The final installment of my (almost entirely spurious) argument that development in underwear design has benefited the people of these islands during the past 50 years like nothing else. The speech was originally given in the Spirella Ballroom, Letchworth Garden City, in April 2013.
But then came the sixties. Think about it! For men: soft and roomy boxer-shorts, or if you preferred, cotton jersey jockeys, or some colourful, easy-dry nylon trunks. You could still have your robust y-fronts or your Smedley’s long-johns if you chose, but at least the choice was there. Your foundation was a matter of comfort and convenience, not some ineluctable tradition. For women who didn’t want to burn their bras, everything got lighter, more like a second skin; you could wear bikini briefs, and throw away your girdle without compromising your femininity or, necessarily, your reputation. And things got better and better. One glorious day, tights were invented. Lycra came in the 1970s. When I went inter-railing for a month in 1978, I took 30 pairs of paper knickers with me, and jettisoned them one by one as I went – it was wonderful! Actually that makes me sound like someone in a rather dodgy version of Hansel and Gretel, but you know what I mean.
Now we don’t give our foundation garments a second thought. And there’s the progress. They don’t obstruct us anymore, or preoccupy us – most of us – or impinge on our personal freedom, either physically or morally. Reactionaries will no doubt argue that the self-discipline involved in obstructive underwear was a good thing, and that the permissive age – which would never have been permissive if we’d still been in stays – marked the beginning of the end. But surely modesty is not worth anything if it’s externally imposed? It has to come from within, from the heart. The change in underwear design in the 1960s gave us the latitude to think about moral choices for ourselves. It’s changed us from creatures with an exoskeleton to creatures with a backbone of our own; given us a chance to evolve, to grow up. Whether we’ve all done so is of course a matter for a different debate..
It’s not about eroticism, this. Of course some underwear is designed to be sexy, and provocative, and since the 1960s we’ve perhaps enjoyed the novelty of the thong, the g-string, sheer materials, peepholes and so-on. I don’t particularly want to stray into Anne Summers territory, but I realise some of you will wonder where the sense of progress is in a wonder-bra or a posing pouch. My point is that I’m not talking about special occasions here; I’m talking about everyday life. Maybe I’m being naive, and my everyday life – which doesn’t generally involve wonder-bras and posing-pouches – is different from everyone else’s.
But I think not. Most people’s lives are measured out, like J Alfred Prufrock’s, in coffee-spoons, not cocktail glasses. Comfy briefs, not thongs. That which makes the greatest improvement to the greatest number of people for the greatest amount of time, is progress. If all is well under the surface, we’re able to look outwards, beyond ourselves, advance into the world and do great things. I’m sure the founders of the Spirella Company will be twisting and twanging in their graves at the thought, and the ghosts of all those corsetieres who haunt Letchworth on misty winter evenings will be wailing with indignation, but I beg to move – without chafing or any undue restriction – that the greatest progress of the last 50 years is due to the demise of the corset, the decease of the stay and the girdle, the death of the combination and the pantaloon. Without them, we are free.