In the nineteenth century, nice girls wore crotchless panties.
Women only began wearing ‘underwear’ around the beginning of the 1800s. Although they were long, modest and uniformly white, these ‘drawers’ were designed with an open slit at the intersection of the thighs. Every nineteenth century heroine you’ve encountered in a second-hand paperback—Anna Karenina, Jane Eyre, Madame Bovary, Queen Victoria—all those headstrong, lovesick women sipping tea in drawing rooms had nothing between their legs under all their skirts.
Throughout the nineteenth century, little girls wore closed crotch knickers—all the better for running, skipping and climbing trees—but once they reached sexual maturity they transitioned to open-crotch drawers. The opening was worn for a range of reasons, including the easy access point it gave a lady’s husband, the alleged health benefits of having air circulating down below, and, undoubtedly, because it made it easier to pee. But as the twentieth century dawned, as women demanded their economic and political autonomy, as their skirts became shorter and narrower and they began to stress that female sexuality wasn’t a mythology whispered about in erotic novels, closed-crotch underwear became more popular.
Seamed ‘step-in’s’ were pretty and practical; they were for girls who wanted to work and march in protests, dance till dawn and lose their latchkeys in the backseat of a car in a giddy tussle at the end of the night. By the 1930s, open-crotch drawers were a dated souvenir of Victorian grandmothers, and crotchless panties transitioned from a commonplace piece of clothing worn by nice girls to a symbol of girls with dubious reputations, because women’s attempts to structure their lives and bodies according to their own desires shaped, and continues to shape, the design and consumption of what they wear next to their skin.
Fashion has a unique way of locating debates about politics, economics and culture directly on the human body – particularly women’s bodies. Fashion symbolises and constructs our relationships to institutions of power and culture, gender and economics, while also taking hold of the popular imaginary in a way the rest of the design world has reason to envy. The language of fashion accounts for the ways mass culture is transformed into personal experience; it helps us articulate who we are, or slip in and out of versions of who we want to be. Yet it’s so easy for people to dismiss it, to write off skirts and hats and knickers as the fairy floss of a moribund materialist culture. Underwear in particular is something so wildly commonplace you never bother to contemplate its meanings as you absentmindedly slip into it in the mornings. Yet it is something that has a profound impact on how bodies are made feminine and how the prevailing ideas of how a person should be, of how a woman should be, are used to physically shape the body when we are clothed, but not dressed.
When I was a little girl I had three separate dress-up boxes – one at my mother’s house, one at my father’s, and one at my grandparents’. I was an only child with divorced parents. My school reports described me as ‘clever’ and ‘imaginative’. I spent a lot of time wandering around spinning out complex and fantastical daydreams. I was a wood sprite, I was an explorer, I was fleeing the Nazi’s on a Paris-bound train with a false passport and a pistol concealed beneath my beret. The stories were more refined when I was wearing a Turkish kaftan of my aunts, or a patched suit jacket, or a gown of silk scarves and torn petticoats discarded by my grandmother. These scraps of fabric helped me articulate my stories; they gave weight to my daydreams.
Now that my childhood dress-up boxes have faded into the middle distance of my early twenties no form of clothing holds as much magic for me as underwear. I’m more comfortable wearing underwear than anything else. It doesn’t matter if anybody sees me or not. If I’m alone in the house, I’ll wear tights and slips and lace bras. I feel most comfortable in my own skin when I’m wearing very little at all.
Fashion allows us to embody our desires, buy our identities. It is the consumer product most enmeshed in our performance of everyday life. Jill Fields, in her book An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie and Sexuality, makes the argument that the history of women’s underwear “reveals how women’s struggles for self-definition interact with resistant social forces to reconfigure gender distinctions.” The body in underwear is at once private and sexualised, as well as instrumental in shaping the silhouette according to whatever standard of femininity is considered ideal at the time. Every morning when you put on knickers (or don’t), you interact with hundreds of years of ideas and cultural debate by slipping your limbs into a small piece of cloth.
We like to think we’ve shed the history of our grandparents. The women’s movement made a pair of lacy closed-crotch step-in’s symbolic of sexual and carefree modern girls. Our grandmother’s spoke about the bras they didn’t burn but wish they had. The ethereal schoolgirls in Picnic at Hanging Rock cast off their corsets before dancing barefoot, letting lizards writhe across their naked ankles and disappearing behind a sinister granite boulder, never to be seen again.
Corsets have become a tired cliché of women’s oppression by the fashion industry. They cinched the waist, giving the illusion of prodigious hips when prodigious hips were fashionable; they smoothed and ‘corrected’ any perceived flaws in the female form. But people were genuinely convinced women needed corsets and that the corset was both a medically sound and socially responsible thing to wear.
