Undies Enter Politics
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
See that comely woman in those passionate amethyst draperies. But before we consciously note any detail of her dress, we are struck by the look in her eye. It is...yes—it is a knowing challenge to masculine virility.
Her costume is not altogether dissimilar from that of chiton-clad Marjorie, though she now calls her gown a stola. We are in Imperial Rome. This lady's garment does not differ greatly from the men's toga, but it is more voluminous. And she has added a rather dashing ruffle to the bottom of her dress.
Over her stola Marjorie of ancient Rome has cast a cloak which she calls a gallium. Gold in color, it is of silk imported from Babylonia at exorbitant cost and, with a nap on both sides, is a double-faced fabric. She carries a fan and a parasol. Her hair is elaborately curled and arranged. She, so far as can be discovered, is the first adept of the art of transforming the color of the hair.
Her waist, says the Roman comic poet, Terence, is "straight laced" to make it "well shaped." She is more abundantly jeweled than Greek Marjorie. Indeed, all the precious stones known to mankind are hers for the buying. Though stockingless, she wears what are sometimes described as "fancy boots."
This is obviously a woman of the world, not the housewife of classical Greece.... The matron who did not go out unattended and, indeed, was not expected to go out at all with-out good reason. . . . Who did not receive her husband's guests or take part in his social life. . . . Who was occupied with her domestic duties. . . . Whose function was the sac-red one of maternity—rearing sons who were to become men —Greeks—and daughters who, in turn, were to become the mothers of Greeks.
Roman Marjorie of the earlier and more austere days had rested content in the consciousness of her sterling qualities, and had entertained no desire to cultivate the art of fascination. At least, so say the head-shaking critics of the dashing lady before us. Tacitus, who calls this Marjorie Livia, remarks that she is "more gracious in manners than would have been approved in a woman of the olden time." And a Roman sage declares, with faultless logic, that a lady who wishes to avoid improper advances should merely keep herself free of dirt. But this safe course, he cannot but note, is lamentably far from the conduct of the women of the day. Women, he asserts, go forth to meet temptation, their faces artfully prepared for seductive effect, their bodies barely covered, and their demeanor such that any man feels free to approach them.
With the introduction of slavery the position of women —that is, of certified wives—has become vastly altered. The lady before us has resigned the care of her house, of her children, and of her person to Greek slaves, for they under-stand such matters much better than she does. Her husband, aggressive in practical affairs, has become increasingly powerful in the world. Thus her attention is diverted (to borrow a salty description of her) to the interests of the nouveau riche. What people wear, eat, and drink, the furnishing of their houses, and how much their horses cost—these topics have assumed a new importance. In short, through her restless activity Society has been organized for the first time in Europe.
And Society has ever been the great patron of feminine underwear. This is a point to stress. Wherever Society falls into decay, so does ladies' underwear. Further, it should be noted, the society woman of Imperial Rome is decidedly "fast." That fact is highly important in determining the course of undies.
The fundamental nature of feminine underwear has never been appreciably analyzed, although its psychology is peculiar in itself. If clothing (that is, concealment) was originally cultivated as a stimulus to "sexual selection" or attraction, then the conclusion is unavoidable that the development of feminine underwear had a similar origin. Indeed, it might be said, without straining the evidence, that this department of dress represents an added weapon, of a very subtle nature, in the armory of feminine enticements.
Roman Marjorie, the smart lady of the Empire, is regarded by the elder generation as very "modern." The noble Roman, though fond enough of pleasure himself, is distinctly perturbed by her new course of action. It is difficult to keep a wife every one admires. Of course, if no one admires her, it is hard to live with her, yourself. Thus Seneca aptly expresses the Roman's dilemma.
No longer feeling her place to be in the home, she has a penchant for a career. Such pursuits as architecture, civil administration, and engineering being closed to her, she turns to politics, embracing the branch of that potent art for which she is by nature and instinct eminently qualified. Her domain is neatly suggested by an author, writing of a celebrated lady of a later time, in the phrase "politics among the pillows."
The story of feminine underwear is, among other things, a footnote to the history of changing moral standards and moral types. This phase of our story is very largely its fascination.
Roman dress was naturally a development of Greek costume. Roman Marjorie's stola resembled the Greek Ionic chiton. She had the choice of a brilliant range of colors. Stolae were scarlet, green, yellow, mauve, and amethyst. Over this garment she threw a cloak or palla corresponding to the Roman man's toga or the Grecian woman's himation. Though the fabrics did not differ much from those of the Greeks, they were more elaborate. The outer garments were richly embroidered and, perhaps, set with jewels.
Little is clearly known about Roman Marjorie's underthings. She wore, for one thing, something akin to an undershirt, sometimes simply termed a tunic, and, in a rather offhand way, described as "like that of a man." Again, we are told that she wore an "under tunic" or tunica intima.
