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Lingerie And The History Of Underwear
( Orginally published November 1933 )
Part 4 - Undies Remake The World
The Professor takes a couple of turns back and forth. Outside of Feminism, the theatre, gymnasiums, and a decorous turn toward outdoor sports, he resumes, an early hint of the world of Modern Marjorie begins to be discernible in the later nineties. An incident seemingly not noted in social histories is that garters could be referred to jokingly. A certain design was regarded as a talisman, at least in various fashionable boarding schools. "Red and yellow, Catch a fellow," there became a slogan. To what extent this may have been a mystical matter, unknown to the "fellow," is a dark secret.
In the middle nineties a decollete inspiration from Paris styles-the "V" neck-was introduced in the traditional muslin, lawn, and cambric lingerie. For some years, however, except for the exposure of bosom permitted by evening dress for very formal occasions, the chest and the back were solidly guarded in public. In the summer of 1907 this precaution against emotional disturbance was flung to the winds, and a shirtwaist termed the "peek-a-boo" suddenly appeared, with perforations permitting meager glimpses of a restricted portion of Marjorie's back. This extreme of daring naturally produced much commotion. To the moral it was immoral and to the ribald it was gorgeously comic.
Marjorie went downtown in her "peek-a-boo" unmindful of the reproofs of the censorious and the jests of the humorous. After all, her shirtwaist was, so to say, something only on the surface. But downtown she saw displayed something truly new-cotton crepe lingerie which did indeed cause her commotion. Could a woman of good reputation wear underwear that was tinted a delicate flesh-pink?
It was about this time that the first pieces of colored underwear appeared in the department stores of New York. It was a spectacle almost as embarrassing as the mere display of lingerie in stores had been to Marjorie of a generation before. For several years, we are assured, only hussies could permit themselves to enjoy the sensuousness of cotton crepe underwear. Matters, however, were moving inexorably toward a change in Marjorie's moral temperature. The peek-a-boo shirtwaist was followed before long by what might be called the peeka-boo skirt. It was first called a "sheath gown." Marjorie's slip, a reflection of her outer dress, was made with split sides, so that she revealed her ankle, and something more, when she walked. As a smart accessory, she carried an umbrella with a high crooked handle and wore an enormous picture hat called the "Merry Widow."
A celebrated cartoonist of that day, Lew Glackens, had a drawing in Puck entitled Bringing in the Sheathes. This depicted a couple of policemen rounding up into a patrol wagon some wearers of the sheath gown whose way of life required a good deal of walking. Thus, remarks the Professor, this innovation of Fashion evidently had questionable implications for those of loose and humorous mind.
Despite, however, the levity of the lewd, from the novelty of the "sheath" was evolved the historic "hobble skirt"-in its extreme forms slashed from a point little below the knee down the front or at the side. This, a more draped and trimmed design, became so universal a fashion that engineering was drafted into its service. A type of streetcar was constructed, popularly called the "hobble-skirt car." The floor sloped toward the entrance at the center, enabling the step to be within a few inches of the ground. Thus, even though almost completely hobbled at the ankles, Marjorie could contrive the feat of getting on and off without upsetting or ripping her skirt asunder. With the slashed variety she could get on and off without exposing herself beyond her intentions. The hobble was in full vogue in 1914.
In its various forms, the hobble prevailed for about six years, and when at length it passed, Marjorie's things underneath were not again to be as they had been before. For one thing, her voluminous dresses of the formidable starched drawers era had begun by 1910 fairly to cling. And for another, hosiery, heretofore strictly underwear, had become a visible feature of her dress.
Just about the time that the underwear lobe of Marjorie's brain had come around to a cotton crepe way of thought, she was again thrown back, so to say, on her moral haunches. The "demi-monde fashion mongers" of Paris, as the Boston lecturers had called them, experimenting with crepe de chine, had discovered that this material could be manufactured at a cost making it available as underwear fabric for women. Then, unwearying in hardihood, the prophetically enterprising manufacturer who had initiated the lingerie business among us put upon the market a long chemise made of white crepe de chine. This epochal event was in 1910.
You will recall, remarks the Professor, that the drawers of some members of the Florodora Sextette were of silk. But, had this fact been generally known! ... My, my, what would not people do who were on the stage! To "go on the stage," it was almost universally believed, was to embrace a life of unimaginable moral laxity. It took several years for American women of conventional domestic environment, brought up on the purity of starch, to succumb to the voluptuousness of silk underwear.
But, Marjorie was aware, if starched drawers were pure to the mind, they were abominably scratchy to the legs. The appeal of silk underwear was insidious. Silk was obviously comfortable, easily washed, and even inexpensive. It became apparent that it wore well. And it certainly provided underwear allowing Marjorie to conform perfectly with the incoming silhouette. Further, this material readily lent itself to effects in trimming which were surprisingly artistic. Marjorie had decided to accept the new dispensation in undergarments.
Manufacturers of silk underwear began to spring up like toadstools throughout the land. At first these garments were made according to the old models. Quantities of material went into a fullness of width. Gradually long sleeves disappered, in union suits ankle-length legs receded, the garments came to clasp the body in a smooth embrace.
Silk underwear supplanted cotton lingerie as a staple com modity. The revolution in Marjorie's underthings was a fait accompli by 1915. That matter settled, Marjorie was ready to accept another daring and voluptuous idea.