Havelock Ellis, a British physician, social reformer and early supporter of evolution, was regularly cited when the inadequacy of female anatomy was publically discussed. Ellis calmly explained that women required corseting because the evolutionary transition from crawling to standing up straight was more difficult for them. “Women might be physiologically truer to herself if she went always on all fours,” Ellis wrote in 1910 when he published An Anatomical Vindication of the Straight Front Corset. “It is because the fall of the viscera in women when she imitated man by standing erect induced such profound physiological displacements…that the corset is morphologically essential.” By way of example, corset manufacturers routinely pointed to Native American women as evidence of the female form’s need of a corset. The idea being that when the body is left to develop ‘wildly’ the waist thickens, the breasts drop, and what once was ‘beautiful’ becomes ‘grotesque’.
We may have shed our corsets generations ago, but we inherited the symbolic restraint of whale-boning. I remember watching my grandmother getting changed. She was a woman who’d grown up poor, who told strangers she lived in the harbour-side suburb of Vaucluse when in reality she lived in a former Housing Commission semi on one of the busiest streets in Sydney. Her favourite place on earth was David Jones. When she looked after me she would dress me up with a beautiful bow in my haphazard curls. We would catch a bus down Elizabeth Street to the elaborate doors of the perfume hall, and she would buy things. I would sit in the David Jones changing rooms with her, patient because I had been promised a chocolate milkshake, watching her struggle out of layers and layers of cream nylon petticoats and beige tights, to the thick, medical-looking elastic girdle holding in her stomach. Her excess would spill out over the top when she bent too far in any direction. Her soft flesh was overprinted with straps and seams and buckles. When she extricated herself from the thing she sighed because she could finally breathe. The mediation of the female body the corset industry imposed at the turn of the twentieth century turned into the necessity of the girdle in my grandmother’s generation. Shape and meanings change, but the legacies remain.
The last day I went outside without wearing a bra, I was ten years old. I was in Grade Five and standing in line for the canteen at recess. A girl named Lyle from the year above turned, looked me up and down, and sneered, “You know you really need to wear a bra. I can see everything.” I held my arms across my chest for the rest of the day and refused to go anywhere near the monkey bars in fear of something bouncing. I was afraid of an unruliness located on my chest over which I had absolutely no control.
That happened around the same time my father took me to see Vertigo on a Saturday night at the Sun Theatre in Yarraville. Vertigo is an Alfred Hitchcock romance, with Jimmy Stewart paid to pursue Kim Novak, the ethereal blonde he gradually falls in love with from afar. There’s much more to the story than that, but the character that I was most interested in was Midge, Jimmy Stewart’s sensible blonde friend sidelined into a supporting role by her black-frame glasses. She doesn’t appear in the film for long, but in the second scene we get to see Midge in her apartment, the walls a collage of her drawings and paintings. While Jimmy Stewart balances on step ladders in front of a window overlooking San Francisco, Midge works on a sketch for a ‘revolutionary uplift’ bra, with no straps or back, designed “on the principle of the cantilevered bridge.” After watching that film the experiences converged and I began to think about lingerie as architecture of the body. It was a necessary instrument in helping construct a woman from out of the disparate elements that made up the girl.
Underwear takes the body and embellishes upon what occurs naturally, according to an ideal form. And it standardises. Adorno speaks about pseudo-individualisation – the process wherein mass production is given the guise of free choice, making what is a standardised product come to feel individual, a completely unique object that you, and only you, were clever and discerning enough to pick for yourself. That process has become entrenched in the production of lingerie. Standardised sizes of bras, for instance, only came about in the 1930s, but our tendency is to speak about cup sizes as long-entrenched measurements, like they were so many inches and acres. My cup size has become a component of my identity, something I can tell tongue-tied new boyfriends in the first few weeks of being undressed together. But it means nothing. It’s the incorporation of my own body into a structure of standardisation, into the recognisable and regulated architectural forms of the female body.
But simply because we inherit a legacy of constraint, of standardisation, doesn’t mean that you can’t take the regulated architecture and break it apart until the rooms look and feel exactly the way you want them to. Meaning leaps between body and object, and object and body, and back again.
The muddling of meaning between material and body has made women’s underwear an incredibly powerful sexual object, in and of itself. Lingerie gives femininity form. It lies close to the skin, next to the most sexual parts of the anatomy. It puts the body in an ambiguous state, a no-man’s-land between clothed and dressed. It is the last step before naked, revealing just enough to suggest that beneath the lace and straps and ribbons might be something wonderful beyond comprehension. The airborne, ethereal materials used to make it both deny the body and frame it, creating the illusion of softness and sensuality and feminine mystery. Fashion houses know this, and for decades they have sold us back our fantasy. Those “metaphors of magic”, as Jill Fields calls them, were particularly dominant in post-war lingerie advertising. The best known of these were the “dream campaigns” used to advertise Maidenform, where a semi-clothed woman daydreams of walking a tightrope, or smiling for Europe, or transforming herself into Cleopatra, dreams facilitated entirely by her Maidenform bra. Maidenform sold the seduction of being looked at, yes, but it also sold women the ability to re-shape the architecture they inherited.
