes.

[One more installment to go]

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One thought on “Freedom, Tyranny & Corsets pt II

  1. Personally, I think you can’t call yourself a serious historian UNTIL you know about underwear! I can’t picture open- crotched pantaloons (and of course, I daren’t google image them). Is this a failure of imagination on my part?

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