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Smalls talk

From frills and thrills to nothing at all, Chris Bunting uncovers the hidden agenda of underwear

Someone sniggered in the back of the court. Lee Bowyer, the Leeds United footballer accused of a brutal attack on an Asian student, had been asked by his barrister, Desmond de Silva QC, to change into the trousers and shoes he had worn on the night of the alleged assault. It was a dramatic court moment, but Bowyer stood still in the witness stand, apparently struck dumb. Slowly, an awful possibility dawned on de Silva. "Are you wearing underpants?" the urbane silk asked his client. Bowyer's expression eased into a guilty smile and with an embarrassed glance at the public gallery he said: "No, I'm not, no."

The next day, the papers were full of it. Long articles discussed the significance of Bowyer's shocking revelation. Judging by some of the comment, the footballer had broken an unwritten 11th commandment. Never mind his guilt or innocence (he was subsequently exonerated) any young man who appeared in one of Her Majesty's courts with no underpants was a threat to decent society.

Charles Delingpole, writing in The Times, thought it was nothing less than a calculated insult to the man in the street: "What about chafing?I And there is the matter of hygiene. Not without reason do we pants-wearers change our underwear every day. Does the same go for the trousers worn by people who 'go commando'? What can their cleaning bills be like? The answer, I suppose, is that if you're a footballer earning pound;20,000 a week, you don't need to worry about such matters. What better way to greet the coming recession by telling the world you wear no pants? 'Look at me,'

it says. 'I'm so rich, I can wear different trousers every day'."

There's nothing quite like underwear, or the lack of it, to bring out the censoriousness in us. There are a few simple rules to leading a respectable life, the communal subconscious seems to tell us, and one is to put on a clean pair of pants every day. Yet an 18th-century woman would have been scandalised by such a view. In the 1700s, the wearing of underpants by men was by no means compulsory, long shirt-tails wrapped around the crotch were a common substitute until well into the modern era. The wearing of pants by women was not only not compulsory - it was taboo. The idea of fabric touching a woman's genitalia was outrageous.

There had long been whisperings of this strange practice from continental Europe. The early 17th-century Cambridge scholar, Fynes Morison, on a visit to Italy, recorded that: "The city Virgins, and especially GentlewomenI in many places weare silke or linen breeches under their gownes." The artist and fashion historian Maurice Leloir says women's pants were also popular in France at this time, having been introduced from Italy by Catherine de Medici in the previous century. But the English appear to have been opposed to this barbarous novelty. Pepys, writing in his diary in 1663, seemed to regard the wearing of knickers as a sign of infidelity in his French wife:

"I am ashamed to think what a course I did take by lying to see whether my wife did wear drawers today as she did use to, and other things to raise my suspicions of her."

It was not until after the French Revolution that knickers began to be accepted. The egalitarian ideas spreading across Europe after the storming of the Bastille produced perhaps the most radical changes to women's fashions seen in history. The enormous bustles and elaborate laces of the ancien regime were suddenly discarded, not just in Paris but all over Europe, in deference to more practical clothing that blurred the distinction between leisured and working classes. Paris fashion leader Madame Hamelin is reputed to have taken walks in public parks completely naked except for a thin shawl of gauze.

Although women in London would not have dared to emulate such feats, they reduced their petticoats to a fraction of their former weight. At the outbreak of the Napoleonic wars, English society women discarded still more of the mass of restrictive lingerie with which they had once advertised their membership of the leisured classes, perhaps making the adoption of underpants under very light skirts a necessary precaution. In any event, knee-length drawers and ankle-length "pantalettes" began to appear in 1806.

A decade later, the old-fashioned Lady Spencer could still be thrown into a rage by the sight of them. She thundered in a letter to a friend: "We were insulted by the presence of Lady Charlotte Lindsay inI trowsers to the ankle much below the petticoat."

But guardians of morality and health slowly began to adopt the idea. In 1841, The Handbook of the Toilet enthused: "Drawers are of incalculable advantage to women who expose themselves to a variety to diseases from the usual form of their garments. In France, drawers form a necessary part of female attire, and many indispositions to which British females are continually subject are prevented by their use."

