Fashion,  ThreadTalk

Underneath It All

1 – Welcome to #ThreadTalk & gird your loins! We're talking skivvies, undies, unmentionables, lingerie🩲– that's right: underwear.

Tonight we'll part the veil & to find what lies beneath. We've got witchcraft, weird myths & plenty of spice. 🔥 🔥 🔥

But first, mummies!

Magenta silk satin brocaded in yellow and green. Woman's corset of pink silk satin brocade, with a patten of small flowers in yellow and green, trimmed with cream lace and yellow silk satin ribbon. The centre front fastens with metal hooks and eyes and the reverse can be tightened with a length of yellow robbon, interlaced through metal eyelets. Strips of steel sewn into the body with rows of machine stitching. English, by Sykes, Josephine and Co., London, about 1890 - 1900. - National Museum of Scotland

2 – Tradition says Adam & Eve used fig leaves, but the most likely first "underwear" was woven of plant materials or leather. Hence, it's hard to find extant remains.

Ötzi the Iceman, though, who's about 3500 years old, had a very well preserved one. So did the Aztecs, pictured.

A descriptive cartoon of the Aztec people goin about daily life, in various states of clothing. Most are wearing robes, and some are clad in loincloths. Public domain via Wikipedia.

3 – Loincloths were kind of a global sensation for a while. Got a belt and some felt? Strap it together, vavoom!
Unsurprisingly, the ancient Egyptians used linen for their flappy bits. Indeed, King Tut had a staggering 145 loincloths starched and pressed for the afterlife.

From the tomb of King Tut, four figures preparing a mummy. The two middle ones are wearing linen clothing skirts, much like fancy loin cloths.

4 – Another kind of underwear (which also doubles as outerwear) art historians cleverly call a "cache-sexe" (or "modesty skirt") in tribal communities all around the world. This one dates from the 12th century & is from the now vanished Tellem People of West Africa.

This carefully crafted object is part of a rare group of female "modesty skirts," which are thought to have been worn low on the hips and held in place with a fiber cord. Commonly called a "cache-sexe," these fiber skirts are the oldest of their type to have survived the tropical climate of West Africa. The remarkable state of preservation of this example is due to the favorable climatic conditions of the cave in which it was found. Located within the Bandiagara Escarpment of present-day Mali, these caves are historically significant as the home of the ancient Tellem people, to whom this object is attributed, and later the Dogon. 

This cache-sexe consists of three interconnected layers and is constructed from a sophisticated combination of plating and twining techniques.

5 – The Romans, bless their hearts, introduced two-piece underthings.

This mosaic shows female athletes in such garments. I'm pretty sure would still cause a stir on Bella Hadid's IG. The bottom was called a subligaculum and the top strophium.

Women on a mosaic playing various sports in two-piece undergarments -- one looks like a bandeau bra, the other like a loincloth.

6 – Consequently, however, the Romans were not prepared for cold weather. Soldiers wrote home from Britain begging for socks… to wear with their sandals. 😳

These date from 300-499 AD & were found in Egypt, but Romans likely wore similar.

Apologies to Big Bird…

A pair of sandal socks, bright orange, knitted around 300-499 AD. They look like Big Bird feet.

7 – In China, women wore a variety of undergarments including the dudou, a triangular halter-like top, which popular during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

Judging by the very spicy paintings I found (this one was strategically cropped) it was quite scandalous. Ahem.

A woman and a man "embracing enthusiastically" -- the woman is wearing one of the traditional undergarments of the Ming Dynasty, a kind of apron that covers her front. There is a camellia behind them, I think. via Wikimedia commons.

8 – In the Indian subcontinent, warmer climates meant free-flowing clothes. There was also less sexualization of female bodies.

Well, not until Western colonists started imposing their standards. Because of course.

Here Saravati wears the Kashmiri kurta-mode style of dress.

This crowned goddess, wearing a distinctive Kashmiri-style kurta-mode of dress, holds an upright sword in one hand and the severed head of a goat in the other. She likely represents Sarada (autumn), the Kashmiri synonym for Saravati, the goddess of learning. Her two lower hands rest on two diminutive male figures, each holding a manuscript, who presumably embody the complementary elements of knowledge (vidya) and wisdom (jnana) and consciously mimic Vishnu’s personified weapons, the purusas. The Sarada Mahatmya speaks of offering meat to Sarada, a reminder of her Durga-like origins, alongside her role as the embodiment of knowledge texts. Met Museum: public domain

9 – Which brings us to the Middle Ages in Europe.

1st thing's first. There were all manner of weird undergarments in the Middle Ages, but chastity belts weren't one of them.

Nope, they're a fabrication. We thought this one was from the 15th c–it's from the 19th. SMH.

A padlocked fabricated "chastity device" -- totally not real. But still with some sharp points.

10 – Which is not to say men weren't REALLY CONCERNED with what happened between a woman's legs. More on that later.

