Monday, November 12, 2012

Some facts about European underwear, 1700 - 1900

Some facts about European underwear, 1700 - 1900, and its
relationship to what women used for menstruation

In brief - how's that for a pun! - here's what I think:
In some societies today, women use no special "device" to absorb or catch menstrual flow - they simply bleed into their clothing, even if they must stay in a special place during their period (for example, among a group in India; I have heard stories about others).
Apparently many women in certain parts of Europe from 1700 to about 1900 also used nothing special - not rags, not pads, not sponges or anything else - during menstruation, but bled into their clothing. And, because most early American settlers came from Europe, this suggests that some (most? all?) Americans, and probably Canadians, also bled into their clothing at some point in their nations' histories.
Read my grande finale conclusion, with proof.

(All of the pictures and most of the following information come from the terrific catalog of the exhibit of the history of underclothing at the Historical Museum of the City of Frankfurt am Main, Germany, in 1988: authors, Almut Junker und Eva Stille [Almut is a woman's name], Zur Geschichte der Unterwäsche 1700-1960. 1988. Historisches Museum Frankfurt )

In 1700 (and long before) women and men in Germany and France, and probably other European countries and America, wore a long shirt from shoulders to calves, a chemise or vest (Hemd, in German; see the two bottom illustrations on this page), next to their skin, day and night, not underpants and other items common today. The rich and upper classes wore fancy versions, the rest simple ones.

Only men wore pants as outer clothing, a symbol of their authority (in English we still say "so-and-so wears the pants in the family," as do the Germans in their language) although women would sometimes wear versions of them next to their body when riding or when the weather was cold. Later, with the French Revolution and afterwards, women started to wear long-legged underpants to shield themselves under diaphanous dresses, but it took decades for such pants-like underwear to gain wide acceptance among the upper classes and even longer among the common people. They continued to wear only the chemise under their clothing for most of the 19th century. Women who wore traditional regional costume in Germany (and I bet elsewhere) sometimes wore no underpants until the 1950s.

In 1757 a German doctor gave another reason why women shouldn't wear pants or closed underwear: her genitals needed air to allow moisture to evaporate, which could otherwise cause them to decay (German, "vermodern") and "stink." But he conceded that women could wear them in cold weather and to protect against insects. (Christian T. E. Reinhard, in his Satyrische Abhandlung von denen Krankheiten der Frauenspersonen . . . Teil 2, Berlin/Leipzig, 1757, quoted in Zur Geschichte der Unterwäsche 1700-1960.)

An 18th-century woman (this one is from the upper classes) wore no underpants, just achemise (long shirt) under her outer clothing (you can see it run horizontally right under her breasts), like the common people, as this engraving shows. She sits on a toilet (Abtritt) while a man peeps at her through the window.
(Copper engraving from the second half of the 18th century, from Volume 2 of Bilderlexikon, published by the Institut für Sexualforschung Wien, 1928-31, and reproduced in Junker und Stille's "Zur Geschichte der Unterwäsche 1700-1960," 1988, Historisches Museum Frankfurt)

A doll's chemise (Hemd), about 1785, from the underwear exhibit in the Historical Museum of Frankfurt (am Main, Germany), and shown in its catalog "Zur Geschichte der Unterwäsche 1700-1960."

Three patterns for women's chemises - A and C "á l'Angoise," B "á la Françoise" - from Françoise-A. de Garsault, L'Art de lingére, Paris, 1771, reproduced in "Zur Geschichte der Unterwäsche 1700-1960."

Part 2: Some facts about European underwear, 1700 - 1900, and its relationship to what women used for menstruation
(Part 1Part 3)

Two tubes of cloth joined at the waist and open in the crotch formed the earliest women's underpants, around 1800, and remained roughly so until about 1900 - see below and here, where I show a drawing of an American pair in this museum.

 Front of underpants for a doll, about 1830.
Back of same underpants, showing open crotch. From "Zur Geschichte der Unterwäsche 1700-1960."

Part 3: Some facts about European underwear, 1700 - 1900, and its relationship to what women used for menstruation
(Part 1Part 2)

The sun was setting on open-crotch underpants when this pair appeared, probably in the 1890s. Manufacturers offered both kinds as late as 1922 in America (see a section from the American Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog) and even later in Germany. I suspect crotches closed because of shorter and looser, more clinging dresses, allowing women to reach under and pull their drawers down ("draw" means "pull") when on the toilet and to better conceal their vulvas if their dresses hiked up, as from the wind, or from a more active life than in former decades.

German Beinkleid - "leg clothes" - for a woman living at the end of the 19th century.
The arrow (which I added) points to the open crotch. (See 
schematic drawings of American crotchless underpants from about 1890.) The German word for men's pants, "Hose," was considered indecent when applied to women's underpants - thus Beinkleid. From "Zur Geschichte der Unterwäsche 1700-1960."

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