By 1900, it was as inconceivable for upper-class women not to wear knickers as it had been to wear them in 1800, and they were gradually adopted throughout society. Similar changes have been seen in other cultures. In 1932, a fierce blaze broke out on the fourth floor of the Shirakiya Department Store in Tokyo. Some accounts say that up to a dozen women trapped on the floors above the fire were killed because they hesitated to climb down ropes with a large crowd of men below while wearing nothing below their kimonos. Other reports have it that only one woman died when she fell from a rope while trying to adjust her kimono. Whatever the truth, the incident was ruthlessly exploited by promoters of western underwear in a highly successful campaign to convince women that modern architecture had rendered traditional underclothes obsolete. Almost overnight, Japanese women's view of knickers was transformed.

Underwear's history has in fact been a riot of constantly changing practices. The great Victorian politician Benjamin Disraeli didn't think twice before lacing up his stays. He was actually a bit of a throwback to the heyday of the male corset, between 1818 and 1830, when a contemporary observer, Felix McDonough, stated that "all people of fashion wore them in town" and that the prevailing male fashion was "to be pinched in and laced up until he resemble an earwig". The absence of a corset on an upper-class man seems to have occasioned more comment than its presence. Thomas Creevey recorded in his diary that a friend had "left off his stays and his belly now hangs over his knees".

But perhaps the most vivid example of how attitudes can change is not the male corset, but its female equivalent. While a modern man might consider it a bit of a blow to his manhood to be squeezing himself into a Brummell bodice, many women would resist such restrictions even more fiercely. A popular modern interpretation of the combinations of corsets and capacious hooped petticoats that manipulated English women into increasingly bizarre shapes from the Elizabethan period on is that they functioned as a tool for the oppression of women. In the 1970s, writer Helene Roberts decried them as designed to "mould female behaviour to the role of the 'exquisite slave'". Tightly laced stays, unwieldy crinoline cages and tiny slippers, she said, enforced women's place as frivolous, inactive and submissive companions for men.

For feminists, the corset in particular is a cause cel bre. It is widely believed that women endured terrible discomforts in their efforts to constrict their waists into ever smaller circumferences.

Elizabeth Ryan, one the greatest tennis doubles players, once described a typical scene in a club dressing room before the First World War. The club, she said, usually provided a rail near the fireplace on which to dry the whalebone and steel corsets which the women wore when playing. "It was never a pretty sight," she recalled, "For most of them were bloodstained."

Some Victorian women, we are told, managed to fit themselves into 18-inch waistlines - an unfeasible circumference for most; modern writers have claimed this would have mutilated women's spinal cords and internal organs.

As early as the 1870s, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps anticipated the "burn the bra" feminist rhetoric of the 1960s: "Burn the corsets!" she said. "Make a bonfire of the cruel steels that have lorded it over your thorax and abdomen and heave a sigh of relief."

But some researchers have contested the demonisation of the corset, arguing that it is a classic example of our tendency to misunderstand the fashion choices of our forebears. David Kunzle, who described the corset as the "scapegoat of costume history", pointed out that most contemporary critics of corsetry, far from being enlightened emancipators, were concerned about the garment's use by young women as an instrument of sexual and social assertion. Their reaction to its emphasising of female curves could be compared to the prudish criticism of Madonna when she adopted the conical corsetry of Jean Paul Gaultier on the concert stage.

Kunzle characterises many contemporary critics as believers in the concept of the "natural woman", an ideal of sexually unaware and passive femininity devoted to relentless childrearing and domesticity. To them, the corset and the crinoline were dangerous symbols of sexually aware and socially active womanhood. The Handbook of the Toilet argued that tight lacing of stays produced an "injurious pressure upon those forms which nature has given women as fountains of nourishment for their offspring: the downward pressure may even produce protrusion of the intestine, which has spoiled the prospects and fortune of many a girl who has brought it upon herself".

Ironically, Kunzle says, exaggerated tales of the physical dangers of corsets from Victorian conservatives were repeated as fact by feminists to convict the corset as an instrument of sexual oppression. The common idea that Victorian women were trying to fit themselves into 18-inch waists also seems to be based on a misunderstanding. Corset-makers of the period, when describing the width of their strictures, measured the corset fabric without including the three or four inches of lacing that connected the two sides.

Whatever the truth, the debate is a powerful example of our constantly changing attitudes to and experience of our most intimate layer of clothing. Since 1900, our underclothes have evolved beyond what the Victorians would have considered feasible, let alone proper. What would Kunzle's 19th-century moralists have made of the thong, let alone "pregnancy thongs" now commonplace in high street shops?