A cilice, or hair shirt, was self-injuring clothing worn by medieval Christians. St. John the Baptist (by Leonardo here) purportedly wore one, as did Charlemagne.

Leonardo da Vinci's St. John the Baptist, pointing up and smiling. If you look you can see the furs draped over his front. Wikimedia commons, public domain.

11 – In medieval Europe it was all about the layers for both men and women.

Men wore types of trousers called braes, which came in a variety of lengths & styles depending on need. This is from the rom the Maciejowski Bible (13thC), and gives some idea to construction.

Three men sparring with weapons in varying states of dress. You can see the rolled up waist, tied with a string, on one of the wearers, as well as the long hose and loincloth style of the other. Public Domain.

12 – For women, it was about the chemise, and the surcoat, and the layers upon layers. But by the 14th century, tight-fitting tops changed the silhouette, making way for the cone shape of the Renaissance & our friend, stays.

See below. Feat: strategically placed ewer.

Two women bathing a man in white, long dresses. He is naked save for a very ... intriguingly placed gourd? Wikimedia Commons.

13 – Stays, the precursor to the modern corset, used to be called "two bodies" & were fully boned bodices. They could be structured with reeds or whalebone.

This is where things get sticky, though, from a terminology standpoint. This example is from 1660.

Front lacing stays and busk of pink watered silk, lined with linen and fully boned. All the outside edges of the stays are bound with pink silk grosgrain ribbon. The sleeves are made separately and laced into the armholes with pink silk ribbons and points of tinned iron. There is a band of back-stitched embroidery at the neckline and armholes and a line of couched thread at the waist. The separate busk is boned vertically and horizontally, at the top, and completely bound with pink silk grosgrain ribbon.

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

14 – Depending on location and time, stays could be what we think of now as corsets–or jumps, which were quilted and padded undergarments that were much more comfortable, like this one below, which had matching POCKETS. 🌈🌈🌈

Because pockets, too, were a kind of undergarment.

Woman’s waistcoat or jumps made of yellow silk taffeta, backed with yellow silk taffeta and bound with yellow grosgrain silk ribbon. It has a shallow V neckline and rounded skirts below the waist. Inside there are 5 canvas panels, 1 at centre back reinforced with 6 strips of baleen, 2 at each side with 4 strips of baleen and 1 on each front with 5 strips. The waistcoat is quilted in a diamond pattern with yellow silk floss in running stitch. There is a quilted border of a floral design along the front edges and skirt hems. It fastens at centre front with 11 worked lacing holes on each side. - ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

15 – YES POCKETS. You can see here, how the pockets worked, under the petticoat. These pockets matched the waistcoat/jumps from above, so I just had to show them.


16 – Busks were essential in stay/corset-making, because they helped give rigidity — but they were also a perfect sexy gift to slip right between the folds, ahem.

Lovers often gave engraved busks to their sweethearts. This ivory busk dates from the 16th/17th century.

(c)Victoria and Albert Museum, London - Busk or stay bone, carved ivory, decorated with foliage patterns in silver pique work and inset with horn, probably France, ca. 1590-1610 or ca. 1660-1680

17 – If there's ONE THING that #Bridgerton got SO WRONG it was the corsetry. I powered through.

FIRSTLY. Women in the late Georgian & Regency wore stays, & they were not cinching nightmares. The whole point was to look like they weren't wearing anything beneath! Below: ca 1800.

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London - Woman’s stays of white cotton twill, lined with linen, bound with linen twill tape and stitched with linen thread. They reach to the bottom of the ribs with unboned skirts at the bottom edge and a squared point at the front and back. They are partially boned and back opening with 8 worked lacing holes on either side. The stays are cut in 8 pieces with a 3/16-inch (3mm) wide white silk ribbon covering the front and side seams. The cups at the front are insertions of 2 layers of cotton twill stitched with 3 horizontal casings with drawstrings, but no openings for adjustment. There is decorative lacing at the centre front and small rectangular pads on each side at the back to add volume to the back of the gown. The shoulder straps have been unstitched at the front.

18 – The whole "tight corset" trope is just lazy. There were plenty of other horrific beauty standards to concern oneself with. Stays relied on quilting & boning, not tight-lacing.

Even a steel-boned corset, if fitted well, shouldn't have caused bruising & skin chaffing.

(c)Victoria and Albert Museum, London - White cotton corset with silk trapunto work. Busk down centre middle, separate breast double-gussets with trapunto strap in centre of each breast. Corded and quilted work down sides of corset, armholes set quite far back. Laces down the back.

19 – Which brings me to my next topic. We've covered tops, but what about bottoms?

WELL. Most of the time women just… didn't wear anything "down there." During menstruation, even. Though they did sometimes use rags. It wasn't until dresses got BIG that the privy was a problem.

20 – So how did… women… you know… go?

Well, one way was the bourdalou. These extant "gravy boats" confused (male) historians for quite some time.

It was a portable chamber pot of sorts, designed to allow a lady to relieve herself without soiling her petticoats. Ahem.

