Share via Email Lingerie is a fancy French name for underwear. Underwear is any garment that is not meant to be seen in public; the category includes, from the skin out, pants, singlets, brassieres, corsets, girdles, suspender-belts, vests, slips and petticoats.
Under each of these headings could be marshalled dozens of variations; pants, for example, include briefs, Y-fronts, jockey shorts, boxer shorts, knickers, cami-knickers, drawers, bloomers, panties, pantettes, panty-girdles, panty-shorts, pant-slips, scanties, bikini briefs and thongs. Who wears all this stuff? And why is our culture increasingly obsessed by it? There is even an exhibition of underwear, Inside Out, organised by the British Council, opening in London next month. When I was growing up, certain kinds of women's underwear were called 'foundation garments'.
If your clothes were to look good you had to underprop them with foundation garments, so at 14 or so you were packed off to be 'fitted' with your first bra and girdle. The bra fitter was usually a deep-voiced, whiskery female of what seemed horrifyingly advanced years and she measured your budding breast by horribly spreading her hand over it.
The girdle was and still is a garment so repellent that you had to dash to take it off in the toilet and stuff it down behind the cistern before foreplay reached the revelation point. Nowadays, firmness of the rear end is supposed to be achieved by working out, and no more covering needed than a thong. But thongs can be repellent on certain bodies. My hairdresser confided to me the other day that, though his wife is a beautiful woman he finds the sight of her buttocks surrounding a thong deeply off-putting.
The very thought of Cherie Blair's mythical thong is mind-boggling. One function of underwear is to provide an extra layer of insulation from the cold.
Princess Diana thrilled her adoring public when she admitted that she wore Thermolactyl smalls under her evening gowns so that she could stand still for hours in draughty halls without succumbing to hypothermia. However, the undergarment as defence against the cold is becoming unnecessary as indoor temperatures rise; though, outside, people might need sheepskins in winter, indoors it is usually so hot they have to remove all insulation and work in shirt-sleeves.
Skiers and mountaineers might wear spencers and longjohns; the rest of us do not. Most Englishmen do not wear vests under their shirts any more; many Englishmen who do wear vests wear nothing over them. Sensible underwear, it seems, is either being worn as outerwear or being phased out. In fact underwear has always shown a tendency to transmigrate and appear as outerwear.
Corsets have as often been worn outside dresses as inside them. However, neither Superman nor John Major succeeded in popularising the wearing of Y-fronts over instead of under trousers. In the days when she was still ambulatory my mother used to thrill beholders by flaunting herself in ancient, threadbare and virtually transparent men's longjohns. If underwear was meant to keep you warm you would expect that in hot countries people wear less of it - and by and large that is true.
People who pass their lives naked except for a few strings of beads and a penis sheath are unlikely to go a bundle on underwear, but as soon as the missionaries get to work on them they adopt not only European styles of outer dress but also underwear.
Aborigine women living in the broiling heat of Australia wear gathered skirts with slips under them made of hot, clingy synthetic material trimmed with cheap lace, which rapidly becomes tattered.
When both skirt and slip become unbearably dirty and brittle they are thrown away, thus becoming genuinely disposable unlike the mad paper pants we used to wear that fell to pieces while you were still in them.
Throughout outback Australia the traveller will encounter long lines of discarded clothing, and sometimes hillocks of it. The wearing of slips in aboriginal culture implies decency; it is a response to the long history of abuse of aboriginal women by white men and then by demoralised black men.
A largely futile assertion of propriety is now part and parcel of the rationale of clothing where, for , years, there was no clothing together with a fierce sense of bodily propriety. Naked peoples associate modesty not with covering but with demeanour; only after they have been made aware of their bodies as object of prurient interest on the part of intrusive strangers do they feel a pressing need to hide parts of them.
Missionaries, only too aware of their own lechery, used to insist on the wearing of clothes and underclothes. A mission-educated native who cast aside his clothing was considered to have reverted to savagery. The association of underwear with decency runs deep.
All the year round except for high summer my Tuscan housekeeper wore an astonishing array of underwear - knickers, a brassiere, a woollen vest, a girdle, a petticoat and stockings knotted above her knees. Whenever she bent over to cull a mushroom or gather wild salad, an extraordinary panorama of elastic and cheap lace was revealed.
Even in the hottest weather Lisa retained under her print dress and overall an essential minimum of underwear: As I had no secrets from her she knew that I did not so much as possess these articles; she also knew that I slept naked, but I never knew what she thought of this loucheness on my part. My Italian lover made his feelings plain; he would pull at the top of my dress, peer down it, and curse a blue streak when he saw me standing naked inside it.
My housekeeper's body was a white tender kernel protected from the cruel sun and the glacial mountain breezes alike by multiple wrappings like the skins of an onion.
