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Sep. 18, 2019 | Wednesday
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An undercover look at undergarments through the centuries
Rita Brown spoke about the history of underwear at the Niagara Historical Society and Museum last week. (Brittany Carter/Niagara Now file photo)

Underwear is much more than a hygienic and protective material. Throughout history, the underwear worn by an individual has signified class, privilege, wealth, status, gender expression and sometimes is even political.

The long and fascinating history of underwear was examined by Rita Brown Thursday evening at the Niagara Historical Society and Museum.

An audience of about 70 gathered as the former head of wardrobe at the Shaw Festival spoke about undergarments from ancient Egyptian and Greek times to present-day skimpy underwear.

Brown said the birth of modesty no doubt contributed to the invention of underclothing by both hiding and revealing what one wanted to show.

She focused on the undergarments of the aristocratic members of society from the 15th to 20th century.

“This is always how fashion has spread: it begins at the top and usually by the very wealthy, before it takes hold and becomes a fashion for the masses,” said Brown.

“Underwear has long been a badge of respectability. Even when it is kept hidden, it covers, protects, warms and cools. It supports, firms and shapes and is part of our hygiene,” said Brown.

Today, underwear is much, much less constricting than in the past.

The torment women underwent to present themselves during the Middle Ages and Renaissance was highlighted in Brown’s lecture. She covered various items of antiquated clothing garments women used to wear including: corsets, crinolines, petticoats and sleeve puffs.

Until the 17th century, corsets and outer clothing for women were all made by men, she said.

Underwear has been responsible for the emphasis on and definition of the waist. According to Brown, almost every historical development in women’s fashion has centred on the waist.

Before the revolution and after the Renaissance, the influence of free-thinkers such as Voltaire set France free from modesty. “Women were more than an ornament (they were a) motivating force,” said Brown. For the first time, underwear became sexy. Necklines plunged and waistlines were expanded.

Corsets, tightly fitted undergarments worn to shape and cinch the torso, were popularized in the 18th century, worn by the bourgeoisie and served as a sign of superiority. “The corset was more vital than life itself,” said Brown.

She revealed that girls as young as age two would wear corsets to get used to the constricted feeling and there were even corsets specifically designed for pregnant women, which instead of tying at the back would tie at each side.

After centuries of wearing corsets, which sheath the body in armour to make them to look more desirable, Brown said women finally jettisoned the instrument of torture at the beginning of the 20th century. “They replaced it with an item of clothing that was just as complicated but a little less restricting – the brassiere.”

Although the corset fell out of favour, it has made a comeback in women’s fashion today. Corsets, along with other types of underwear, have turned into fashionable outerwear. Waist-trainers and corsets are promoted on Instagram by celebrities such as Kim Kardashian. Corset-style clothing is also a popular fashion trend.

During the Renaissance, it was imperative to distinguish oneself from the common people, which explains the absurd and often ridiculous outfits women wore.

Panniers, wide-hoop undergarments, were quite literally baskets tied around a woman’s waist. Many that were worn at formal outings such as court were at least six feet wide, making it necessary for women to turn sideways while passing through a doorway and limiting women to two or three in a room.

Now, almost 20 years into the 21st century, women are still dependant on foundations, said Brown.

“Not much (has) changed from the late 20th century, be it by diet and exercise or ongoing and evolving designs of a new generation of supportive undergarments, including Spanx.”

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