21 – Why do we know so little about this stuff? Well, bleeding women were *clearly* witches. No, seriously. Pliny thought so, and then, centuries of Western men agreed.

Eventually, women got "open drawers" because men believed it was improper not to have good ventilation.

22 – Anyway, eventually bustles happened because dresses got SO BIG. The panniers, hoops, & crinolines were not only FLAMMABLE (we've covered this) but going to the bathroom was an ORDEAL.

Bustles are super cool from a structural perspective. This one was called THE PHANTOM.

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London - The bustle had first appeared in the late 1860s. It was then part of the 'crinolette', in which excess fabric left over from the once bell-shaped skirts was draped over the hips and bunched up behind. By the 1870s, the bustle had become a separate undergarment in its own right. The new form of bustle was known as a 'tournure' or 'dress-improver', as the word 'bustle' was considered vulgar by Victorian ladies.

23 – Steel boning meant that yes, sometimes corsets were awful. But, as someone who has worn a good fitting corset numerous times, it's not a torture device if worn correctly.

I am obsessed with this ribbon corset because it looks like a ribcage & I'm getting Harrowhark vibes.

"Ribbon corset" made from strips of cream silk satin ribbon connecting boning and lacings, metal fastenings. ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

24 – This corset makes me *feel things.* Right around 1895 or so, so it's probably chemical dyed. The hook on the front is for the petticoat hitching — you see similar bits and bobs for affixing the many layers found in gowns of the 19th century.

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London - Corset made of pink satin trimmed with black machine-made lace through which is threaded with a dark pink satin ribbon. The corset is a short hip length dipping to a point over the stomach in front. It fastens with loops and studs in the centre front, and has an eyelet and matching cord adjustment at the centre back. There are bust and hip gores, and the corset is medium boned. It is machine-stitched, bright pink edged and hand-flossing, with metal slot-and-stud fastenings.

25 – To get an idea of what I mean, here's a delightful little video of a woman dressing in an 1898 Worth ballgown.

26 – Which is not to say there weren't ACTUAL torture traps. Iron corsets were a thing, for men and women, but some were for orthopedic use.

This one dates from the 18th century. Ouch. But somehow also yum?

(c)Victoria and Albert Museum, London - Iron bodice, corset style, made from shaped pieces of metal, square and round cutouts creating a mesh effect. Hinged at sides. One side of corset detached. Lacing holes around lower edge of corset.

27 – Now for a few gowns with STRUCTURE. This 1872 piece still echoes the big crinolines, but you can see the bustle shifting up and back for easier movement around, you know, one's own life?

Could definitely be poison green.

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London Dress, peplum and belt of bright green silk. The silk has a figured pattern of black and white leaves on a speckled ground.

The dress is trimmed with looped green silk braid. With a low, square neckline with a bow at the back and long pagoda sleeves. The waist is round and the skirt is gored and pleated with a gathered panel at the centre of the back. The bodice is boned and lined with white glazed cotton, the sleeves are faced with white silk and lined with pleated white silk ribbon. The bodice fastens with hooks and has pads to enlarge the bust.

The peplum is hip-length, lined with black buckram, draped and trimmed with a silk braid and fringe.

The belt has a bow at the back and is lined with black buckram.

28 – This dolman from Pingat clearly is making way for the bustle! Bye bye shawls, hello dolmans. It's got arctic fox fur and chenille, and uses voided velvet. SWOON. Very White Witch.

Dolman-sleeved jacket of cream silk voided velvet with a design of ostrich feathers, trimmed at the neck and front, cuffs and hems with white artic fox and a silk chenille fringe. Lined with machine-quilted satin.

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

29 – And this sinner–er, dinner–dress. That is a downright dump truck of a bustle. This dates from 1884/86, and I just wanna touch those pleats please.

The bustle was at its greatest extension by 1885. It was almost perpendicular to the back and heavily upholstered. The 1880s versions were as padded and heavily embellished as a drawing-room hassock of the period. It was a popular conceit that the cantilevers of these bustles could support an entire tea service. To sustain the greater weight of the 1880s gowns, light and flexible infrastructures were created with flexible materials--wire, cane, whalebone--held together by canvas tapes or inserted into quilted channels. - The Met Museum. Gown of coral with pale peach pleats.

30 – LOTS of good reading this week. This is a big subject, and I had to cut for length (hah). But if you're curious, begin:

31 – Sources, part two:

32 – Sources… part three!

33 – And FOUR sources.

34 – Thanks for hanging out with me tonight! It's always a pleasure. That concludes this week's #ThreadTalk!

Of note: did the Guggenheim steal its look from this bustle?

This 1871 bustle is made of metal wire fully encased in cotton fabric. Of the means employed to force the projecting hoops toward the back of the body, the most common were interior fabric tapes or a panel that lay against the back of the body. This solution was not unlike that used to create eighteenth-century panniers. - Met museum

Originally tweeted by Natania Barron (@NataniaBarron) on April 12, 2021.