For most of history, what women wore under their skirts was exactly what Scotsmen are said to wear under their kilts — in other words, nothing.
Wearing underpants, after all, would defeat the whole purpose of skirts, which is to make time in the privy quick and easy. This is why for millennia men wore pants and women wore skirts, though now we retain the form without the function, like rhyming poetry.
This brings us to pantalettes.
Pantalettes were a sort of undergarment like bloomers — baggy long underpants that went down to the ankle. They appear to have originated in early nineteenth-century France and spread to England and the U.S., before dying out toward mid-century.
Pantalettes often came as two single legs, like stockings, rather than as a two-legged single garment like a modern pair of pantyhose. You tied on a waistband and then you tied each individual leg to the waistband. In other words, the crotch was open — for exactly the same reason that women wore skirts. Ease in the privy. Interesting to think that when you see those prints of genteel Jane Austen-era young ladies, they are all naked as Eve under those skirts.
But the fact that pantalettes came as separate legs meant that terrible mishaps could occur. One of the most oft-recounted of these mishaps is said to be described in a letter from 1820. A young woman wrote:
“They are the ugliest things I ever saw: I will never put them on again. I dragged my dress in the dirt for fear someone would spy them; the blue and brown checked gingham I had in the house. My finest dimity pair with real Swiss lace is quite useless to me for I lost one leg and did not deem it proper to pick it up, and so walked off leaving it in the street behind me, and the lace had cost six shillings a yard. I saw that mean Mrs. Spring wearing it last week as a tucker. I told her that it was mine and showed her the mate, but she said that she hemmed it and made it herself — the bold thing. I hope there will be a short wearing of these horrid pantalets, they are too trying. Of course I must wear them for I cannot hold up my dress and show my stockings, no one does.”
A tucker was a wisp of cloth tucked in the bodice to veil the decolletage — wearing dresses with less revealing necklines does not seem to have seriously occurred to anyone. One’s best get-up was one’s best bib and tucker. Anyway, this juicy quotation about the pantalettes is from Alice Morse Earle, Two Centuries of Costume in America, 1620-1820 (New York, 1903), p. 776. It is all over the internet, and was widely quoted in costume books even before. But I’m thinking — is this quotation too good to be true? How could what is essentially a trouser leg come all the way down your leg and over your shoe to be left lying in the street? If you’ve ever tried to take your trousers off without taking your shoes off (which is not smart, which is why you only try it once), you’ll know that it leaves you hopping around on one foot and in a complete tangle. That and the phrase about the “mean Mrs. Spring.” Doesn’t that sound like a handy work of fiction? So I just have my suspicions about the authenticity of this wonderful quotation.
The fact that women wore no underpants for 99% of human history, and the lack of crotches even when pantalettes were worn, will leave half the population immediately wondering about certain times of the month. Let’s take 1820, when the mean Mrs. Spring supposedly nabbed that illicit tucker. What did Mrs. Spring and the original pantalette-wearer do to cope with certain bodily functions? Here’s the amazing thing — the official view is that they did nothing. I’ll repeat that — that they did nothing. They just let certain functions flow unimpeded — this is the official scholarly guess. I do not believe it for a minute. In fact if you trawl back through informal history, you pick up on rare clues as to various clever ways women had of coping with “the monthlies.” Homemade adult diapers were one of these ways, and used in some parts of England into the 1950s. So in that sense, it’s not true to say that women wore no underpants. They did — but there was a reason they were called unmentionables.
Want to see what I’ve been up to with medieval women and why they were holding drinking parties in latrines? http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/the-northerner/2012/jul/09/women-history?INTCMP=SRCH
Next Friday: One of the enduring mysteries of Lizzie Borden’s murderous spree was what she did with the axe. It was never found, and no one has ever figured out what happened to it. But I know.