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Lingerie And The History Of Underwear
( Orginally published November 1933 )
Part 1 - Undies Remake The World
In 1876 one of the oldest department stores now going opened its doors for business. Also on that same brave date, in New York City the pioneer underwear house was established. It started as an experiment about which every solidminded merchant had his doubts. How, it was asked reasonably enough, could you merchandise undergarments for women?
Heretofore those sacrosanct creations had been concealed as far as possible from the coarse gaze of men. Of course, shy reminders of their existence had peeped out at frequent intervals throughout the ages. But a canon of the social law held that it was unholy for the masculine eye to behold the full contours of feminine underclothes.
If, indeed, by chance observers they were sometimes to be seen glaring white in the sun on clotheslines in back yards, it lay upon the conscience of the alien sex to glimpse them (if that experience were unavoidable) only furtively. When of necessity women's underwear was hung on the washline, its disguisement was frequently sought by hanging it upside down. Or it was folded or concealed altogether by being hung under outer clothing. A friend of the Professor's barely approaching the middle years tells him that when he was a lad, his sister used to watch their mother hang out the clothes to make sure that none of her underwear was recognizable. To display these things in a shop! What would Mrs. Grundy say? The founders of the first underwear house began diffidently, venturing no more than twenty models in nightgowns, corset-covers, and chemises, with pillow shams to match. Nothing is said of drawers-the tubular drawers standard throughout the Drawers Age, laundered at home or taken away by an old colored woman to be so stiffened with starch and ironed so solidly flat that ladies remember them by a ripping sound and a queer splitting feel about the legs as they got into them.
When Marjorie first tripped daintily into a store, her billowing skirts dusting the floor, and blushingly communicated to a member of the opposite sex her desire to buy some underwear, she was, as a lively journalist writing on her underthings has said, "a Jeanne d'Arc of Fashion." "I want to look at some drawers." Certainly a decent woman could not have asked that!
In order, the record goes, to tempt the ladies of the seventies into buying their elaborate nightgowns, chemises, and petticoats in department stores, the idea was evolved of substituting saleswomen for male clerks. Gradually the display of underwear in stores came to be looked upon less and less as a thing utterly risque. When women's underwear was first sold across a counter, it ushers in a new world and the evolution of a new type of humankind-the world we know today, populous with business women.
Can any estimate be made of the amount spent annually in the United States today for feminine underwear? The publishers of Women's Wear say $250,000,000. How much is spent annually in the United States on underwear advertising? The same source gives $7,500,000 in newspapers alone. Incalculable, apparently, is the amount expended in magazines; on circulars and booklets; on subway, elevated, street car and 'bus cards; on elaborate, costly, and highly artistic sets continually employed in window displays; and through numerous other agencies of modern publicity. What garment is most advertised? Women's Wear tells us that the garments most sold are silk and muslin underwear.
"There was a time," observed a little trade publication in 1925, "when hosiery and knit underwear manufacturers could figure business a year ahead. That was before the days of frenzied turnover, of telegraphic orders for parcel post shipments-the days before the kaleidoscope of color began to revolve and turn out extravagant new combinations every day. It was before the habitual wearing of silk underwear was considered entirely respectable."
To what extent has the general havoc of the world, which began with the stock market crash in the fall of 1929, affected the business in women's underwear? Well, for one thing, never has there been a time when so many corsets were sold as today. In The New Republic, April 2-7, 1932, Mr. Lee Simonson observes:
A single American industry seems to be flourishing at a rate to make the presidents of cord-tire companies, steel mills and cement works bilious with envy. Strange to say, it is not the production of foolproof airplanes, freewheeling motor cars or any other vehicle of modern freedom, but the fabrication of a form of restraint which our great-grandmothers called stays and our grandmothers referred to as corsets.
Department of Commerce statistics state that in 1929 "the yearly total shot up until it reached in round numbers $80,000,000." In 1931, "the most disastrous year for business generally that modern America has known," it passed that figure, although the exact total is not yet officially available. Hosiery was another commodity that showed no marked diminution in demand throughout 1931, as evidenced by the report of the Department of Commerce, April 9, 1932, on hosiery production.
In 1926 the business in silk stockings registered on the cash register $60,000,000 for the year. These were the figures given by the secretary of the hosiery manufacturers' organization. And in 1929, according to the world's most imposing business magazine, Fortune, the production of "full-fashioned" silk stockings had reached 26,900,000 dozen pairs that is, 322,800,000 pairs of full-fashioned silk stockings, or "eight pairs per annum for each and every U. S. female above ten years of age."
The business in full-fashioned hosiery is devoted almost altogether to the enhancement of women's legs. We have the statement of a professor of economics who is a student of this industry, George William Taylor, that only about five per cent of the men's hosiery produced in this country is of the full-fashioned type.
In addition to American production and despite tariff restrictions, the importation of underthings is on an enormous scale. The markets of the world, the Professor says, are eagerly searched for feminine finery in undies. Chinese embroideries, Syrian lingerie, and underthings from various remote lands flow toward American Marjorie in a steady stream. Industries at divers places, from the island of Madeira to the Philippines, send their entire output to this, the greatest undie market in the world.
For long entirely a household product, when and by what means did the commercial manufacture and sale of women's underwear become a mammoth industry?