It’s important not to reduce how women see their own bodies to a parade of airbrushed magazine images and culturally prescribed rules and restrictions, against which we’re always struggling and seeing ourselves as deficient. The gaze is always multiple, always shifting and contested, and there are a myriad layers of viewing involved when you look at yourself. When I look at myself in a mirror what I see is an image formed in the prism of the fantasies freewheeling in my mind, a patchwork of lingering glances, photographs, recollections, neuroses. The memory of what I was thinking and feeling the last time I wore something—an ex-boyfriend’s comment, the way the light leapt off my skin as I emerged from the house in a new dress, or a scruffy looking stranger telling me I was “smoking hot” as I stood in line at a bar—are far more important to the way I perceive myself and my femininity. Women consider their bodies in terms of what they aspire to look like. That might be refracted through cultural ideals, but it is never those things alone.
Arguably, there was a kind of shift that took place around the 1970s, when we entered what Barbara Vinken calls the age of ‘post-fashion’. Her argument in Fashion Zeitgeist: Trends and Cycles in the Fashion System, is that in the 1970s, “the fashion designer loses his absolute power” and “fashion becomes a co-production between the creator and those who wear the clothes.” This is an era in which fashion has become performance, where designers have collaborated with people on the streets and begun to dismantle and deconstruct the original ideals of femininity, the fetishisation of what it meant to be a woman.
A few years ago a fashion blog called The Man Repeller got international press coverage for representing that same deconstruction of femininity. Run by New Yorker Leandra Medine, the blog is focused on clothing adored by women and designers, but which frequently confuses or at worse repulses the ‘average man’. The blog defines the act of ‘manrepelling’ as “outfitting oneself in a sartorially offensive mode that may result in repelling members of the opposite sex. Such garments include but are not limited to harem pants, boyfriend jeans, overalls, shoulder pads, full length jumpsuits, jewellery that resembles violent weaponry and clogs.” In 2010 The New York Times ran a piece on Medine, in which her mum—interjecting as she ran out the door to yoga—observes that Medine “is relating fashion to feminism. She is saying women dress for themselves.“
What we wear isn’t dictated by the design establishment anymore. Fashion’s stage is no longer the opera or the races or the ballrooms of the aristocracy, but the streets. It’s for that reason that the most powerful people in the fashion world today are bloggers, people sitting in their bedrooms assembling a visual identity out of a jumble of eras, ideas and trends that momentarily catch their eye. Deyan Sudjic, the Director of the Design Museum in London, writes thatobjects “are what we use to define ourselves, to signal who we are, and who we are not” and “design has become the language with which to shape those objects and to tailor the messages that they carry.” Yes, fashion is about gender construction, and dressing for other people to see you, but fashion has also become the zeitgeist in visible form. It has come to life, in a way, as an embodiment of the discourse on what it means to be alive right now. We tell stories about ourselves through the clothes we wear.
If you’re a woman, underwear is the medium through which you can begin to construct your femininity, your desires, the first kind of sense of your sexual self. You can begin to figure out how you might want to look, and how you want to be, how you fit into the architecture of womanhood. And you can do it in private. It’s the closest thing you find, as an adult, to the dress up boxes of your childhood. You can piece things together from the chaos of history and economics and art and philosophy. You can tell yourself stories about beauty and desire and about who you might be, in the same way you once told yourself you were a gypsy or a soldier or a hedgehog. And you translate those things into a language entirely particular to you. You imagine, for perhaps only a matter of moments, being somebody else, or a different version of yourself, as though the life of another person is a place you can travel to.
My favourite piece of clothing is a pale blue slip I bought one summer in Berlin. It was made some time during the 1960s, when slips were still something women wore every day, to give femininity form. Slips would lie next to the skin, where nobody saw them, but gave shape to what everybody saw. My grandmother wore slips into her old age. While I don’t wear slips the way my grandmother wore them, to hold and shape the unruliness of my body, when I wear my blue Berlin slip, I’m happy. I feel nearer some version of myself which makes me safer in my own skin. It’s a private play-acting. It is an imaginative leap from one version of myself to another, a way of telling myself a story and trying on different versions of myself. Slipping in, slipping out.
Madeleine Watts is a writer living in Sydney. She has contributed to Junkee, Griffith REVIEW, FasterLouder and Concrete Playground.
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