British historical romance author Rosemary Morris stops by today to give us a fashion lesson on undergarments. Learn more about Rosemary and her books at her website and blog.
A Brief History of Underclothes
It would be unrealistic to deny that, throughout history, as well as having a practical purpose, feminine undergarments have had an erotic effect. Once, even the glimpse of a stockinged ankle titillated. Modern fashion, which is more practical and comfortable, has removed feminine mystique.
In the past, female underclothing was the focus of sensual curiosity. In the prudish Victorian era, mention of trousers or drawers was considered unseemly. It reminded people that men and women have legs.
In the medieval period women wore smocks or, as the Normans called them, chemises. They were pulled over the head and were either plain or embroidered.
In “The Miller’s Wife” from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, there are the following lines:
“…brooded all before
And eke behind on her colere about
Of cole-blak silke, within and eke without.”
Women also appropriated the term petticoat, little coat, from the word coat used by men in the Middle Ages.
The evolution of underclothes is interesting. After the early Saxon period, tunics concealed men’s breeches, which were subsequently called drawers. Centuries later, men wore knee-length breeches then close-fitting ankle length pantaloons. Next, they wore trousers and, more recently, shorts and jeans beneath which minimal undergarments are worn.
By the Victorian era, women wore a linen chemise and petticoat, sometimes attached to a bodice. In early 19th century England, drawers were considered scandalous until Princess Charlotte, heiress to the throne, wore them. By the 1830’s they were commonplace. Also, the French custom of wearing pantaloons when riding side saddle had become popular. After the Regency era, small waists were admired. Tight lacing was necessary to be fashionable. To achieve it, corset makers used steel, whalebone and buckram, which compressed women’s figures so much that they couldn’t move naturally and suffered from stomach aches and other pain.
Crinolines were superseded by bustles, until, in the late 20th century underwear evolved into the scanty garments worn today, although bras are used to emphasis the bust to enhance the figure.
Famous names have been used to describe female underwear. From American Mrs. Bloomer came the term bloomers. Some of many other terms are undies, cami-bocks, cami-knicks, knick-knacks, frillies, bras, slips and thongs, all of which have erotic connotations.
The main purpose of underclothes has been warmth. Men’s shapes have remained similar throughout the centuries, but women’s have been altered by artificial means. These included bustles, corsets, crinolines, farthingales, hoops and stays, all of which gave rise to speculation about what females wore beneath their outer garments. One can imagine a curious bridegroom eagerly anticipating a revelation.
Today, people bathe frequently. Their clothes are dry-cleaned or washed. This means few underclothes are necessary to keep outerwear clean. It was not so, for example, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, when splendid clothes made in costly fabrics needed protection from unwashed bodies.
Towards the end of the 18th century, the Macaronis stressed the importance of personal cleanliness. In the first part of 19th century John Wesley preached ‘cleanliness is next to Godliness’. Beau Brummel, the famous Regency dandy, agreed, also advocated cleanliness. In Queen Victoria’s reign, men and women changed their underwear frequently. To move on in time, between the 1st and 2nd World Wars fewer underclothes were worn. Which brings me to the present day. Mini-skirts, shorts, sleeveless tops with shoestring straps, bikinis and extremes of fashion leave little to the imagination.
In the past, deliberate revelations of underwear, such as the edge of a chemise or the hem of a petticoat, suggested female disrobing was erotic. At other times, the bodice looked like a corset. This implied a woman had dressed immodestly. For at least six centuries, women wore corsets to emphasise the bust and slim the waist. Laced too tightly they compromised health.
Men’s shirts may also be regarded as underwear. They divided the working classes from upper classes. In Henry VIII’s reign, shirts were revealed by slashing the jerkin; in the 18th century the top of the waistcoat was unbuttoned to reveal part of the shirt. Spotless white shirts, frilled or plain, divided the social classes.
Linen, the oldest material used for underwear; cotton, regarded as inferior to linen; wool and flannelette have been used for undergarments. Only well to-do people could afford silk until the last part of the Victorian era. More recently artificial fabrics, such as nylon are popular and can be washed and dried as often as we bathe. We no longer stink as our ancestors did.
Far Beyond Rubies
Set in 1706 during Queen Anne Stuart’s reign, Far Beyond Rubies begins when William, Baron Kemp, Juliana’s half-brother claims she and her young sister, Henrietta, are bastards. Spirited Juliana is determined to prove the allegation is false, and that she is the rightful heiress to Riverside, a great estate.
On his way to deliver a letter to William, Gervaise Seymour sees Juliana for the first time on the grounds of her family estate. The sight of her draws him back to India. When “her form changed to one he knew intimately – but not in this lifetime,” Gervaise knows he would do everything in his power to protect her.
Although Juliana and Gervaise are attracted to each other, they have not been formally introduced and assume they will never meet again. However, when Juliana flees from home, and is on her way to London, she encounters quixotic Gervaise at an inn. Circumstances force Juliana to accept his kind help. After Juliana’s life becomes irrevocably tangled with his, she discovers all is not as it seems. Yet, she cannot believe ill of him for, despite his exotic background, he behaves with scrupulous propriety while trying to help her find evidence to prove she and her sister are legitimate.