Skin Deep

Reviewed by Susan Ware
Sunday, July 15, 2007


Women, Lingerie, and Sexuality

By Jill Fields

Univ. of California. 375 pp. Paperback, $21.95

In November 1937 a surprise hit opened on Broadway: "Pins and Needles," a musical revue/political commentary staged by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. The play featured actual garment workers entertaining Depression-era audiences with a surprisingly professional production featuring songs, dances and skits about working-class life. In 1938, "Pins and Needles" was performed for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House.

What does a musical revue have to do with the history of lingerie? In the skilled hands of historian Jill Fields, "Pins and Needles" bridges "the glamorous culture industry" represented by fashion and Broadway and the "unglamorous garment industry," where predominantly female -- and predominantly white -- workers toiled in drab conditions to make sexy items of intimate apparel. Fields challenges modern readers to think about the often invisible connections between production and consumption, an invisibility that parallels the nature of garments not meant to be seen -- at least not until recently -- and yet which play such a key role in influencing notions of femininity, sexuality and erotic behavior.

This wide-ranging and literate book is not a coffee table history of lingerie. Instead, it treats intimate apparel, a term first used in the 1920s, as social and cultural history. For example, the evolution of drawers (as underpants were called until the 1920s) from open-crotch to closed-crotch was not just a matter of changing fashion styles but also represented women's new freedom to wear divided garments (as in trousers) previously associated only with men. The transition (by the 1920s) from corsets to girdles reflected a complicated interplay between corset manufacturers, who argued that all women should wear corsets, and individual women, often young, who demanded less restrictive garments to match their more active lifestyles. And the emergence of the brassiere paralleled the increasing cultural attention to breasts as the most important bodily marker of gender in 20th-century America.

Fields provides an especially rich discussion of black-colored lingerie, tracing its history to traditional mourning clothes (playing on the connection of sex and death) as well as the changing role of black clothing in the fashion industry. In addition to introducing us to garment workers and their unions, she analyzes the ongoing attempts by manufacturers to market their lingerie through advertisements that often border on voyeurism. The book is generously illustrated but will still leave readers wishing for more. After all, a book about lingerie should be fun as well as a little bit naughty.

An Intimate Affair begins in the late 19th century and ends with the introduction of Dior's New Look in 1947, a cinch-waisted silhouette that symbolized a return to femininity after the rigors of World War II but also a possible step backward for convenience and comfort in women's attire. Unfortunately, Fields doesn't present much to take her story up to the present. Instead of its epilogue on representations of women's intimate apparel in contemporary feminist art, the book cries out for at least a stab at the changing cultural meanings of underwear in all aspects of popular culture since the 1950s, such as the link between second-wave feminism and bra-burning, the significance of lingerie for cross-dressers and drag queens and the recent phenomenon of underwear as outerwear.

Despite these limitations, An Intimate Affair offers a rich and nuanced understanding of how pieces of everyday clothing reflect the changing historical context of women's lives just as much as they shape the actual contours of women's bodies. Reaching into the top drawer for a piece of black lingerie will never be the same. ยท

Susan Ware is writing a book about Billie Jean King, Title IX and the history of women's sports.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company