Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Underwear as outwear

Page last updated at 15:52 GMT, Friday, 24 October 2008 16:52 UK

Underwear as outwear

Bra models in shop window


Elaborate bra straps. Designer trunks riding above low-slung jeans. The fashion for flaunting one's underwear may have more to do with conspicuous consumption than a decline in decency, says Lisa Jardine.

When I was at school, the whispered warning "Charlie's dead" alerted a girl to the fact that her petticoat was showing under her lovat-green school skirt. Horror of horrors!

Modelling the New Look in the 1940s
Today the petticoat alone would suffice

From the age of 11 we all knew that our underwear ought never to be visible - a flash of white below the skirt-line was both an embarrassment, and potentially the occasion for a reprimand from a school prefect.

There are various theories as to where that curious phrase came from. It seems to date from World War II, and my own favourite explanation is that in the 1940s, the window-blinds were lowered whenever there was a death in the house.

The dipping half-slip was like a lowered window-shade. More fanciful versions involving Bonny Prince Charlie or Charles II, are, I am afraid, historically implausible, though no doubt a number of listeners will write or e-mail me to say that they prefer them.

Until relatively recently, visible bra straps were treated as a sign that the wearer was, if not actually a fallen woman, at least someone who took insufficient care with her appearance - a likely symptom of slack behaviour in other areas of her life.

A student of mine whose mother ran a fancy lingerie shop in Delhi once told me that her mother's customers were not prepared to buy silk camisoles with spaghetti straps because the maid who laundered them would consider them - and therefore their owner - scandalous.

Lisa Jardine

I am sure there are those who mutter that flamboyant, underwear-exposing fashions are further evidence of a general decline in morals

There could hardly be more of a contrast with fashions in underwear, and acceptable attitudes towards its display in public, in the era of consumer affluence we have been living through, these past 10 years.

It has been a time for ostentatiously showing off surplus wealth. And one of the signs that a woman has money to spare has been for her to let beautiful, expensive items of underwear show. Lavish lingerie departments have blossomed in department stores across the country.

The impulse not to keep a prize purchase hidden from view has been reflected in the design of fashion too - from High Street to haute couture. On the catwalks at this year's London Fashion Week, layering of diaphanous garments, with equally gorgeous underskirts and bodices, left nothing at all about the underwear beneath to the imagination.

Good for the goose...

This modern fashion trend, which seems to us to reflect our more easy-going attitudes to our bodies, is strikingly similar to the layering and glimpsing of undergarments of English 16th and early 17th Century costume.

Man's linen shirt, embroidered in black silk c.1585-1620 (courtesy of Fashion Museum, Bath, photo by Brenda Norrish
Embroidered undershirt for men

This week sees the posthumous publication of the fourth volume in the great costume historian Janet Arnold's meticulously detailed series, Patterns of Fashion.

Having documented every item of outer clothing for the period, Arnold has turned her attention to Tudor and Stuart underwear. The book is sumptuously illustrated with photographs of surviving items of the clothing our forebears wore next to the skin, including gorgeous detail of lavish embroidery, lace-work and stitching. And it shows clearly the ways in which men and women of substance also enjoyed letting their expensive underwear show.

Indeed, the most striking difference between underwear-flaunting then and now seems to have been that in Tudor times, it was not only women, but men too who adopted fashion designs which allowed them to reveal their undergarments.

The process by which this gradual uncovering happened over time is fascinating.

The woman's smock and man's shirt, made of linen, were originally very similar garments - calf-length and long-sleeved, with a simple neck-opening. Worn next to the skin and washable, they protected the layers of finer fabric above from the wearer's sweat and dirt.

Linen underwear offered a practical way of being hygienic while wearing outer garments of heavy expensive cloths, richly embroidered and adorned with jewels which could never safely be cleaned.

Over the shirt the man wore a structured doublet, over her smock the woman wore a bodice - or pair of bodies, as it was called then - with inserted strips of stiffening.

