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On panties, slips, corsets, bras, stockings and nighties

I have decided to devote this column to underwear! I discovered a beautifully illustrated and witty little book on one of my shelves entitled And all was revealed – Ladies Underwear 1907-1980, by Doreen Caldwell. This inspired me to look at the present Reveal or Conceal exhibit at the McCord Museum, a provocative exhibition that explores historical perceptions of modesty and eroticism in women’s clothing.

In 1939 my hostess in the North of England referred to undergarments as undies, a somewhat déclassé description for smalls. On washing days they were dumped into a separate vessel, boiled clean and then hung out to air on a pulley high up over the fireplace in the laundry room, but never talked about. My German mother drummed it into me that underwear – Unterwaesche – had to be kept immaculately clean because, God forbid – um Gottes Willen – I were knocked out cold crossing a street, what might strangers think who may have to undress me! I remembered mother’s dictum during my stint as a probationer nurse in the mining district of England. One of my duties included helping patients out of their clothes.

When I lived in England, panties were either called “drawers” or “knickers,” slips were referred to as “petticoats,” and dresses as “frocks.” Drawers were held together with string in the 1800s, and a girl’s trousseau included at least a dozen pair of knickers in various colors. It must have been torture wearing corsets. My mother owned three different models and often called me to tighten the strings. With my knee hard against her back, I pulled so hard that both of us almost ran out of breath, but she never complained. Now corsets are prescribed for bad backs. The fashion industry tends to change the material of upscale brassieres now and then. An advertisement in my little book advocates: “As necessary as lipstick, as important as perfume: A good bra is a beauty must,” and Brigitte Bardot adds: “I want to be simple, wild and sexy.” In the hippie period of the 1960s many women threw their bras out or burnt them in a heap. It spelled not only freedom for breasts, but was in keeping with feminist ideology.

In 1943 there was clothes rationing in England. One needed clothes coupons and we didn’t get many. Rayon stockings could not be had and pantyhose (“tights” in England) had not yet been invented. Women wore pants (“slacks”), not much encouraged by stuffy employers, but there was a war on!

I remember the New Look of 1949 as rather unbecoming. Lingerie was anything but sexy. Nylon stockings were hard to come by unless one had an American boyfriend or enough cash to acquire some on the Black Market. Panty-girdles were the order of the day, extending from waist to thigh with attachments to fasten stockings.

How liberated we are now! During the summer, our legs are bare and tiny bikinis in every colour of the rainbow follow the trend that less is more. It’s suggested in one of the books that shopping for underwear is an erotic experience. I’m no longer as concerned about that as finding a comfortable and good-feel garment I enjoy wearing, even if it isn’t alluring. I prefer large T-shirts for sleepwear to those soft silky nightgowns that need special care.

We are in December and 2008 has flown by. Here’s wishing you a happy, healthy and peaceful 2009 in whatever you may find yourself wearing.



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