The text below is the excerpt of the book The Story of Lingerie, written by Muriel Barbier and Shazia Boucher, published by Parkstone International.
Underwear is varied and abundant, whether it is hidden or displayed, discreet or provocative. There are three usual ways to classify this multitude of garments: lingerie, corsetry and hosiery. Lingerie’s main role is that of hygiene. It is positioned between the body and clothes, and it protects the body from outerwear made of less comfortable textiles while it protects the clothes from bodily secretions. Because of this, it is generally made from healthy materials which have varied according to the times. In this way, lingerie is really about feminine intimacy and hygiene. In fact, the first linen that was in contact with the female body was used for menstrual flow and is the precursor of our sanitary towels.
The term body linen is also used for lingerie. We use this term to talk about certain undergarments such as petticoats, chemises, bloomers, long johns, briefs, vests and slips. In families of modest means, or in wartime, certain undergarments were been made from worn out household linen, often old sheets. Materials used for body linen were similar to those used for household linen. Comfort is the first thing they have in common, with cotton being the most popular, as it is soft, light and hygienic. Other materials of all types of luxury are used to make lingerie: linen, silk, relatively light synthetic weaving, such as cloth, satin, jersey, lawn, muslin, percale or net.
Sometimes these fabrics are embellished with ornamentation and, very often, with provocative decoration. Because lingerie is not limited to a protective role, it is also an elegant part of clothing. We often see lingerie “coming out on top” as it is revealed or is completely displayed for reasons of seduction, fashion or provocation. It also presents frivolous ornamentations such as lace, embroidery and ribbons.
Depending on who is wearing it, colours can vary according to the age, social position, taste, the fashion effect required by the wearer. But it is rarely completely revealed as it is associated with nudity, as can be seen in Georges Feydeau’s play Mais n’te promène donc pas toute nue! (“You are surely not going out completely naked!”) where Ventroux takes his wife Clarisse to task when their son sees her in her chemise. “We can see through that like tracing paper!” he says but she, in turn, replies that wearing one’s daytime chemise is not like being naked. This episode shows that a woman feels that lingerie covers her while for a man it draws attention to the nudity beneath. Because of its contact with the skin and its closeness to the female form, lingerie has always been the object of male fantasy, a fact which is judiciously played upon by women with their lingerie. Catching a glimpse of petticoat frill in the 18th century, as in the 19th century, had an impact on the observer’s imagination in the same way that detecting panties or a G-string under a girl’s jeans would have today…
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