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Front View, Back View - Underwear In America

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



The first we hear of drawers in relation to America, says the Professor (rising cheerfully on his toes), is in connection with the wife of the second President of the United States. Mrs. John Adams, before her marriage Abigail Smith, daughter of the minister of the Congregational Church at Weymouth, Massachusetts, was sojourning in France, her husband being at that time Minister to Great Britain.

In 1785, Mrs. Adams wrote from Paris of ballet-dancers with gauze petticoats "as perfectly showing their garters and drawers as though no petticoats had been worn." Though Mrs. Adams speaks of these "drawers" thus casually, as a familiar article, they were undoubtedly the calecons of the French stage—opera drawers. Certainly, at this date, there is nothing remotely to suggest that either Mrs. Adams or her correspondent, being both respectable women and shielded by skirts, themselves wore drawers of any kind.

Miss Earle mentions that, a few years before the publication of one of her volumes, a well-known author engaged upon an historical novel wrote her a letter of a single line asking, "What did women wear in the year 1765, from the skin up?" She answered him at some length, to receive a second letter. "You do not speak of drawers." In reply she wrote, "I did not speak of drawers, because they did not wear drawers."

Garments of the drawers family apparently invaded the United States in two forms almost simultaneously—pantalettes and pantaloons. About 1817. We hear of the "innovation of French dress." And also, in this connection, of "much head shaking and prophesying of evil."

But, at that, our Marjories then were not so provincial a lot as you may think. Consider how quickly not a few of them became fine-ladyish with drawers. There were those, indeed, who followed the Empress Eugenie's lead. Eugenie and the ladies who surrounded her indulged extravagantly in stockings, buying pairs of them to harmonize with every gown and, always, of the most exquisite textures. There is evidence that outside of the immediate court circle of the Second Empire, American ladies in Paris had the reputation of buying the most expensive stockings displayed in the shops.

In a book of memoirs of the period the story is told of an American woman who was asked by a certain thrifty marquise why she bought such costly silk stockings—during that particular mode. "With the present fashion in skirts, no one would know whether you wear cotton or silk." "But, chere Madame, I would know!" was the instant reply.

If smart American women got their drawers intact from Paris, or the idea for the pattern, others apparently evolved the notion from mother wit. In other words, among American folk who probably knew little about the French Empress, it would seem that drawers just grew. The Professor tells of a communication in 1887 to an early American paper which gives a quaint and flavorsome account of the matter. The writer of this piece presented the reminiscences of her grandmother. A rough calculation of the respective ages of the paper's correspondent and her grandmother makes the date come about right to tally with that more authoritatively given for the advent of drawers among us.

The grandmother says that when she was a child "no one wore any lower underclothes except stockings." Her simple account continues : "After a while there came a fashion for pantalettes, which consisted simply of a broad ruffle fastened by a tight band just below the knee. Children used to have two sets—white ones for best and yellow nankeen or calico for everyday wear. There was a reason for the fashion for pantalettes, as there is for every decree of fashion. People had begun to think it more sensible to put short dresses on children rather than long gowns reaching below the ankles, and so the extra covering for the limbs was invented."

Then, according to these homely recollections, the route is traced by which drawers struggled into being: "But the presence of a tight band about the leg was objectionable, on account of its discomfort, and the remedy for this led to the next step in the evolution of the present lower garment. To the outside of the broad ruffle was attached the base of a long acute-angled triangle of cloth. This triangle extended up the waist, where it was buttoned to the chemise. This relieved the pressure from the band, but as the support was one-sided, it caused the ruffle to hang unevenly at times. The only remedy for this seemed to be the adoption of the present form, in which the whole of the lower portion of the body is covered."

