Fashion is a force. It identifies, defines and expresses all aspects of ourselves. But fashion also changes over time, and what was once ugly or taboo becomes celebrated and lauded. For this edition of “Historical Titbits About Underwear,” I decided to take a quick look at how black lingerie went from being barely regarded to being the sex symbol it is today.
At the start of the 20th century, most women’s undergarments (which would, over time, be referred to as lingerie) were white and made from cotton, linen or silk, but sometimes unbleached linen or muslin. If there was any adornment on them, it typically came from pink or blue ribbons as ties or bows.
Black was a color associated with death and mourning, and any black undergarments that were around were regulated for mourning attire. And if you were a woman in mourning, then you were wearing black for A LONG TIME. Widows, typically, had a mourning period of two and a half years: deep mourning for one year and one day, and 12 months of second mourning, the last six months being “half-mourning.”
(But 20th century men, have no fear! Your Victorian mourning custom dictates you wore a black mourning cloak, and then black gloves, hatbands and cravats later. And around 1900, you only had to wear a black crape armband for around three months to a year).
It’s also probable that black undergarments and clothes were (sparsely) around because dirt doesn’t show up easily on them. And since, in the early 20th century, you really didn’t have a variety of clothes…keeping what you did own clean was a priority.
Although, English advice author Mrs. Eric Pritchard had this to say about black underwear: “Unless you are in mourning I advise you to avoid wearing black for it is apt to get a brownish hue towards the end of a journey.”
Black was a hard color to dye. If it got wet, or you and your beau reenacted that rain scene from The Notebook, it would stain, drip and discolor. But improvements in the garment industry, like better dye processes, helped to make black colored clothes more profitable and durable.
But how did black become sexy? Some scholars posit that sexual taboo of widows, and their black wardrobe led to the association. Widows couldn’t be virginal soon-to-be-brides; they were women aware of intimacy (sex). Widows could be seen as provocative because, if they were looking to remarry, then the perceived chaste and virginal women were now competing with women who had the advantage of knowing (and using the knowledge) of sex.
This connotation of sex and black clothing is probably what helped developed the vamp and femme fatale tropes. Hollywood movies started dressing their female antagonist in black. Adding to the allure and seductiveness of black clothing (and underwear).
Over time, black become fashionable. From early days of Vogue to Coco Chanel’s black dress, it became of staple of women’s clothing. The little black dress (and its matching underwear) are regarded as requirements for all women.
And while black lingerie is associated with sex and sexiness, what’s really important is that you wear whatever you want. If blue makes you feel confident and alluring, wear blue. If it’s pink, go with pink. And if it’s the black lace, then be that kind of woman.
Loose Woman: Poems, Sandra Cisneros, 1994 *title is the opening line from this poem
An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie, and Sexuality, Jill Fields, 2007
The Women’s Muslin-Underwear Industry, Department of Commerce Miscellaneous Series No. 29 / The Cult of Chiffon, Mrs. Eric Pritchard, 1902
*Note: if you’re interested in the perception of black lingerie and how it relates to race, I highly recommend reading Field’s book and the chapter “The Meaning of Black Lingerie.” The racial implications of black lingerie and black bodies is interesting and worthy of note. And if this is something you’d like to see discussed in a future post, comment below.
Or if there are historical aspects of lingerie that you’d like to know more about, mention that too. I always love a new research project and learning more about history (especially often overlooked and forgotten parts).
Author: Dayna Brownfield
Author Bio: Dayna is a freelance editor (and sometimes writer) whose focus is women’s niche publications. Aside from her Midwest roots, you can find her drinking coffee while aggregating literature and pop-culture.
Link to social media or website: www.daynab.com
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