Monday, February 27, 2012

Underneath it all

Adam and Eve

I have a confession to make. In my youth I wore bloomers. You can all stop howling with laughter right now. Before you ridicule me, let me explain. Bloomers were part of the uniform we were required to wear at the Anglican all-girls school I attended in Jamaica where I grew up. Wearing bloomers under our skirts was enough of an embarrassment without having to reveal our nasty little secret on the school’s annual sports day when our skirts came off to the snickers of the boys from another Anglican school who were much more entertained by our bizarre attire than our athletic prowess.
According to Wikipedia, bloomers were originally designed in the early 1850s by a lady called Elizabeth Smith Miller of Peterboro, New York who was, not surprisingly, an early pioneer of the vulcanized rubber girdle. Ouch, can’t say I’m loving this lady. However, in fairness to her, the reason for the invention of the fashion atrocity called bloomers was to preserve decency without hindrance to physical activity. I suppose that’s what my school had in mind.
 My school bloomers weren’t as long as the lace-edged, cotton example at right or some that were even longer than those. They were an ugly leaf green that served to put me off wearing green for the rest of my life. But I won’t linger on this pet peeve of mine as there’s loads about underwear to share and it’s all very interesting.
There are those who may claim Adam and Eve were the first to cover themselves for decency’s sake, but as far as we know, the loincloth was the first undergarment worn by human beings. The remains of a simple leather loincloth dating back 7,000 years have been found by archaeologists. The ancient malo of Hawaii, which passed between the legs and then wrapped around the waist, was similar in style, as are some of the Japanese fundoshi. There was another style of loincloth called a cache-sexe. This was a triangle of cloth with strings or loops, which fastened the triangle between the legs and over the genitals. King Tutankhamun of Egypt (1341-1323 BC) was buried with linen loincloths such as these.
The loincloths I mentioned were worn by men. Since my intention today is to talk about women’s underwear, let me not stray too far from the subject.  We know that in 100 AD, Roman women wore a kind of loincloth called a subligaculum for athletic activities. Roman women wore nothing under their chitons, but they did also wear strophiae (breastcloths of leather or cloth) when participating in sports. Here is a mosaic from the Piazza Armerina in Sicily showing a woman wearing a breastcloth and subligaculum.
After the fall of Rome, it wasn’t until the early 19th century when women started wearing any form of underwear remotely resembling panties. I don’t know about you, but I find that surprising. The only form of women’s underwear, until the 16th century when stays, petticoats and farthingales arrived on the fashion scene, was a linen garment resembling a nightgown called a shift, later called a smock or chemise. So, when did drawers, the predecessor of today’s panties, enter the picture? From all accounts, they emerged at the start of the 1800s. Called drawers because they were drawn on, they sometimes came below the knee. Pantalettes, the longer style of drawers with frills, was only worn by girls after the 1830s.
We can’t talk about the evolution of underwear without at least a fleeting mention of corsets. When I look at the corset and its descendent the Longline bra, I can’t help thinking how many centuries it has been since we women have had the desire to re-shape our bodies for fashion’s sake. In mid-March, I’ll have more about that, so make sure to come back and visit. 

Spanish Farthingale 1545

Elizabethan Farthingale 1590s
Rope, bent rope and whalebone were used as stiffeners.

1. In what year was the Wonderbra designed?
2. In what year was the thong designed?


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Romancing the stone – famous gifts of love

