“Women dressed to suit what men were interested in at the time,” historian Rebecca Morrison-Peck said recently in The Columbian, a Vancouver, Wash., newspaper. From her descriptions—and a quick tour of women’s clothing history—it seems men have been interested mostly in big butts.
Morrison-Peck’s comment came during her recent talk on the “Politics of Underwear” at the Clark County Historical Museum, which is hosting an exhibit titled the “Road to Equality: The Struggle for Women’s Rights in the Northwest” through December 2011.
I’ve done some research of my own. From at least the 16th to early 20th centuries, the politics of underwear involved masochistic torture by means of steel stays, whalebone and layers of wool and cotton disproportionate to the demands of climate and common sense in exchange for such trifles as food, shelter, clothing (how ironic) and the pleasures of motherhood.
For nearly four centuries, women—under the guise of maintaining posture (and it didn’t always have to be straight)—squeezed their vital organs into tiny circles, creating teensy waistlines. The Big Bonus was the Big Butt look men loved and paid for with domestic currency.
Shockingly, a 19th century woman grew up believing her ideal waistline equaled her age. So, an 18-year-old couldn’t leave the house till she gasped her way to an 18-inch waist. Hmmm, according to this equation, I still have a good number of inches to go before reaching my ideal waistline. Bring on the ice cream!
I wrote about women’s debilitating clothing in A Shocking & Unnatural Incident. Miranda Manning is encouraged to try on a Bloomer outfit and peels off layer after layer of restrictive clothing. When someone drops a book on the floor and Miranda bends easily to pick it up, she is tempted to purchase the liberating short dress and bloomers. Following is an excerpt from the book:
“All right, dear,” Miz Stanton giggles. “You can begin by unbuttoning that bodice.” Miz Manning takes a breath, relaxes and her slim fingers tackle the buttons. “Now, what do we have underneath? Oh, a dainty camisole trimmed in lace. Remove it at once!” Everyone laughs.
“Which brings us to—the corset. Here, let me loosen those stays.” Miz Stanton attacks the strings of Miz Manning’s binding like she’s rescuing a suffocating child. “Let’s get you breathing.”
“There must be other uses for whalebone,” cousin Elizabeth ponders.
Even I breathe easier when the strings are sprung.
“Oooooh.” Miz Manning places her hands over her lower back.
“That’s just your kidneys moving back where God intended them.” Miz Stanton smiles sympathetically. “This hourglass figure may be attractive from a man’s viewpoint, but think what it does to your insides. Squashes them together. It’s painful. I know. I’ve worn these devil’s devices.”
“Don’t swear,” Miz Manning complains good-naturedly after her second deep breath.
“It’s just another way men control women. Keep them on the brink of a dead faint then call them delicate. It’s a trap!”
Miz Manning steps out of her wool skirt, but she’s far from undressed. She drops a starched, white muslin petticoat then two flannel ones then the crinoline stiffened with horsehair that makes the whole affair balloon out in what women call high fashion. Finally, Miz Manning stands wearing only a pair of long drawers edged with lace.
Corsets were agonizingly uncomfortable. Bending was painful. Sometimes women couldn’t even sit down. And they wore these torture devices even during pregnancy. It would be interesting to read the number of miscarriages that occurred during this period, but I doubt records were kept.
Small waists and bigger hips—the desirable hourglass figures men loved—were fashionable into the late 1800s. Women got the Big Butt look by tossing as many as 20 petticoats—weighing 40 pounds—over their heads. If anyone asked, “Does this make my butt look big?” the correct response was, “Yes!”
Women finally got a break—or a breath—after World War I. With the right to vote in 1920, came the freedom to wear more comfortable underwear. Men didn’t stop liking big butts. They just accepted them in a more natural form.
“There was a sense of liberation,” Morrison-Peck said. “Women were finding their way with looser garments.”
In the 1920s the corset evolved into the girdle: a smaller and slightly looser constrictor. I remember begging my mother to buy me a girdle when I was a 13-year-old eighth grader, because I thought my butt jiggled when I walked to school. Surprisingly, she did.
My daughters, aged 26 and 31, don’t know what a girdle is. They’ve never worn panty hose. Ah, looks like I’ve raised them right.