She firmly believed that if she worked up a sweat she must absolutely not remove any of her layers, for if the sweat cooled on her body she would fall ill. In her case, too, it seemed to me that her layers of underwear conferred decency. She had lived close to destitution all her life; when she married her husband, who was a carbonaro, poorest of the peasant poor, she had not even a coverlet to her bed. Her edifice of unnecessary raiment was the testimony that, though she was still illiterate, she had become a person of substance, una persona seria.
Lisa told me how it was in the old days, before the girls wore pants or shoes, when they wore just shifts, petticoats, full skirts and bodices. The discharge of menstruation was soaked up by the petticoats which the women wiped between their legs whenever necessary. For Lisa, acquiring pants and bras was part of modernisation, along with sanitary napkins and her husband's motorcycle truck. When Lisa was a girl, everyone in our part of the Tuscan hills urinated and defecated out of doors.
To the end of her life Lisa had misgivings about doing one's bisogni in the house, a practice which seemed to her unhygienic. Because a husband did not accompany wife or daughter as she went out to empty bowels or bladder last thing at night, it was the best opportunity for a woman to meet her lover or encounter a sexual predator. Judges then had as much difficulty distinguishing between the two as they do today. The last thing she needed was knickers which, pulled down around her ankles, would be very likely to be soiled and certain to impede her flight if she should be disturbed.
She did as all women used to do before the invention of drawers, bundled up her skirts or threw them over her head to keep them clean, and squatted with her legs sensibly apart. My mother used to say, as all Australian mothers proverbially said, that I must put on a clean pair of underpants every day in case I got knocked down by a car.
For a while I collected briefs in fancy colours, mildly amused to think that under my regulation beatnik black glowed briefs of electric blue, fluorescent yellow or hot magenta. This phase came to an end when, after I gathered in my multi-coloured collection from the washing line in the sudden darkness of a Sydney summer night I discovered that someone had cut the crotch out of every pair. Thereafter I was more likely than not to leave my knickers off; as we left the house my man would run his thumb down my flank to see if he could feel a panty ridge; no ridge and I had to go back in and get some pants on.
He was more concerned about my pants than I was, but why? Years later when I wrote about going without, I got hundreds of nagging letters. Knickers protected me from catching infections or infestations eg crab lice off train seats and the like, didn't I know? Conversely they would prevent the pollution of the environment by noxious liquids emanating from me. I thought then and I think now, better a bidet than a panty-liner.
For 'heavier days' there were beautifully made Italian thongs lined with rubber latex. In those days I did not even wear panty-hose, but stockings that I knotted above the knee as Lisa had taught me to avoid the obscenity of a suspender belt. And no bra, natch. Not very erotic, you will be thinking. It was a part of my feminist battle against pornography that I would not tackle up. A century ago randy little boys would pore over the corsetry advertisements in women's magazines and as the pornography industry has grown up it has elaborated this voyeuristic fixation.
The passivity and vulnerability of the female subject of male erotic interest is accentuated by her being captured, as it were, as she undresses. The viewer of most commercial pornography is still hiding in a woman's wardrobe, peering through the keyhole as she pops her suspenders and pushes her stockings languorously down over her legs. Corsets are uncomfortable; lace is supremely uncomfortable; suspender belts are ridiculous; most brassieres fake rather than control the bosom. There are men who secretly yearn to wear all this kit.
We may ask even of the men who do not, is it us they love or these fetishistic garments? The great undergarment success story of our time is the Wonderbra, which does not simply lift and separate, as did the brassieres of old, but literally tips the breasts into the face of the beholder, creating ebullient cleavage where otherwise there was none.
The Wonderbra is clearly meant to allure but it is also bound to disappoint. Once a woman's Wonderbra has enticed a man into her arms she is faced with the dilemma of when to take it off. Every Wonderbra I have ever seen was padded; there is no half hemisphere corresponding to the half that is so impressively exposed.
The Wonderbra removed, the bosom shrinks, the cleavage disappears as the released breasts obey the call of gravity and sag away from the sternum. The Wonderbra is one undergarment that must have been meant to stay on during sex, along with suspender-belts and black stockings and the rest of the tackle. Underwear is now sportswear. One of the mysteries of the twentieth century is how the brassiere conquered the world. You might think it was the great manufacturers who convinced women that they would not be real women until they tipped their breasts into a harness, but the dusty bras I've seen on display in the shopping lanes of ancient towns from China to Peru are locally made.
The shape of the breasts might be international but the brand names are not. There is now no country in the world where women do not think it appropriate to strap their breasts into an immobile shape. The transformation of the useful breast into fetish object was accompanied by the marketing of synthetic babyfood, lipstick and high-heeled shoes, as the awesome imagery of the mother retreated in the face of the onward march of prostitution.