Apparently August 6th is International Underwear Day. (Who thinks up these things? And who has international underwear anyway? Not I. Oh wait, I think some of my knickers might be made in China.) In which case, "Hi, I'm Anne and I wear . . . (pause for dramatic effect). . . International Underwear! (And no, there will be no photo.)
Not that I'm suggesting you all rush out to purchase International Underwear of any sort — although somehow the thought of French knickers feels like a very sexy thing to do. How did the French do that — create that automatically sexy association? Because name your undies from any other country and it's —yeah? So what? But say French undies and it's ooh-la-la, or the 21st century version of.
In any case, the question here is, what would a nice Regency-era girl like Jane Austen wear under her chemise? Probably nothing. Because good girls back then didn't wear knickers. (or drawers which was the correct term for early English knickers.)
As I said in a blog a few years ago, the fashion crept across the English Channel from—yes, you guessed it — France. According to my favorite book on undies, THE HISTORY OF UNDERCLOTHES, by Willett and Cunnington, the earliest English reference to the wearing of drawers comes in Samuel Pepys' diary, where he suspected his wife of intended infidelity and watched her dressing.
"I am ashamed to think what a course I did take by lying in to see whether my wife did wear drawers today as she did use to . . "
However, Mrs Pepys was a Frenchwoman, so might have brought the articles in question with her. And the question of how the wearing of drawers might be an indication of infidelity to come is not answered. Was it because they were daring and glamorous and exotic—the 17th Century version of her naughty pants? Or because Mrs Pepys only has a few pairs that were kept for special outings. We can only speculate.
According to Willett and Cunnington drawers for women began to come into fashion in England around 1806 and were, at first, modeled on the ones worn by men. The waistband was drawn in and held by a lace or tie, the legs tubular or gathered at the knee. The pic here is of drawers owned by the Duchess of Kent (around 1820.) The cost of a pair of drawers was between about 3 and 4 shillings, so not for the poor.
Pantaloons for women came in later—they were longer than drawers—and the name was soon feminized to pantalettes. These were different in that they were intended to be seen, below the hemline which was, of course, controversial.
Lady Stanley complained in a letter in 1817, "We were insulted by the presence of (Lady) Charlotte (Lindsay) in a green silk Spencer, green silk boots and trowsers to the ankle much below the petticoat." Clearly Lady Charlotte Lindsay was a dasher. This fashion didn't last— except for young girls and children. (It reminds me of the brief fashion for "witches britches" in my childhood — see pic below. I remember my mother wearing them.)
Interestingly, according to Willett and Cunnington, French writer on fashion attributed the introduction of drawers to the English custom of schoolgirls wearing them for physical exercise, and claim that the fashion crossed the Channel in the other direction. (And thus the French and English traditions of each blaming the other were preserved.)
Whatever, conservative members of society were appalled and outraged by the wearing of these obviously masculine garments by delicate females and all kinds of horrific outcomes were predicted. I blogged about them here, if you're interested.
We can look back and snigger today at such ignorance, but I was amazed to discover that the controversy is still around today. Church leaders in some areas are ordering women to stop wearing knickers and quoting Biblical passages forbidding the wearing of men's apparel by women. The debate continues.
So, what about you? Will you join in the celebration of International Underwear Day by wearing some foreign or exotic knickers, will you proclaim your virtue by "going commando" (ie wearing no knickers), will you string a pair of colorful knickers from the nearest flagpole, will you dig out your mother's witches britches, or will you simply make some underpant toast (yes there truly is such a thing: instructions here) and have it with a cup of your favorite brew? Curious minds want to know. (And others are simply asking "Show us your knickers!")