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Ups And Downs Of Underwear In The Middle Ages

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



"In kirtle alone" the ladies served in hall.

There are various times when, peering intently into the kaleidoscope of history, we see Marjorie very clearly. She arises from her bath, like Venus from the sea, and proceeds to put on her successive articles of clothing one by one, all marked plainly enough for identification. She is a "Living Picture," to use an old-time term of the show business. Or, like the celebrated "strip dancer" of the new burlesque, one by one she takes 'em off before us. In fact, she appears "in person."

At other periods in the personal story of the Eternal Feminine, otherwise our friend Marjorie, we learn of her intimate garments only from rumor and hearsay. Thus, at certain times, our examination of Marjorie's undies has to relinquish the pleasant means of instruction afforded by the sight of Marjorie herself in various stages of dishabille and to accept what the general reader has recently found highly agreeable under the designation of popular scholarship. We are consoled by the fact that, admirable and enthralling as she is while doing her turn, a strip dancer would fail as a whole program.

A loose designation—the Middle Ages, the Professor says.

Without precise landmarks, the designation applies to the historical scene between the tail-end of classical antiquity and the emergence of modern times—set by some scholars at the Renaissance. The costume history of the Middle Ages, states a contemporary authority on dress, comprises the fifth to the sixteenth century.

The Gauls assumed Roman dress with Roman provincial government. And as Roman dress was very much like Greek dress, it was less anachronistic than it may seem when Marjorie, in the early Napoleonic period, reverted to the flowing robes of Greek Marjorie.

England came under Roman influence as the Empire extended itself. And the principal garments of Greek and Roman times, the tunic and the loose cloak, continued to be worn in Western Europe, with modifications, for many centuries. Men, for awhile, got along with a single knee-length tunic. Women, however, wore two tunics.

For light on English garb of these and later days, we go to Dress and Habits—the brisk abbreviation commonly employed in referring to James Strutt's monumental work. By "Habits," this justly revered eighteenth century pundit meant not drinking and such, but attire. The Victorian playwright and antiquary, J. R. Planche, also erected a couple of monuments in the field of costume, among them "A New and Improved Edition" of Strutt, "with Critical and Explanatory Notes."

An author of quite another sort, Mr. W. Somerset Maugham, has recently alluded to the fact (which had been mentioned before) that you can't be both a great writer and a gentleman. "The learned, patient, and industrious" Strutt, as Planche describes him, was much embarrassed by being so much of a gentleman when he came to the "display," as his own words run, of "the prevalent fashions of our ancestors, through every century." Speaking of "The Under-Garment" of the eighth century, the historian observes, "This part of the dress, for which I know not the ancient name, bears no distant resemblance to the longer tunic of the men." His editor, Planche, in a footnote comments as follows:

The tunic was worn by women as well as by men; but there was another garment, entitled the Kyrtle, which, in the will of Wynflaeda, is mentioned amongst the "other linen Web"; and in one place described as white. This would seem to have been an inner or under garment, as it was in the Anglo-Norman times. But in the Saxon word Syrca, translated into the lowland Scotch sark, we surely find evidence of that innermost garment so delicately alluded to by Mr. Strutt.

Now it is not to be presumed that the ladies served in hall in an undershirt alone. Strutt proceeds "to an examination of those garments appropriate to the fair sex, for which I have indisputable evidence." His evidence consists of mediaeval drawings beautifully engraved in his learned quartos. The garment had sleeves, pleated in small folds to the elbow and usually extending to the wrists. It was apparently bound about the waist and reached nearly to the ground, so as frequently to cover the greater part of the feet.

Though of various colors, it was most commonly white and, presumably, of linen. The limners made frequent attempts to give the effect of the limbs "chewing" beneath it. In short, way back in the eighth century is a chemise, though, as we shall see, the ladies had no patent on the name for some time.

It is noted by the Venerable Bede, as a rare instance of humility and self-denial, that Etheldrida, Abbess of Ely, would never wear linen garments, but contented herself with those made of wool. As wearing wool next the skin was enjoined as a penance, without doubt the inner garments (of those, at any rate, who could afford the material) were of linen. The outstanding fact is that the Saxon woman's linen underwear was frequently colored.

This was a precedent quite forgotten in the infant years of the present century. White had then long been regarded as something mystically wedded to women's underwear. So firmly established was this concept of feminine propriety that, when cotton crepe lingerie first "came in" about 1905, the first piece of colored underwear displayed in the New York department stores constituted an event rivaled, in the embarrassment it caused lady customers, only by the great innovation, some years before, of actually exposing lingerie on sales counters.

