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The Evolution of Underwear
Peter the Great, visiting Paris in 1717, was riding down a crowded street when a woman slipped and fell in front of his horse. The czar, intently watching the pretty Parisienne scissor and squirm out of danger, observed with some delight: "The gates of Paradise are open."
What's interesting is not that that particular French woman didn't wear any underwear, but that almost no French women at the time wore any underwear that would have blocked the czar's view. Or any English women. Or any German women. Or any American women.
It amazes us (or at least me) to learn that women for the first five thousand years of Western civilization wore nothing between their legs beyond their natural chinchilla. "Until the late 18th century, [women's] underwear consisted only of smocks or shifts, stays [i.e., corsets] and the highly important petticoats of all kinds," harrumphs The History of Underclothes by Willet and Cunnington. But nothing between the legs.
It seems fairly mind-boggling to consider millions of women for thousands of years with no garment snugly covering their Delta. Sure, they generally wore very long dresses, but why not any close-fitting underwear?
Yeast infections and crab lice, among other reasons, argue authors Janet and Peter Phillips in their masterful article, History From Below: Women's Underwear and the Rise of Women's Sports. "Pre-20th century women had to do without knickers and the like because of the perpetual threat of thrush [i.e., yeast infection]," state the British authors. "Since the vagina is naturally warm and moist, any covering increasing the temperature will put out a welcome mat to thrush," they contend, pointing out that yesteryear's lower standards of personal hygiene, due to lack of indoor running water, would have greatly promoted thrush and lice.
Near Eastern women who did bathe more frequently than their European sisters did wear trousers or "harem pants," sometimes under skirts. And it's speculated that during the Renaissance, these garments were imported into Europe and gradually adapted into drawers, i.e., loose-fitting under-trousers, with ribbons to "draw" them tight at the waist and the legs. But these imported strange items (considered masculine and somehow perverse) never caught on with working-class women, who could still squat and pee in an alleyway.
In fact, almost the only French women in the 1700s who wore drawers did so by law. A ballerina in 1727 got her skirt caught on a piece of stage scenery. Her exposure led to the passage of a police regulation in Paris that "no actress or dancer should appear on stage without drawers."
Finally, mid-1800s fashion began to change.
Forgotten early woman's libber Mrs. Elizabeth Smith Miller crusaded for women to stop having to wear floor-length dresses. Instead, she promoted loose ankle-length trousers to be worn below their knee-length skirts. A rival crusader, Amelia Jenks Bloomer (1818-1894), started wearing the outfit while on a lecture tour in 1850, and promptly got egged and ridiculed and had her name semi-immortalized.
Two unlikely events sped the draping of women's privates worldwide: the Brazilian rubber seed theft of 1876 and the bicycle craze of the 1890s.
British botanist Sir Henry Wickham convinced Brazilian authorities to let him have tens of thousands of rubber tree seeds for the Royal Gardens at Kew in England; Wickham promptly shipped seedlings out to Ceylon and Malaya and efficient British plantations promptly broke the Brazilian stranglehold on rubber and vastly improved the product, speeding the development of cheap elastic. By 1900, drawers no longer needed cumbersome drawstrings that might dangle into privies or come undone during tennis matches.
The second event ending the many millennia of pleasurable updrafts for women was the cycling boom, ignited by John Dunlop's invention of the pneumatic tire. Bicycles couldn't be ridden side-saddle; long skirts were dangerous. "When biking became fashionable, the studentesses of Paris adopted it," states an article in the New York Journal, Nov. 15, 1896. "As a matter of course, they adopted bloomers also." The New York Sun noted Parisian women wearing bloomers in public even when they were not biking. "They are simply mad over this free-and-easy costume," enthused a young American woman just returned from Paris.
The trend just kept gathering momentum, leading from the airy cotton drawers of the turn of the century to today's nylon "nothings".
It's worth noting that female fashion through the ages--before the l9th-century women's movement--provided little protection against unwanted advances by husbands, lovers, or for that matter, rapists. Is it a coincidence that as women took more control over their lives, they were able to introduce another line of sexual defense?
Maybe men kept vetoing the change until they lost their veto.