Though there is not much that can be said concerning the underwear of the women of Colonial America, there are a few points worth turning back to note. For one thing, the Puritans, doubtless some time before those destined for overseas set out for these shores and the planting of a New England, were more interested in intimate luxuries that may commonly be supposed. They had, indeed, a highly decorative fashion in underthings. It was their interesting custom to wear shirts and smocks worked with "holy embroideries," Biblical sentences or figures, which can be traced to a similar custom among the early Christians. A fancy, he adds, which was to be unconsciously echoed in a more worldly strain in an undie far in the future.

Again taking thought of their underwear, our Puritans arrived with large slashes in the sleeves of their outer garments to make plain to all that they wore fine shirts and shifts—those whose worldly status dictated such garments, emblematic of their superior station. Such pride in under-wear before the Lord, however, seems to have been carried to excess, and the Massachusetts Bay Colony made a provision limiting by law the number of slashes to each sleeve and determining the size thereof.

The first lady's nightgown to be found in American history is in the writings of the Father of his Country, if actual nightgown it were. The story of nightgowns abounds in confusions. In 1751 a notice appeared in the London papers which is said to be the first discoverable underwear "ad." A woman of prophetic vision, a certain Mrs. Glasse, announced her purpose to make "bed gowns, night gowns and robe de shambers." Whether these articles were to be made to order and measure or to be sold readymade is not clear. Mrs. Glasse's "night gowns and robe de shambers," however, were probably what are now called dressing gowns and tea gowns, and her "bed gowns" what we now know as nightgowns.

Thus George Washington is readily to be forgiven if he is seemingly somewhat ambiguous in his allusions to women's wear. Among his notes he recorded that Mrs. Washington had sent home "a green sack to get cleaned, or fresh dyed of the same colour." He adds, "Made into a handsome sack again would be her choise, but if the cloth wont afford that, then to be thrown into a genteel night-gown." Sack was a familiar term for a light outdoor wrap, particularly in the South. It was sometimes spelled sacque. A handsome green sack, having outlived its usefulness as such, he says might very likely be relegated to the more humble position of dressing gown; it is scarcely conceivable that it should be converted into what is now meant by the term nightgown.

What were the agencies of Fashion intelligence in our early history? A feature of Colonial life was the itinerant pedler. Both merchant and a sort of slow radio, he trekked from plantation to plantation toting specimens of the latest fashions and, into the bargain, the latest piece of savory gossip. As his pack contained wares to suit all needs and tastes, this picaresque figure was given a welcome by people of every class, from the mistress and master at the hall fire-side to the maids and men in the servants' quarters.

Before long, it may be guessed, another agency was in effect. In 1796 a sister of Dolly Madison received a letter from a friend saying that the other day she had gone to see a doll come from England and "dressed to show the fashions." One of the pleasantest stories in the history of Fashion is that of these "fashion babies." No definite record of the origin of these babies has been found. It would seem that they were no novelty even in the time of Henry VIII, maybe considerably before then. Such dolls were exhibited in Venice at an early date, and they were evidently known early in France, where one called la grande Pandore was exhibited in full -dress at each change of the modes. An-other, la petite Pandore, was in the "politest undress."

These early dressy puppets, sometimes termed "little ladies," were apparently regarded as appropriate gifts for royalty, as it is said one was sent to the Queen of Spain. But it seems that they were not called dolls until the eighteenth century. Even before, when they had inevitably lost their value as harbingers of Fashion, they frequently closed their days consigned to children as simple dolls.

Fashion dolls, life size, dressed in the richest laces, were landed at Dover in 1764. When war had closed English ports an alabaster doll four feet high called the Grand courier de la mode was permitted entrance. But in the war of the First Empire even such "couriers" of the mode were officially regarded as persona non grata, and an Englishwoman of fashion declared that her countrywomen, "deprived of French aid for a whole generation, began to dress badly."

The arrival in New York of dolls communicating the latest foreign fashions presumably from the skin out was advertised in American papers sometimes for weeks on end. And American women going abroad were implored to "send back babies." How long these puppets continued to play their part upon the stage of Fashion remains a question unanswered by history.



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