The woman's layers of petticoats, underskirts and farthingales were attached to her bodice by "points" (ornamental ties) drawn through purpose-made eyelets, as were a man's hose or leggings.

These conjoined undergarments provided a base armature on which the sumptuous outer garments were displayed to produce an imposing, sharply defined, tailored shape to the ensemble.

Like my ruff?

Over time, the shirts and smocks of the wealthy came to be made of finer and finer linen, and were decorated with increasing lavishness at neckline and cuff.

Dita van Teese on a giant wonderbra
The bra has come out from under

The fashionable neck frill and gathered cuffs used more and more linen, so that special starching and setting were required to make them sit more tidily around the garment's neckline. They were eventually separated from the undershirt or smock entirely, for ease of washing and maintaining, and evolved further in decorative lavishness as garments in their own right.

The neck frill grew oversized, into the elaborate, face-framing ruffs which for many of us define late Tudor dress, as it features in any number of formal portraits of royalty and nobility. Starching these became a laundry skill in its own right - the very first specialist ruff-launderer in England is supposed to have been a Flemish woman, Mistress Dingen Van der Passe, who brought Dutch-standard starching to London in 1564.

Detached ruffs and decorative cuffs were securely attached to the outer garments for each wearing, using metal pins. It has been suggested that in economic terms, these pins are the first genuinely disposable commodities of emerging consumer culture, since they were bought in bulk, used once and then discarded (though there are records of the more frugal having their bent pins straightened for re-use).

Even without integral layered and embroidered neck-frills and cuffs, the amount of coloured embroidery on the upper part of shirt and smock continued to grow, transforming the simple undergarment into an object of beauty in its own right.

Wearing a 1588 bodice
A Tudor-era bodice, with a roll to hold the skirt out suggestively at the back

At a workshop on Tudor underwear I attended last week, run by the Early Modern Dress and Textiles Research Network, it was suggested that once these items of clothing were decorated with silver and gold thread-work - so they became both uncomfortable next to the skin, and difficult to launder - another, simpler smock or shirt had to be worn beneath them, adding further to the layering.

As the shirt and smock grew more highly-decorated, ornamental openings were slashed in men's doublets and women's gowns to allow the wearer to show off the beauty of the embroidered blackwork on their underwear. Loose outer gowns, kirtles and waistcoats enabled women to offer revealing glimpses of the elegant structuring of their underwear corsetry.

Austerity measures

I am sure there are those who mutter that recent flamboyant, underwear-exposing fashions are further evidence of a general decline in morals and decency.

Elizabeth I
The Virgin Queen flaunts her wealth

The close equivalence of fashions worn in the Tudor period suggests otherwise. The women who wore the extraordinarily smock- and undershirt-revealing styles of the late 16th century had to be seen as paragons of virtue by all. No well-born woman could risk being construed as provocative on the basis of what she wore.

Yet fashionable Tudor ladies were as be-ruffed and cuffed, and parading of their embroidered underwear, as their male counterparts. Take a close look at any of the many familiar, exquisitely detailed portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, and you will quickly spot the heavily embroidered smock glimpsed beneath her bodice, the hints of lace at throat and wrist, betokening lace-edged and finely stitched needlework under her bejewelled gown.

What Tudor fashions share with more recent styles is the ostentatious display of garments on which the wearer has lavished significant sums of money. In both cases the expensive item is clearly a frippery - an unnecessary extravagance announcing that the person wearing it has extra cash to spend.

I wonder whether, in the current financial climate, as frugality returns, it will once again become unseemly to display an elaborately embroidered bra, or show net petticoats under a twirling skirt?

The whispered warning "Charlie's dead" dates from a previous age of austerity, after WWII. According to the Governor of the Bank of England, we stand poised once again on the brink of a recession.

If things go as badly as the predictions of the gloomiest pundits suggest, will it soon be the case that women once again begin to alert one another to the danger of an immodest glimpse of petticoat?

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