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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Lingerie And The History Of Underwear

( Orginally published November 1933 )



Chapter 1 - Undies Remake The World
Chapter 2 - Flaming Youth Becomes Dignity Conscious

[Lingerie - Part 1]  [Lingerie - Part 2]  [Lingerie - Part 3]  [Lingerie - Part 4]  [Lingerie - Part 5] 

Part 1 - Flaming Youth Becomes Dignity Conscious

"I didn' miss it till I stopped dancin' an' started fer home," said Miss Linnet Spry, at an early hour today when her mother met her at the edge o' town with another skirt.
-Kim Hubbard.

"New fashions in clothes are almost always a warning of a change of the fashion of behavior for women." Thus observed Miss Jane Cowl in an interview a few years ago. Of course, remarks the Professor, that, in a few words, is pretty much what we have been talking about all along. Who, then, determines what women's behavior will be next season?

Or, in other words, who sets the Fashion? A gentleman eminent in London in the trade-"What must be considered, taking it all in all," he says, "the greatest of all trades"gives his view that "different persons set it at different times." The mystery is "how it unifies, seeing that there are many always producing many different things, only one of which universalizes." He continues: "The cause of this universalization is difficult to trace, and cannot be attributed to any given source. It is not by the consorting of those engaged therein, for they are all working apart, and for themselves."

Indeed, those engaged "therein" frequently misread the inclination of women toward their behavior for the coming season. For instance, a year or so ago certain French designers tried to introduce in dresses a fullness around the hips, with skirt falling narrower below-departing from the ideal of the moment of the figure naturale. It didn't go. Women's wouldn't have it. They had to give up the attempt-these would-be originators of fashions.

A gentleman who has nothing to do with the trade, but approaches the question from the position of a professor of sociology-perhaps, taking it all in all, the greatest of sciences-at the University of Chicago, explained a few years ago that "new styles in clothes are an indication of people's restlessness and desire for new experiences." He added that at that time women were "not ready to be rational in the matter of clothes."

It is interesting to recall that it was regarded as a purely "rational" idea which first gave rise, so to put it, to the modern short skirt. At the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893 a Dress Reform Congress was held. Among the fruits of this revival of an earlier Cause were the Rainy-Day Clubs forthwith organized in many cities, and the popularization of the "Rainy-Day Skirt." This novel garment, completely Clearing the ground, was regarded as very practical in sloppy weather. The alterations in women's behavior, however, were at that time more subtle than sensational. And, though sloppy weather continued to appear, this shortened skirt might have disappeared altogether in favor of the standard length had it not been for the development in women's behavior largely occasioned by the bicycle.

When Marjorie put away her bicycle, perhaps it was a desire for new experiences which brought in the draped betasseled tunics of 1907 and thereabout. Or perhaps it was the decision of a certain number of Grandes Maisons in Paris. Perhaps it was the inscrutable workings of the Life Force. Perhaps, in happy harmony, it was all three. At any rate, feminine legs, after a long period of subjection to concealment, had begun to take their place in the sun. The shortened skirt appeared again, for the first time in the twentieth century, in 1909. However, legs were still a treat up to 1919.

It was not until about 1925 that the American woman of every size, shape, age, and condition hitched her skirt up with startling generosity-and every voting precinct in every American town and city became a silk-stocking ward. It was then that endless feminine voyagers returning home vied with one another to give a notable demonstration of what ship-news cameramen invariably demanded. And the late Flo Ziegfeld, credited with having invented the business of glorifying the American girl and with being the first sponsor of the slim, boyish figure, promoted the Ziegfeld contests for the most beautiful legs in America. Legs had then come so much to rule that, it has been reported, Ziegfeld never looked at the faces of chorus girl applicants but always at their legs, explaining: "It's unnecessary to look at faces. The circumference of the calf is always the same as the circumference of the neck."

Together with the increasing projection of her legs Marjorie, of course, had been changing in architectural effect all over; and, indeed, in what have been called her "fundamental life values" more radically perhaps than ever before. "And how?" Well, among other revolutionary matters in the feminine status, there was what Mrs. Bertrand Russell, in commenting on one Ann Vickers whose career developed during this period, terms "the biological rebellion of women." "Corsets," observes Mr. Amos Parrish, "have been the foundation of the mode for centuries." From the Gay Nineties to the fashion furor of She Done Him Wrong the corset has led a dramatic life. As late as 1905 and 1906 Marjorie continued to have pads of satin fastened into place under her arms and on her hips to accentuate her curves. Her corset, heavily boned, was gripped together by hooks and eyes in the steel busk down the front. A lady of high degree then commissioned her maid to do the lacing that followed, beginning at the back of the waist and traveling up and down until the required proportions had been achieved.

But by 1908 Marjorie's front, at least, had altered considerably. Though hips remained luscious curves, a novel invention signalizing a new ideal of feminine anatomical construction, the "Straight Front" corset, supplanted the stays of historic hourglass design. The bust cut lower than heretofore beneath a bosom still hefty, this steel-boned encasement extended nearly to the knees. With the opulence of curves gradually waning, the long straight line of Marjorie's front, slightly altering from time to time, lingered until the war.

Department of Commerce figures show that for several years prior to 1917 the old boned corset industry maintained a fairly even level around $70,000,000 for its annual value of manufactured products. Temblors do not seem to have hccn noticed in the corset industry until that year. Then the behavior of women changed quite rapidly. The Corsetless Age rode in. Two things had affected Marjorie-the tcmpo of jazz and our entrance into the World War.

The corset department, in the words of the trade, became the "hound dog" in every department store. American women's sacrifice of their stays during the war released 28; 00o tons of steel-"enough to build two battleships." So it has been said by a member of the War Industries Board. Mrs. Nicholas Longworth has been credited with unofficially deciding for her countrywomen that corsets were nonessentials.

Distinguished fashion editors have traced the chic of Modern Marjorie to a movement born of necessity rather than of inspiration-that is, the simplicity and "beauty of movement" imposed by the war. Wars have habitually affected fashions. Cataclysms have had a way of affecting Marjorie's behavior, and as a consequence, in certain historic instances, her underwear.

We read of young ladies of the past with skirts looped up on the left side above the knee with a cameo brooch. One, it is recorded, made a bet that her dress, including trinkets, did not weigh two pounds. She afterwards retired and took off her clothes, which were weighed, and the whole costume turned the scales at a little over a pound. One of these dresses went by the name of the "female savage," and consisted of a gauze chemise over pink fleshings, with golden garters. The "pink fleshings" were no doubt calefons. These young ladies were the Merveilleuses after the French Revolution.

Marjorie's personal participation in the World War was, of course, unprecedented-at any rate, since the time of the Amazons. And beyond question this new experience, on so vast a scale, was most decisive in putting a mark on everything connected with Marjorie's "physical freedom." When not at the theatre of war, women of every degree all over the world played, as never before, an active part in the arena of industry and commerce.

In discarding hampering clothes, inevitably the first article to be abandoned was the old boned corset. And within less than a score of years this feminine heritage of the ages came to seem as gruesome almost as a suit of mediaeval armor.