A woman wears underwear that varies according to her circumstances. From the beginning to the end of her life a woman experiences physical change and changes in her social status, and her underwear reflects this. Lingerie is very directly and strongly linked to a women’s intimacy. For centuries, men have always believed that lingerie was created with the objective of seduction. There is no question that this aim exists.
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 have been made from worn out household linen, often old sheets. Materials used for body linen are 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, or the effect required by fashion of 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 woman and 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. Lingerie has an erotic charge because it is the closest clothing to the private female form.
Corsetry also plays a part in the world of seduction. This garment is to clothing what a framework is to a building. But this framework is applied to an existing foundation; the female body. The role of corsetry is to shape the body and to impose a fashionable silhouette upon it.
Pieces of corsetry were used to transform the three main parts of the body: the waist, bust and hips. The new silhouette was constructed around these three points. In Les Dessous à travers les âges (“Underwear throughout the ages”), Armand Silvestre describes a “good corset” in the following terms: “the top must be sufficiently widely cut to support the breasts without crushing them, the armholes should be well-formed; the lining of the fabric should be fine, well-inserted and flexible […] finally, it should follow the lower body and finish on the hips at a firm point of arrival and follow the natural direction of the woman’s side”. Corsetry enhanced the body’s curves and moulded it into new lines. It made the bust round, uplifted, curvaceous or flattened; the waist could be larger or smaller, non-existent or well-defined; hips could seem slimmer or wider. Corsetry dictated the shapes of fashion and often worked against nature. While lingerie revealed a woman’s private world, corsetry was made to create illusion. Corsetry was what made the woman wearing a certain dress fashionable.
The term ‘corsetry’ includes undergarments such as stays, corsets, girdles, waspies, bustiers, farthingales, panniers and crinolines.
Corsetry was made of internal bones which compress and control the body. These bones were made from sturdy materials such as whalebone, cane, horsehair, steel and elastic fibres. Originally this underwear was meant to be worn over clothes, then over lingerie, so it would be less obvious that it was made out of more sophisticated fabrics than those used for lingerie. Sometimes pieces of corsetry were matched to the clothing or to certain types of lingerie, such as a petticoat.
In this way one can see that corsetry was more fashionable and followed trends because it is visible (in the Middle Ages particularly, corsetry was worn over the dress) and especially because it moulds the figure.
Because of this, corsetry has been criticised to a much greater extent than lingerie. The supporters of corsetry saw in it a symbol of female morality – a woman’s body being maintained and reflecting her upright behaviour. Doctors, hygienists, and later, feminists, have accused designers and manufacturers of wanting to confine the female body inside a structure which is far from natural and that can damage the body. In spite of this criticism, women have accepted and put up with boning since, for them, it was simply a question of fashion: it was a way of disguising figure faults. The female body has long been considered weak, and extra support was considered necessary. 1932 Vogue testified: “Women’s abdominal muscles are notoriously weak and even hard exercise doesn’t keep your figure from spreading if you don’t give it some support”.
In fact, corsetry is a woman’s major ally (if she can bear a little suffering) as it allows her to hide any bad points and accentuate her good points! This is the case of Caroline, Honoré de Balzac’s Petites Misères de la vie conjugales (“The Small Miseries of Married Life”), who wears her “most deceptive corset”. Finally, like all lingerie, corsetry carried a significant erotic charge, as it accentuates the most emblematic aspects of the female body.
We would not have covered everything if we failed to mention hosiery here. This third family consists of the manufacture, industry and sale of clothing of knitted fabrics including stockings, socks and certain items of lingerie such as briefs or vests. Hosiery is characterised by the weaving technique which is employed when using materials such as wool, cotton, silk, nylon and today, micro fibre.
Today, the distinction between lingerie, corsetry and hosiery is rarely made as there is often an overlap between the various different domains (underwired bras, support tights, support briefs). The underwear which we wear today is the result of the development of these three families. Their hygienic, supportive and aesthetic qualities interlink in 21st century underwear…
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