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The Empress Eugenie, Her Immoral Drawers

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

"Do you know," she said suddenly, "that I have often heard mother say that drawers were not worn by women in England until the sixties; they were brought into fashion by the Empress Eugenie, and were considered immoral."

"How amusing! How amusing!" I answered; "no humour is comparable to unconscious humour. . . . I was only a little boy when the Empress sent her drawers to England, but I remember how ugly they were; they reached to the ankle, a grave error, no doubt," but before we had finished discussing the gravity of this mistake and how it has since been remedied, we had reached our hotel.

This wantonness—reveling in drawers, then a voluptuous novelty—of the Empress whose celebrated hat not long ago caused another furore in fashion, is recounted by no less earnest a student of feminine intimacies that George Moore, in one of the treasures of English literature, Memoirs of My Dead Life. The young woman speaking in the bit of conversation quoted is one Doris, and the passage occurs in the renowned chapter entitled The Lovers of Oreley. They were, Mr. Moore observes, lovers of "the babbling kind."

This book of exquisite artistic candor was published in 1906--in a fabled day when, as a subject of discussion in a "mixed" company, woman's drawers (and allied matters) were not regarded as "pure." Thus, in that epoch, the most sensitive stylist then writing in English was severely expurgated over here. In rather expensive volumes known to the book trade as "importations," My Dead Life was sometimes called for by the furbelowed ladies who drove up to fashion-able bookstores in their victorias, white-breeched footmen with fancy cockades in their shining hats, erect on the box. In these English editions, George Moore was kept in small lots under the counter—as mild-mannered a satyr as ever shocked a seminary, it would seem today.

Wasn't it Maria Edgeworth who first brought real children into fiction? At any rate, there were none in the works of the earlier masters of the English novel, including Jane Austen. The author of Lorna Doone, R. D. Blackmore, is credited with introducing palpable landscape—Nature—into fiction. After this excursion, the Professor says that among the high honors due to Mr. Moore should be extra laurels because he first ushered in the garment then called women's drawers into a work of literary art in the English tongue. To the mind of one whose labors have made him so drawers-conscious as the present historian, that would be a fitting epitaph.

Defoe, no doubt, would have exhibited drawers in his veracious chronicles, but Moll Flanders had none. And (interesting thought!) if George Moore was at all correct in his date, neither had Queen Victoria—at least, for a considerable part of her life.

A hasty calculation shows that "in the sixties," in the phrase of George Moore's Doris, Victoria, then for more than two decades Queen, was in her forties. And, most certainly, she would not have adopted anything held by her countrymen to be immoral, least of all an article of nether underwear; not, indeed, until Time, which remedies all things, had rendered this intimate garment free from all stigma.

Now George Moore, observes the Professor, was beyond dispute a man of letters of the first water. But did a passion for historical accuracy always accompany his artistic integrity? Whether Eugenie sent her drawers to Marjorie in England is a matter to be carefully investigated. But first, we should learn where she got her drawers. Certainly, she didn't invent them.

Early lexicographers give the old meaning of drawers as "embroidered stockings." But that eminently valuable work, Murray's English Dictionary, in defining drawers states that, from a quotation of 1567, the word is apparently a term of "low origin," which has passed into general use.

All early allusions apparently refer to garments, of one sort and another, worn by men. But Pepys in the year 1663, in the month of May, gives several explicit references to Mrs. Pepys wearing drawers. This allusion is very puzzling to several writers on dress who, in addition to familiarity with its literature, have in some cases examined scores, even hundreds, of seventeenth century inventories, without finding any other reference to such articles of women's wear.

References to articles of women's wear so called, however, are to be found, even earlier than this. For instance, our old friend Brantome, back in the sixteenth century, speaks of some such garment "as then lately introduced since the time of Henri II"—probably referring to opera drawers. But this gentleman seems to have had some sort of prejudice against the calecon. This fashion apparently did not long endure in France.

Sir James Murray, after citing his array of antiquarian instances of the use of the word obviously relating to the garment as worn by men, refers to a work issued to 1655 and entitled Nicholas Papers, by one Newbrugh. The quotation follows : "I have sent an Indian gowne and stuff for drawers." The cryptic allusion to Nell Gwynne's "draw'rs" by her friend George, Duke of Buckingham, we have noted.

The Professor strikes his head and suddenly recalls that no less august an authority than the Encyclopaedia Britannica states that "in England" drawers for women were "in occasional use at the Restoration." But whether those were drawers which would have been recognized as such in the Drawers Age to come is not clear. It must always be rembered that, as an English dictionary published in 1706 defines them, early drawers might have been anything "drawn on underneath" or on the "lower parts."

And as we have just observed, in some early instances the word appears to have meant stockings. No woman in 1655 could have sported real drawers. All discoverable evidence induces the assumption that what was here meant was something else—stockings; or calegons, by another lexicographer of a former day confused with drawers; or, possibly, pajamas of some sort. The eighteenth century painter, Goya, in one of the triumphs of his art, La Maja Clothed, shows a Spanish lady with legs encased in gauze garments, which by their looseness suggest pajamas. More likely still, the "Indian gowne" mentioned a moment ago was accompanied by stuff for Turkish trousers. Bad enough!

