20th Century, Culture, Miscellaneous

A Smooth Move

Hello again! I’m breaking my hiatus and taking a study break to bring you the inspiring true story that follows. I meant to write this a long time ago but never got around to it; however I was at the public library the other day and managed to remember to get the source for this excerpt.

It’s from a book compiled in 1973 called I Remember When: Stories of Kingston Folk. This is a section of the piece submitted by one Len Booth, called “Marching Men.” Mr. Booth remembered a lot from his Kingston days in the 1910s and 20s, but:

One incident that still stands out among my many memories of dear old Historic Kingston occurred one morning as with a number of other passengers, I was about to board a streetcar going down Princess Street.

A lovely young lady of secretarial personality in front of me was about to step on the car when a pair of frilly “unmentionables” dropped around her ankles. What a girl! A real “soldier.” Cool as a cucumber, and seemingly in keeping with the military atmosphere of the time she simply took the situation in stride, and without batting an eyelash stepped out of them and boarded the car.

That was a long time ago. She’s probably a great-grandmother today, but I’ll bet my last poker chip that SHE REMEMBERS WHEN!

This is an amusing story (and honestly, you have to applaud the woman), but you may be thinking: how did her underwear just fall down like that? Well, it has much to do with what women’s underwear was like a hundred years ago. I’ve always been interested in the history of underwear (no, really) so let’s explore that.

The underwear that our secretarial young lady was wearing was probably some version of the following “Serviceable Drawers”:

drawers

Note the drawstring waistband, which was featured on a number of similar styles in the Eaton’s Spring and Summer 1917 catalogue (where this illustration is from). It’s easy to see how hastily getting ready one morning or wearing a size too large could result in the above scenario. Also note the “open or closed style” option, which means exactly what you think it does. Women’s closed-crotch underwear is actually a relatively recent phenomenon.

In addition to chemises, corsets, corset covers, petticoats, and the like, the Eaton’s catalogue also featured a wide variety of other underwear options, many of which are uncomfortably medieval-looking products for menstruating women. In the following illustration we can find rubber belts and aprons, and some kind of abdominal support “shaped to . . . hold the vital organs in a natural position.” But here we also have a “Nature’s Rival” bust enhancer made of shirred fabric (and another made of rubber), as well as a “bustle,” really just something to fill out a flat derrière.

underwear

Men’s underwear looked almost equally uncomfortable. Summer or winter, the following are the only options Eaton’s has for you. Sometimes you’ll get a design in short sleeves, but that’s about it. (The illustrations cut off below the thigh, but these would have been full-length long johns).

mensunderwear

The Fall/Winter 1913-14 catalogue and the Spring/Summer 1917 catalogue both only feature variations on this style, but I can’t imagine that men wore long underwear all the time (or maybe they did?). Meanwhile, if you think weird underwear products were only for women, as far as I know this chest protector-thing is no longer with us:

mensprotector

And neither are these mysterious “body bands” and “knee warmers,” although it should be noted that rubber belts would have been necessary for women to wear, whereas these were of course optional:menskneewarmersMen also had the option of wearing this hot red number:

mensredunderwear

Dress reform had begun mainly in avant-garde circles in Europe at the turn of the twentieth century, leading to women doffing their corsets and other restrictive clothing. (Jane Morris et al. had also done this in England in the 1850s). But as far as I know, it’s unlikely that most Canadian women would have been of the same mindset.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed reading about that little incident, and now you know what to do if a similar crisis ever befalls you. For me, back to essays on German Expressionism and the Gothic Revival…

 

Sources

Eaton’s Fall/Winter 1913-14 catalogue

Eaton’s Spring/Summer 1917 catalogue

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