The Hope Diamond
It now lies in solitary splendor in a secure case in the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington, a work of art whose visitors are only outnumbered by the Mona Lisa's. It weighs a whopping 45.52 carats. Yes, I’m talking about the Hope Diamond, the most famous diamond in the world. The history of the Hope is long and accounts of ownership are conflicting. One story has it showing up in France in the hands of a French merchant-traveler named Jean-Baptiste Tavernier who is said to have acquired it in India and sold it to King Louis XIV in 1668 or 1669. At that time, it was known as the Blue Diamond of the Crown of France or simply the French Blue. Though I searched, I could find nothing about the gem having been given to a lady during its years in France. However, lack of evidence to that effect didn’t deter this romantic and I followed the French Blue for a century and a half to England where the beginning of its history can be definitively fixed as the year 1812. Some believe it was at one time the property of George IV whose mistress, Lady Conyngham, stole it after his death. But there was still nothing to tell that any woman had worn it, not even the shady lady herself. However, hope springs eternal, so on I plodded, at last arriving at the purchase of the French Blue by a wealthy London banker named Henry Thomas Hope. The stone stayed in the Hope  family for more than fifty years during which time it got its present name. It was at the end of this chapter of the diamond's history that I at last found what I was looking for - the first woman to have worn it - American musical theater actress May Yohé. How the famous songstress came to earn this unique distinction is a story in itself. When and where she met him, I don't know, but May became the mistress and then the wife of Francis Hope, the last member of the Hope family to own the gem. It was not worn again until its purchase in 1911 by Washington Post scion Edward Beale McLean and his mining heiress wife Evalyn Walsh McLean. Evalyn Walsh is the only woman other than May Yohé to have worn the most famous diamond in the world.
May Yohé (Wikemedia)

The Hope made for interesting reading, but there seemed to me to be a rather cold practicality surrounding its ownership that dampened any romantic notions I may have had about this most fabulous of all diamonds. I was on a search for gifts of love, not family investments. But soon enough, along came knight in shining armor Richard Burton to the rescue of romantics. Burton's first gift of jewelry to Elizabeth Taylor was the 33.19-carat Krupp Diamond in 1968. Lucky Liz.

Evalyn Walsh McLean
The Krupp Diamond was by no means the most extravagant dazzler Burton lavished on his true love. Those of us who came of age in the sixties will recall his headline-making present of a 69.42-carat pear shaped diamond which became known as the Taylor-Burton Diamond. Check out the TV interview with Richard and Liz at the bottom of the page. In the interview, Burton does dare to utter the dirty word "investment", which made my heart sink - until I found the real-life fairytale, which comes next. But first, here's Liz wearing her rock.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor
And now for that fairytale.
Not that long ago, there was a prince who fell head-over-heels in love with a commoner. His name was Edward and hers, Wallis. He was destined to become king of England. She was an American socialite and a divorcee, which didn’t make her a good candidate for becoming queen as you can imagine. While Edward and Wallis were courting, he became king and it seemed that would be the end of that. To everyone’s great surprise, he gave up the throne to marry the woman he loved. The royals turned blue with indignation and the rest of the nation fell into a faint, but Edward and Wallis lived happily ever after as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor - in a land not too far away, but far enough from all the flack they'd left behind.
Considered the greatest romance of the 20th century, the love story of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson was documented with gifts of jewelry, many bearing inscriptions of important moments together. I wish I could show many more, but to give you an idea of how dazzling these gifts were, here's the Duchess' flamingo clip of diamonds and precious stones created by Cartier in Paris in 1940.

We all love Cinderella stories, don’t we? Or let's just say a lot of us do. William and Kate’s wedding on April 29, 2011 was a case in point. In the United Kingdom, TV audiences peaked at 26.3 million viewers with a total of 36.7 million watching part of the coverage. The ceremony was viewed live by tens of millions more around the world, including 72 million on YouTube. Two friends of mine flew all the way from Miami to London to witness the event, which was celebrated at more than 5,000 street parties throughout the UK. And William didn’t disappoint those with an eye for good jewelry when he popped the question months before the big day. Onto Kate's slender finger he slipped the ring his father had given his mother  – a dazzling 18-carat blue sapphire surrounded by diamonds. Now, that's what I call romantic.

Kate and William making history

P.S. Because of time limitations I wasn't able to share all the wonderful jewelry from around the world that I came across. For example, the Ashanti women of Africa receive gifts of jewelry for every important stage of their lives, from birth to childbirth. I hope to include them in a post some time later this year. In the meantime, Happy Valentine! May your Valentine's Day be filled with love!

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Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton TV interview: