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Lingerie And The History Of Underwear
( Orginally published November 1933 )
Part 5 - Undies Remake The World
As early as 1898 merchants in London had advertised pajamas (or, as the Englishman writes it, pyjamas) as a new fashion. In an early form, the Professor remarks, the pajama had its inception, as we have noted, in the ancient East. Pajamas, say the scribes, originated in India, where they mean literally "leg clothes," and were used for centuries untold by both sexes. The earliest known mention of pajamas by a European was made by one Francis Pyrard, a French traveler, held captive in Goa during 1608-1609. He says in his book published in 1610 that the Portuguese in that city always wore cotton trousers when going to bed.
Just when Europeans began to adopt this exotic garment from the Mohammedans as a very comfortable and, especially for feminine wear, engaging attire for sleeping and lounging in a warm climate is not recorded. Mr. George Moore, we know, at some time in his youth was sleeping in "pyjamas"-but not Doris. At any rate, it was not until about 1920 that the boom in pajamas struck this country.
During the summer of 1924, it was reported to a wondering world that pajamas, gay in color and made of costly materials, were being publicly worn at the Lido both by men and woman. Was the pajama vogue mainly a fad? Or was it likely to be a real development in the history of women's dress? In answer to such questions, the Professor relates, by 1923 it was reported by personages "in the trade" that the sale of women's pajamas had decreased during the year before from that of the several years directly preceding. They stated that the sale of pajamas had not appreciably affected the business in nightgowns.
It was explained that pajamas had come to be used extensively for negligee rather than for sleeping. Many industrious souls had found that at home they could work better in them than in ordinary attire. And in certain circles of the younger generation pajamas were called "smoke suits."
During the Victorian era the tea-gown, defined by the dictionaries as "a loose gown for wearing at tea, or during leisure," was in its heyday. It was much worn in America, as well as in England, by women of the (more or less) leisure classes. Those American women who were somewhat prone to affect Anglicisms took up the tea-gown with more cordiality than women of the simon-pure American school.
The tea-gown held its own fairly well until some time early in the century. It was ousted, at least in name, by a revival of an earlier type of house garment termed the negligee. These two garments were practically the same, save that the negligee was slightly more informal. The negligee in turn was to give way more and more, as time passed, to lounging pajamas.
Marjorie thought the tea-gown and the negligee charming mainly because, so clad, she need not wear the corset of tradition. These creations were designed especially to conceal the absence of the heavy corset then otherwise called for by Fashion. In the turbulent times when "smoke suits" for Marjorie came in, it began to look as though the corset, historic mark of her femininity, was through-on its way to join the fabled crinoline. But we are ahead of our story.Marjorie's legs, as we have seen, had been emerging from the sheltered life and coming out more and more into the world. In the day marked by the busk corset, the feather boa, and the boned collar, ladies fired by the new urge toward a free and active life began to appear on tennis courts, with yards of flowing veil but with skirt double-reefed. There was a slightly "Greek note" in fashions-rather clinging garments with a slit skirt. As it is said in the trade, a "hosiery consciousness" naturally developed.
There is a persistent idea in a good deal of writing, in magazines, in newspapers, and even in trade journals, that when hosiery was not intended to be seen, it was worn merely "out of considerations of modesty and comfort." However, we know from our studies that Marjorie gloated over fancy stockings long, long before short skirts were conceivable. As to silk stockings, we recall that they were made long before cotton ones. Just when in America they came to be considered ornamental necessities rather than extravagant luxuries is not easy to determine.
Aristocratic Marjorie of the seventies, whose completely repressed legs often indulged in orgies of color under her skirts, possessed silk stockings. It is probable, however, that she had but one pair, to be worn only on the most special occasions and then laid away in the cedar chest, with the piece of cherished lace her mother had worn at the Inaugural Ball and the real Indian shawl.
Silk stockings were a little more in use in the eighties and nineties, though they still were likely to be spoken of along with orchids and sables. In our story of Marjorie, the Professor reminds us, we have all along had a fashionable woman as our heroine. We should not lose track of the fact that only within perhaps the last couple of decades, has it happened that almost all women have in a general way become fashionable in effect, except in certain European countrics still with a distinct peasant class. This situation is distinctly a modern social phenomenon. Down through the seventies and eighties only a minority of privileged women "followed the fashions." Then it was generally the practical feminine custom to wear a hat until it wore out and to "turn" a good dress and to remake it again and again.
So, according to a history of hosiery bearing the imprimatur of the trade, even at the opening of the present century only one pair of silk stockings per year was sold for every two thousand inhabitants of the United States. Until the fifties, all stockings were of the seamless variety. Seamless stockings, now mainly cotton, are knitted as tubes. About the same diameter throughout, these tubes are pressed into a leg-shaped effect.
Seamed or "full-fashioned" stockings, described as "more flattering to the leg," were supposedly first made in Philadelphia. Now mainly silk, they are knitted flat, with the edges curved by dropping stitches. When the two edges are sewed together at the seam, there is naturally more cubic displacement for a lady's calf than for her ankle. Until the turn of the century only wealthy women indulged in fullfashioned hosiery. Or very wicked women who had no good reason for such costly indulgence of the leg.
It is interesting to note that the stocking in highest fashion today is fundamentally the idea of William Lee. That is, the only kind of stockings he knew how to make were the (till fashioned variety. His genius was unable to see how the needles could knit the yarn in circles to form a round am stocking in one operation, as is done on the seamless machines today. Many of these machines operate about three hundred needles.
And the wooden frame of William Lee, driven by hand and making one stocking at a time, reveals in a crosscut all essential features of the knitting mechanism of the twentyeight section, high-speed, full-fashioned machine of today, with 50,000separate moving parts, turning out as many as twenty-eight stockings every thirty minutes. His machine knitted a flat strip of fabric the length of the human leg. The foot was then added. Today "full-fashioned feet" are knitted on special machines termed "footers." All of Lee's seaming was done by hand.
Just when did cotton stockings cease to be good enough for the poor but honest working girl? Perhaps it was around 1914. At any rate, in the next ten years the output of silk stockings increased enormously. An analogy has been found between the silk stocking and the automobile with respect to "the rise in the American standard of living," to use the phrase which was our slogan during the brave years preceding 1929. "To most of us," as it was put by a lively woman journalist, "silk stockings date only from the time of the first automobile and the time when more than one silk dress a year ceased to be a terrible extravagance." And a man of the business world brackets two industrial rockets-the towering rise of the full-fashioned trade in 1925 and the post-war automobile boom.
The first net stockings appeared in New York stores about 1900. At about the same time the wide lace clocks hitherto on the instep were transferred to the sides. Baskets of flowers, rosettes, and other patterns in variegated colors which had survived from the seventies continued in favor with arisatocratic Marjorie into the present century. Her partiality for fancifully colored legs waned when her skirts began to shorten. At the ankle-length stage, in 1918, when chiffon stockings were in large demand, black was the prevailing color, with gun-metal and brown virtually the only others wanted.
Though the full-fashioned boom began as early as 1914, in 1919 about eighty per cent of the total sale of women's hosiery was seamless, only twenty per cent full-fashioned. Today the proportions are almost reversed.
"Silk stockings made short skirts wearable." So ran a trade slogan of the knee-length skirt era. The light of a pretty leg, its lure enhanced by sheer silk hose, was indeed no longer hid beneath a bushel. But sometime before the arrival of flibbertigibbety drapery which merely skirted the knickered thighs, silk stockings had come to be regarded as essentials by American womankind. The sales records tell the story. These give it that the volume of trade in "cottons" fell heavily away in 1917. Fibre stockings had then come in at a price that competed with cotton. Then, by advances in manufacture, silk hosiery prices dropped to compete with fibre stockings.
Nothing is more fascinating than figures-both feminine and financial. Before the replacement of cotton hose by silk, aristocratic Marjorie had been paying as much as eight dollars and a half for a pair of imported cotton stockings. Cotton hosiery as this price sold well-to women who spent anywhere from $35 to $250 for a pair of silk stockings. Thus reports a famous Fifth Avenue store where the biggest sell. ing price on cottons was eighty-five cents and the lowest price on silk hose two dollars and a quarter.
The most expensive hosiery ever offered for sale, the Professor remarks by the way, was priced at five hundred dollars a pair. Heavy French silk with a wide design in Belgian lace extending from toe to knee-top, it was displayed on Fifth Avenue in 1930. Though it is reported that the business in high-priced hosiery has held its own surprisingly well since the tumbling down of the economic structure, it has grown comparatively scarce during the past decade. The sensuousness of silk is no longer a luxury appropriate only to ladies who are either very wealthy or very wicked, as today there is not a great deal of difference in price between a good pair of cotton stockings and a fairly good pair of silk.
When the American shopgirl, from the hall bedrooms of the Bronx to the humbler homes of Los Angeles, was economizing on lunches or movies to supply herself with silk stockings-an article which she felt she could not choose to take or let alone-in England only about ten per cent of the women wore silk stockings. This was about 1926. Accustomed to this lilting note of the American street scene, men travelers returned from England were known to exclaim over what terrible legs English women had. In France, indeed, it was almost the same. Ninety per cent of the silk hosiery made in France, it was reported, was sold to American women.
Everywhere abroad, only women of the wealthiest and highest class wore silk stockings, unless they were American tourists, possibly stenographers perhaps who had saved up for a trip. A picture in an American newspaper poses the dilemma in this country. A philanthropic gentleman had been caught by the news camera delivering two packages of miscellaneous food and a roasting chicken for Christmas dinner to a needy family. The mother obviously had on silk stockings.
Contrasting with the one pair of silk stockings sold in 1900 for every two thousand inhabitants of the United States, today the productive capacity of American stocking mills is more than a pair a month for every pair of feminine legs in the land. A million stockings a week is the routine production of the plant of just one well-known firm. Silk, artificial silk, wool, cotton, mercerized cotton, rayon, and divers mixtures of these materials are all employed to meet a widely varied demand. But nine out of every ten pairs of women's full-fashioned stockings sold today are pure silk, and three-fourths of the total are of the sheer type.