The Greek apodesm takes a form termed strophia—"bands of purple to compress the breasts." Purple! Among other articles of Roman Marjorie's intimate wear emerges possibly a new kind of contraption, the castala, described by an imposing French historian as "a kind of corset that held up the bosom." There is, ironically, a coquettish note in the term castala, presumably derived from the Latin castus, meaning chaste, pure, spotless, innocent.
What part color and ornamentation may have played in Roman Marjorie's underthings, we have no means of knowing. That her next-to-the-skin garment was like a man's does not seem to be altogether a convincing conjecture. Her underthings were, of course, few and scant—as they have been at various lively times since then. And at least one commentator—a specialist in the story of underwear, if not eminently a classicist—has surmised that a Roman lady was as "particular about her underclothing as about her other apparel" and that she may have had "underwear to suit her coquettish fancy."
There are two counts on which we may base a pretty fair assumption that during this gay period women's underwear took a jump artistically. First, amorous intrigue was of course Roman Marjorie's specialty. A certain "sexy" note has now and then been deprecated by grave commentators on our own times. Even so, smart society in ancient Rome would doubtless have considered us pretty "slow": nothing at all to write home about—unless, indeed, to describe the amusing simplicity of our current social "freedom."
How Roman Marjorie got that way has been variously analyzed. It was not from frailty of will that she "stooped to folly." She was not of the sort who find "too late that men betray." She was strongly endowed with a certain propensity—and she indulged it very frankly. Her social position, Marjorie of the powerful classes felt, secured her against any seriously uncomfortable effects of criticism.
What came to be described as her boundless licentiousness may have accompanied the great discovery that by heightening her charms she could be a very effective force in her husband's career. And, when she saw what a power she could wield in political and social intrigue, she aspired to a career of her own. She did not so much surrender herself as compel the surrender of her prey. It was, to come to the point, a career that demanded more than had formerly been required in the way of pleasing dishabille.
Thus far we have been speaking only of certified wives. As her new aspirations soared beyond the home, the Roman lady, who had become a woman of the world, saw that she had to compete with other women for her husband's admiration. Even when that rarity—a loyal wife, she perceived that it was her part to be as captivating in mind and person as the accomplished women—many, indeed, of marked ability—who were in effect the night-club hostesses of the time.
We are not implying that these sirens outside the domestic citadel now make their debut in history. Indeed, they probably date back to the time when man evolved the idea of marriage by capture and, consequently, more or less "settled down"—and began to lead a conventional double life. The point is that, in Roman times, it seems, they first made their influence felt on women of accredited society and, probably, on Fashion, including underthings.
There had become established in Rome a sorority, very attractive to the substantial Romans, amounting indeed to an institution. This was chiefly Greek. Thus - its traditions, as we know, were most brilliant. We need hardly be reminded of the hetaerae—Neo-Latin from the Greek hetairos, comrade or companion. So deep was the appreciation of their beauty that, the legend goes, a ship was sent to fetch Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, when one of them became with child. And so accomplished were they that one of them, Aspasia, was the reputed mentor of Socrates.
Let us recall, suggests the Professor, the Greek idea of woman. Her mission as man's companion was definitely twofold. She had two parts to play—quite distinct roles. Those who were to become the mothers of Greeks, carefully chosen, healthy, handsome, and strong, were not destined to make the hours of repose charming, seductive, and tender. Those whose function, as an accomplished writer has said, was "to ravish the eyes, to captivate the souls, and to trouble the hearts of men" formed a sparkling society, brilliant, cultivated, and gracious. Though not the certified wives of men of rank, they lived in an atmosphere of homage where men—great men, artists, philosophers, mighty generals—found relaxation.
Though the hetaerae enjoyed great influence among the Greeks, holding a position seldom occupied by that sisterhood whose sole mission, as James Huneker puts it in Painted Veils, is to "make pleasanter this vale of tears for virile men," their influence was not felt among women generally. The situation was, as we have perceived, otherwise in Rome.
The Roman lady, thoroughly alert to the challenge to her own supremacy, was quite disposed to take a leaf from the book of etiquette of the demi-mondaines, so justly celebrated for the brilliant success of their lures. Is it not logical to surmise that the tunica intima of the Roman lady had a more fetching note than the Greek matron's?
The Professor is reminded that American matrons, interviewed in the course of his studies, confessed that, at that restrained time when fancy undies were first displayed in shop windows, many women were heard remarking that they "wouldn't wear such things"—they'd "feel like a prostitute." The point is simply that what might be called the wanton motif is probably a very old one in the story of feminine underwear.
The Professor then falls into a rather overeloquent rhapsody. It is, he exclaims, too bad . . . it is a grievous lack in the archives of humankind that we have no record of the specific underthings of the "great tempters of the race" all down the line, both those once palpable flesh and those who live only on the immortal page.