History's Quest: Avoiding Big Breasts
Large breasts--in the genre of Elle MacPherson, Sophia Loren, beloved Marilyn Monroe--have very, very rarely been venerated throughout the history of Western civilization. Americans refuse to believe it, but it's true: This 20th century (mostly American) obsession for over-sized mammaries on a thin frame is a complete aberration. The women who grace the covers of Playboy--with their birdlike shoulders and 3-D cleavage--would have been considered almost freaks in most of Europe and the United States through the mid-1800s. They'd have been viewed as too skinny, with a man's derriere, and their large breasts would have been deemed maternal, not sexual, and more suited for peasant wet nurses.
Martial, the Roman poet, wrote of the perfect breast as not overflowing one hand. And the Romans--so efficient in public works--left nothing to chance. The women of ancient Rome wore a "fascia," a light but firm undergarment to support and supress the bosom. "This device opposed the growth of the breasts," wrote Augustin Cabanes, a l9th-century medical historian, "just as tight shoes of the Chinese women reduced the size of their feet."
The ancient Greeks--during the so-called Golden Age of Aristotle and Aeschylus--had a temple dedicated to Aphrodite Kallipygeia, Aphrodite of the Beautiful Derriere. One Greek dramatist penning cosmetic advice to a prostitute recommends suppressing her large breasts while supplementing her hips via padding. "Like ourselves, the Greeks detested bulky breasts," stated another French medical historian in 1895, "the signs of beauty were elevation, smallness and regularity of contour."
Renaissance corsets so brutally squashed breasts that quite a few medical texts for women from that period discussed how to cure nipples inverted by a lifetime of corset-wearing.
Unlike today's Wonderbra, the prevailing challenge was always to minimize, not maximize, to understate, not poke somebody's eye out. "The formulas for reducing and firming up the breasts are countless," notes Dr. Cabanes elsewhere and cites by example a French handbook from the Renaissance. The Bastiment des receptes advises: "To make small breasts remain in that state and to reduce the size of large ones, take the main viscera (heart, liver, spleen, lungs) of a hare, mince them and mix with an equal part of ordinary honey. Apply this as a poultice to the breasts and surrounding areas and renew the application when dry."
Even the most cursory glance at sculpture through the ages reveals very few figures resembling Claudia Schiffer and many more resembling Venus de Milo, who'd be considered a bit zaftig today. Women who would have been a goddess for Sophocles are Helen Gurley Brown's mouseburgers.
The French Spy: Is He or Isn't She or Perhaps He/She?
In late 1776, a few months after the American Declaration of Independence, the British public eagerly awaited military news from across the Atlantic. Was it possible that Great Britain, with its vast armies and navies, would lose its American colonies? Not bloody likely. At the same time, the British were also much concerned with the outcome of another contest: Was it true that the highest profile Frenchman living in England, the diplomat, Chevalier D'Eon, was actually a woman? Was he a she in lifelong masquerade? or was she a he? or perhaps even a true he/she? The question had titillated London for five years.
Although it seems beyond bizarre, the debate over the gender of a decorated French military officer, Chevalier D'Eon, drew more coverage some days in London newspapers of the time than the fight over the American colonies. "The doubts with regard to the sex of Mons. d'Eon," wrote The Morning Post, "which have prevailed these some years past, appear to be destroyed, as it is absolutely decided that..." And London gamblers and investors had embraced the proposition with gusto, as stock speculators underwrote vast betting pools (called "policies"). The Chevalier had opened in March 1771 as a 3-2 favorite to be a man, then climbed swiftly to 10-1 for male, but by 1776 the odds had reversed. Chevalier was now a 7-4 favorite to be a woman.
The British--who have a tradition of legalized bookmaking on everything but royalty--"invested" (i.e., wagered) as much as ú280,000 over the Chevalier's gender. A glimpse of the diplomat's genitals could be worth a fortune.
Chevalier D'Eon (1728-1810) was born in Tonerre, France, studied law, entered the military, and wound up commanding a company of dragoons and winning the coveted Order of St. Louis for his bravery against Austria. Of Peter Pan-ish physique, he was an expert fencer, although his fellow soldiers were quick to note that he was not a swordsman with the ladies.
"I have never wished for wife or mistress..." the Chevalier wrote to a colleague in 1771. "and this has given my friends in France, as well as Russia and England, grounds for imagining in their innocence that I was of the female sex."
The Chevalier performed several delicate diplomatic missions and for two decades was a spy in the French Royal Secret Service. When word of his female sex surfaced, all kinds of rumors started making the rounds. During his spy days in Russia, it was said, D'Eon had sneaked into the boudoir of Empress Elizabeth of Russia dressed as a woman and seduced her.
