Friday, October 12, 2018

The wonders of knicker elastic

What school boy’s memories would be incomplete without reference to knicker elastic? From early romantic fumbling to an excellent medium for sling and shot, knickers elastic can hold its own. The origins of elastic and female underwear are comparatively recent which may help to explain why underclothing has only recently become a focus for fetishist attention. By the 16th century the ankle had become the sexiest part of the body and both men and women strived to highlight them. According to Anthony Wood (1663) the Seventeenth Century was a strange effeminate age, when men clambered to imitate women in their apparel. Shoe fashions in the late 1600s reflected a period when shortened skirts led to elaborately decorated stockings and high heeled shoes. All this was to create the mark of a pedigree which was epitomised by a high arched foot. Both men and women were at pains to present their feet in as dainty (small) a way as possible.

The ankle was particularly appealing and the raised heel and colourful stockings made this all the more eye catching. Stockings were made from silks and held up with garters of various types. Elasticated garters only became available in the next century when Frenchman, Charles de la Condamine discovered Caoutchouc in Brazil (1731). de la Condamine noted local natives would waterproof their shoes with the resin of certain trees. Only when realisation the milky sap (elastica) of certain trees from Africa, Eastern Asia and India when dried demonstrated elasticity did the beginning of the elastic industry arrive. Once it was discovered how to vulcanise the raw elastica then the elastic industry became firmly established. This idea was patented by 1882 and by 1893 there were a lot of suspender belts available. Elasticated garters took on but were eventually replaced by suspenders.

When the corset was introduced stockings were held in position by suspenders attached to the front of the fashionable stays for women, and as men adopted long trousers mid calf suspenders were worn to keep up their socks. Prior to this the shoe fashions of 1860-1870 had concentrated on exposing the toes which was counterbalanced with colourful stockings. Plain white cotton or silk were used with daytime house shoes, and coloured stockings were worn with the latest novelty of the time, ankle boots. The Osborne, Balmoral and Imperatrice (made in France from satin with patient leather tips) were three exotic shoes styles of the period. Circular designs and spotted socks, monochrome or coloured on contrasting backgrounds became popular. After the death of Prince Albert in 1861, silk or cashmere was the preferred fabric with violet the colour of choice. Strong colours were everywhere by 1865 for both day and night wear. In the 19th century legs were considered to indicate class with the long and elegant look the mark of aristocracy. Long legs became associated with moral probity, decency, worthiness and reliability whereas the lower class leg was short, sturdy and denoted the opposite. Malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies were common in the general populous of spreading urban ghettos of Victorian cities. Rickets (osteomalacia) caused legs bend where as the better fed middle and upper classes were less affected. For women the well formed male leg encased in stockings became the main erogenous zone for nineteenth century. The cut of clothes (sartoria) highlighted height with the long leg and tall hats contributing to the streamline athletic appearance which remained the hallmark of aristocracy. Croquet was popular in the nineteenth century because it focused male attention on the female leg. A writer of 1867 wrote "One of the chief reasons of the pleasure men take in this game is the sight of a neatly turned ankle and pretty boots.”

The garter fell from favour as suspender belts became more popular. Critics of the garter and promoters the new elasticated suspender soon played the health card and condemned garters as the cause of cramps and varicose veins causing by their unnatural constrictions of the blood flow. Early suspender belts were made in satin and elastic had gilt mounts and clips with a shaped belt fitting round the corset. During 1880s for daywear under the heavy bustled dress, women wore cotton or wool stockings. The wealthy wore ribbed cashmere stockings. Plain coloured stockings were the fashion of time and these often had embroidered clocks to cover the seams at the ankle. Sometimes these were matched but also contrasting clocks were worn too. For eveningwear respectable girls wore dyed silk with fanciful, designs and embroidered up the front of the leg. Red silks with flights of swallows or pale and interesting yellow, wreathed in butterflies or garlands of flowers were common. More flighty types sported embroidered snakes that coiled sexily around the claves. By 1888 black stockings had become the fashion for both day and nightwear and may came from pragmatism as many working girls travelled on public transport. As liberated women took to recreation and sport, special clothing including pantaloons and stockings were developed for walking, bicycling and tennis. Much use was made of the new elasticated rubber. Knickers’ elastic had arrived. Black stockings were the preferred colour for tennis and swimming costumes and as hemline rose men’s eyes were tuned to a well turned ankle.

Suspenders took a definitive place in the history of eroticism. Can Can dancers from mid 1890 displayed not just the petticoats but also the forbidden expanse of thigh flesh highlighted by black suspenders. Stockings remained short necessitating long suspenders. The demise of the wooden toilet seat was thought to have taken place because the metal clips in suspenders caused severe splintering of the polish surface. To those with disposable income fashionable garments at the end of the nineteenth century were truly sumptuous. When cheaper off the peg clothing became available working class girls took greater interest in their appearance and this was actively encouraged with the introduction of mass printing and the availability of magazines and periodicals. The beauties of theatre and High Society were slavishly copied. By the Second World War stockings and suspenders were ubiquitous but war time shortages and rationing meant the new nylons were in short supply in Europe. Undeterred working women unable to get hold of stockings bought creams in a variety of shades which they applied to their legs to give the impression they were wearing stockings. To complete the illusion a special pencil was used to draw a straight line down the back of the leg to give the appearance of a seam.

McDowell C 1997 The man of fashion :Peacock males and prefect gentlemen London: Thames and Hudson

Reviewed 19/08/2016

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