Another reference, however, is quite explicit on certain points. In 1717 an Englishwoman, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, in a letter to a countess, remarked, "The first part of my dress is a pair of drawers, very full, that reach to my shoes." Was, then, Mr. George Moore, whose attention throughout perhaps three decades had been so much preoccupied with such matters, so woefully ill-informed concerning ladies' drawers and the immorality of their novelty, as to be something like a hundred and fifty years out of the way in his reckoning?

Obviously it is incumbent upon us to straighten out the drawers of a lady of high rank and very lively reputation. Lady Montagu, born eleven years before the close of the seventeenth century, was not the famous eighteenth century blue stocking—"Queen of the Blues." That personage (doubtless never so indecorous as to wear drawers of any sort) was Mrs. Elizabeth Montagu, who rounded out her century. She was the wife of an elderly scholar and highly respectable mathematician thirty years her senior—Edward Montagu, esteemed grandson of the first Earl of Sandwich and a M. P.

The two women lived in different worlds, though Lady Montagu's husband was first cousin of the learned Elizabeth. Both women were celebrated letter writers. To the vivacious Lady Mary Wortley, Alexander Pope first made love and then satirized her as Sappho. And so personable was she that Swift did not disdain to lampoon her. Lady Mary's husband was for a brief period shortly after her marriage Ambassador to Constantinople.

She lived much of her life abroad, giving as her reason, while residing at Venice, that England was "infected with dullness"—that people there had grown so stupid she could not endure their company. Elizabeth Montagu, then twenty, observed, "What she means by insupportable dullness is her husband, for it seems she never intends to come back while he lives." And, Elizabeth adds, "I suppose as she cannot reach Constantinople she will limit her ambition to an intrigue with the Pope or the Doge of Venice." One can readily perceive that Lady Mary Wortley was precisely such a female as would bedeck herself with drawers and, further, flaunt them in confidences to the world.

But, happily for posterity, the colorful Lady Mary had reached Constantinople. Her letters written during her travels in the congenial and voluptuous East, delightful for their wit and felicity and valuable for the light they throw upon the manners and customs of the time, have given her a place in English literature comparable to that of Madame de Sevigne in France. The comparison was modestly suggested by Lady Mary. The point here is that the "drawers" she mentions, "very full, that reach to my shoes," were undoubtedly Turkish ladies' trousers—a totally un-Christian article of raiment which never came to defile the sober land of England.

Glamorous feminine undergarments have right along been a feature of the seductive East. In the early eighteen hundreds "A Lady of Rank" published in London a very pleasant book called the Annals of Fashion, From the Earliest Period to the Present Time, a quaint work "Illustrated with up-wards of two hundred Engravings on wood, By the Most Eminent Artists." The lady who thus sought to veil her distinguished identity was Mary Margaret Stanley Egerton, Countess of Wilton. Among her fragrant chapters is one on the "Toilette in the Mogul Empire."

Here she quotes James Forbes, an early connoisseur of feminine underthings, author of a volume of Oriental memoirs and a correspondent in 1765 of the East India Company. Forbes, she says, gives the following description of the dress of a Mogul lady: "Her drawers of green satin, flowered with gold, were seen under a chemise of transparent gauze, reaching to her slippers, which were richly embroidered." Green satin is not the stuff of true drawers. The leg luxury of this Mogul Marjorie derived from another root-source—the pajama, which had its inception in ancient India.

Such bisected leg habiliments may have been all right for the heathen Orient. The Roman for some time considered it unmanly to wear an undershirt—that is, any garment beneath his tunic. just so, throughout a succession of centuries it was generally felt in Christian lands that nothing could be more unwomanly than for a woman to be seen in any double-barreled leg-covering worn as an outside garment.

Sir John Mandeville in his famous Travels, an itinerary and collection of marvels composed in the fourteenth century, speaks of a strange land where "Alle the women weren Breech, as well as men." Sir John had crossed the sea and traveled through Tartary, Persia, Armenia, Chaldaea, Ethiopia, Amazonia, and India. The marvels Mandeville saw were presumably outer garments such as much later came to be called Oriental trousers.

Until modern times, mention of women in connection with breeches is only in the figurative sense that only by force of character did they wear them. Thus in Plutarch we find, "Terentia, being a most cruel woman and wearing her husband's breeches." Again, in a play by Beaumont and Fletcher it is said. "Let's give our wives the breeches too, for they will have 'em." And in Henry VI Shakspere writes,

That you might still have worne the Petticoat,
And ne'er have stolne the Breech from Lancaster.

An especially sensitive example of the feeling of the over-lord of breeches, or trousers, against the usurpation of his own costume dates from as late as 1865. Speaking of actresses playing parts that required men's clothes, the grieved dramatic critic of the Dublin University Magazine wrote, "We do not profess special admiration of ladies in what are technically termed breech-parts."

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