Some French gossips said that the Chevalier had been surprised by King George III at 2 A.M. in the queen's bedroom, and the queen's quick-thinking master-of-ceremonies, to save her honor, had told the enraged king that this lover was, well sire, actually a woman. (The tireless rumor mill added that this wasn't D'Eon's first visit to the queen and that the Chevalier earlier had fathered the future king of England, George IV.)
Whatever the case, by the mid-1770s, we know for a fact from documents that D'Eon was marooned in a midlevel diplomatic appointment in England, very deeply in debt and was spending his spare time building one of the world's largest collections of feminist literature. ("It is a unique collection," states D'Eon biographer Gary Kates, who notes: "Outside the largest public collections, such as those in the British Library or the BibliotÚque Nationale, we know of no other person who assembled so many historical and contemporary books about women.") The image we have of D'Eon from his authentic letters and notebooks is of a serious and deeply conflicted man, who was fascinated by gender. This self-professed lifelong virgin also hated to be the butt of jokes.
The King of France, tired of the controversy, ordered the Chevalier back to France, but D'Eon refused, claiming he hadn't been paid for a decade, and this veteran spy had kept as insurance dozens of compromising secret documents, including plans for invading England. Louis XVI sent celebrated playwright Beaumarchais (The Marriage of Figaro, The Barber of Seville) on a secret mission to negotiate a settlement with the Chevalier D'Eon to end the embarrassing gender matter and get back those documents. (While there, the French playwright also met with an American named Arthur Lee who convinced him to lobby the French king to supply arms for the upcoming American Revolution; Louis wound up supplying 90 percent of the munitions during the first two years of the war.)
Beaumarchais (1743-1799), a bon vivant with a wicked sense of humor, struck a deal in 1775 with D'Eon. In exchange for the documents, the king would pay the Chevalier D'Eon a generous pension and, as requested by D'Eon, would issue a statement to the world that the Chevalier was truly a woman. In addition, the French government would pay for the Chevalier's new wardrobe since the Chevalier agreed to spend the rest of his/her life dressed as a woman.
("The notion of becoming a woman for the second half of one's life has no historical precedent," opines biographer Kates.)
Article IV of the agreement states: "I [Beaumarchais] demand, in his Majesty's name, that the disguise which has until today hidden the person of a maiden [i.e., a virginal woman] under the appearance of the Chevalier d'Eon be entirely abandoned...I require absolutely that [to resolve] the uncertainty about her sex, which until today has been an inexhaustible subject of indecent bets and salacious jokes...that a public and unequivocal declaration be made of the true sex of...d'Eon...before her resumption of her woman's clothes..."
Last minute niggles surfaced: Could she wear her Cross of St. Louis medal? (Yes, but not in Paris.) Could she carry guns? (No.)
D'Eon and Beaumarchais both signed the document, and now Beaumarchais, armed with inside information about the imminent declaration of D'Eon's womanhood, proceeded to bet tens of thousands of British pounds on the sex of D'Eon. To leave nothing to chance, the playwright circulated rumors that D'Eon wanted to marry him, and even wrote little songs about it.
D'Eon--a complicated, well-read, and very Christian individual--was furious and fired off letters to the British newspapers saying he/she would never reveal his/her sex. The Chevalier adamantly refused to strip naked for the greedy gamblers of Exchange Alley, turning down ú30,000 to bare all. And D'Eon challenged one insulting bettor named Charles Morande to a duel. The Westminster Gazette of August, 1776, reported: "Mr. de Morande very politely replied that it was impossible for him to meet d'Eon anywhere but in a bed." The butt, again.
The mass of bettors with thousands at stake grew annoyed at the continued delay in finding out the outcome. A surgeon named Hayes, who had bought a "policy" in 1771 that would pay 7-1 if D'Eon turned out to be a woman, sued the seller, Mr. Jacques. At the trial, a Dr. La Goux testified that he had secretly treated D'Eon for a woman's disorder and Charles Morande (the one D'Eon had challenged to a duel) told the court that one morning D'Eon had allowed him into the bedroom: "I put my hand into [her] bed and was fully convinced she was a woman."
The respected judge, Lord Mansfield, ruled for the British plaintiff Hayes and ordered Jacques to pay the ú700, which started a flood of those who had bet female
From the Hardcover edition.