The early nuns, themselves often the daughters of nobles and everywhere, before the twelfth century, under the presidency of an abbess who was a great lady in close relations with the court, were as fashion-conscious as anybody of the time. A writer of the eighth century gives this account of the dress of the nuns of that day: "A vest of fine linen of a violet colour is worn, above it a scarlet tunic with a hood, sleeves striped with silk and trimmed with red fur; the locks on the forehead and the temples are curled with a crisping-iron." So! A violet vest of fine linen, worn under a tunic. .

Prehistoric Marjorie's papa had made awkward attempts to cover the legs. In efforts to protect his shins and to add to the warmth of his whole body in foul weather and while performing dirty work, he employed dried skin, bark, grass, and anything else handy. As his wits improved, he naturally contrived a better type of legwear.

Of course, there were some races with no stocking urge at all—for instance, the Greeks and Romans, even after they had acquired quite nifty sandals. The Gauls, as we have seen, protected their legs with breeches. The chief innovation of mediaeval times was the tight hose enveloping the legs, termed chausses by the Normans. The word hose is Anglo-Saxon and means the entire covering of the leg—nothing less, nothing more. Trousers, breeches, stockings, hose—these various terms, at different times, meant pretty much the same piece of clothing. The Normans early used the Saxon name for the long hose with feet worn for five or six centuries. Old representations show men of both nations wearing short stockings and socks in addition. Whence Planche presumes, the "hose" were of leatherskin-hose.

It would appear that the familiar word stocking did not present itself until the sixteenth century, and then we find it as a term used for "stocking of hose"—continuations added to the trunk hose or breeches of that period. These continuations were called "nether-stocks," the breeches in turn being distinguished by the designation of "upper-stocks."

However, despite the late appearance of the term, Strutt observes, with his ancient illuminations before him, "There is nothing more certain than that stockings were in use among the Anglo-Saxons as far back as the eighth century; but it will not be an easy task to discover the materials of which they were composed." Proceeding to the dress of the women, he continues:

The undergarment of the women, as they are usually delineated by the Saxon artists, covered the greater part of the feet; we cannot, therefore, of course, expect to find any representation of stockings; neither is history more favourable with respect to information upon the subject; yet, I trust, it will be readily granted that the women would not appear with their legs uncovered, when a contrary example had been set them by the men, even supposing it was for the sake of decency only, and that the ideas of comfort and convenience were totally absented from the question.

At any rate, bare legs went completely out of fashion in the Middle Ages. Throughout Europe men and women who could afford them wore primitive stockings of woven fabric. These articles were not porous, probably not comfortable, certainly not sanitary. However, on the legs of the great and affluent in the thirteenth century, they were luxuriously ornamented, as is shown by Henry III's order for three pair embroidered with gold for his sister Isabella. Sometimes they were of velvet. By this time the term hose designated both men's and women's. The hose of the humbler classes were made, as it is said, of "blanket." Skelton, poet laureate to Henry VII, has left us a humorous description of the person and "habit" of one Elynor Rumming, a noted "hostess" otherwise, female publican—of his time. In this are the following lines:

She hobbles as she goes,
With her blanket hose,
Her shoone smear'd with tallow.

We have definite pictorial evidence that a woman's stocking of this period was in form a stocking and not some other kind of "hose." In one of these, temp. Edwardi Secundi, the lady's exposed leg is woefully uninviting. One cannot but reflect upon the enormous contrast in sex appeal presented by the illuminators who, from Coles Phillips onward, have applied their high talents to such scenes in our own appreciative time.

There is other evidence, however, that a fourteenth century dame could be conspicuous enough in her stocking display. Consider the Wife of Bath whom Chaucer has drawn, says Strutt, as "a bold shameless woman, whose chief occupation was gossiping and rambling about in pursuit of the fashion-able diversions." She had accomplishments; among them, she possessed the art of making fine cloth. In the Prologue to her Tale we learn that upon holidays she was accustomed to wear gay scarlet gowns. Further, that:

Hire hosen weren of fine skarlet redde,
Ful straite y-teyed.

Just how Marjorie's stockings were tied nobody knows. The gravest of men cannot give the earliest date for garters. The word has a ponderous etymology. In brief, it is from the French jarret—the "ham" of the leg, as it is sometimes rendered; or, again, the small of the leg behind the knee. A "tie" is one definition. Very probably, when Marjorie began to experiment with it, her garter was not unlike a necktie. The German of it schliefchen-means little ribbon.

Originally the garter was simply a bandage which confined the hose of Saxons and Normans, like the clove hitch employed by the Scot with his woven band today. Later, long before rubber, it became a sash of silk. In the insignia of the Most Noble Order it appeared, as we have noted, with a buckle of gold. Though the illuminators and makers of monumental effigies of the Middle Ages do not represent Marjorie's garters, there is no doubt that she wore them, designed according to the changing fashions and her station.



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