Technological innovation has played a key part in driving changes in underwear. In the early 20th century, cheaper dyes produced new coloured undergarments for women, scandalising traditionalists who associated white underwear with purity (white is still the most popular colour among British women, unlike many of their continental peers). Inexpensive factory-produced silks and other fabrics also helped encourage some of the most extravagant underwear fashions in history. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, women donned layer upon layer of elaborately frilled and sometimes coloured petticoats and drawers. The fashion writer Mrs Pritchard advised society women to put aside one-fifth of their clothing budget on underwear: "for the Cult of Chiffon has this in common with the Christian religion - it insists the invisible is more important that the visible." Invisible, but not inaudible: underwear, for the first and last time in history, was deliberately designed to make a racket: young women entranced suitors with the rustling of chiffon.

Innovation in men's underwear concentrated on more utilitarian concerns.

Colour did not really break out under trousers until after the Second World War, but in 1910, Horace Greeley Johnson, the American called the "Edison of underwear", revolutionised the market with his patent for the Kenosha Klosed-Krotch union suit. A shapeless all-in-one, ankle to neck woollen suit, it included, like most underwear of the period, the wondrous X-front.

Previously, long johns had featured buttons or tied flaps. They were, according to one contemporary, "humpy, lumpy, creasy, baggy propositions, chafing and cutting your nethers". Johnson's solution, two overlapping pieces of fabric that could be drawn apart when necessary, sold by the million.

Four years later, men added comfort to convenience when the undie company Bradley, Voorheis and Day introduced nainsook, a light cotton forerunner of the artificial-fibre combinations that now crowd the underwear shelves. The company also chopped off the traditional sleeves and long legs and started a trend towards briefer male, and, latterly, female underwear, that perhaps saw its ultimate expression in Bowyer's decision to leave off his pants entirely.

In 1935, the revolutionary new Jockey brief, covering only the crotch area, was ordered to be removed from the Marshall Field store display in Chicago because management thought it was ridiculous to display such a skimpy design in the middle of winter. Before the display could be removed, 600 had been sold and perhaps the most iconic piece of male underwear, the Y-front, had begun its dazzling career.

Technological innovation hasn't been the only ruler of underwear fashion: celebrity and knickers always enjoyed a close working relationship. Joan Crawford and Lester Vail helped define the tastes of the early 1930s when they danced on the silver screen in a satin camisole for her and "gripper drawers" and a vest for him. In 1934, Clark Gable appeared bare-chested in It Happened One Night and helped decimate the vest market, while boxer shorts, the only challenger to the Y-front for the affections of 20th-century men, became a serious player in the early 1950s when heavyweight boxer Rocky Marciano promoted them. Boxers re-emerged with a vengeance with Nick Kamen's famous Levi's launderette commercial in 1985, in a similar way to the Wonderbra, which swept the bra market courtesy of Eva Herzegova's endorsement in the late 1990s. In the last two cases, the undies made the celebrity, rather than the other way around.

Fashions in outerwear have also helped determine choice of underwear.

Women's underwear was pushed above the hip by the popularity of the leotard in the 1980s. The voluminous petticoats and bloomers of the early 1900s could hardly survive the diaphanous women's fashions of the 1920s, and tight trousers in the 1960s necessitated much briefer briefs for men.

Sometimes, the two layers even swapped places. In the 1950s, the T-shirt escaped, courtesy of Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, from the lower layer into the public realm and caused a sensation.

But according to the Japanese sociologist Chizuko Ueno, it is modern underwear's very hidden-ness that is the key to its enduring hold on our imagination. While the T-shirt has been reduced to a workaday garment since it gained its cheap celebrity, once pure white but now scrawled with icons and slogans to try to attract our attention, we are still prepared to spend small fortunes on a layer of clothing that is destined never to be seen by any but our nearest and dearest. British women spend more on underwear, pound;80 per year on average, than any of their Continental peers, and the men are behind only the Germans and the Italians.

The reason why we are prepared to spend such large sums, says Ueno, is because our most intimate layer of clothing, while influenced by technology, exterior fashions and public morality, is really about our own ideas of ourselves. Because it is so private, we express ourselves to ourselves in our underwear in a way that we cannot do with, say, our jeans.

We can be a sex idol one day in a silky thong and a Lycra-supported sports legend the next, and nobody will be any the wiser. It is, Ueno famously said, the "Theatre under our Skirt" or, in Mr Bowyer's case, a rather harrowing existentialist drama under his trousers.

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