The Men’s Undergarment Hall of Shame
by Kate Dolan
We all know there are men’s clothes and women’s clothes. And sometimes clothing that is exclusively masculine for centuries eventually becomes suitable for women as well – think of boots and most notably, pants. But with one notorious undergarment, the reverse was true – it started as a women’s garment and was appropriated by fashionable men, though few would probably have been willing to admit it. Some men even wore vanity devices that women never would dream of wearing. This is the Men’s Undergarment Hall of Shame (and since this is history, we’re not even getting as far as Speedos).
“You want pain? Try wearing a corset.” This advice from the character Elizabeth Swan in the movie Pirates of the
Caribbean sums up the modern
perception of the garment that has been alternately referred to over the
centuries as a corset, stays, and "a pair of bodies." A pair of stays
or a corset are a stiff garment worn around the ribcage and waist. They are
usually “boned” which means they have channels filled with pieces of metal,
cane or baleen “boning” to make them fairly rigid. Some of them come down lower
than others and therefore compress the waist and lower abdomen more. If laced
tightly, they can make it difficult to breathe, bend, reach or eat. I have worn
reproduction 18th Century stays on numerous occasions and in my
experience, if they are not laced too tight, they are much like wearing a back
support brace. But the same garment, if laced up tight to improve the fit of a
gown, makes it really hard to take a full breath.
Women started wearing these by at least the 1400s and period satire suggests that men may have also secretly worn them during the Elizabethan period to give themselves a fashionably unnatural pinched waist. There is no doubt that by the 1780s, some men of fashion were wearing stays, and they continued to do so for about the next 100 years. One source described the well-dressed man as “pinched in and laced up until he resemble an earwig.” Before we condemn them too thoroughly, however, we should also consider that these dandies were the same men who made it fashionable to bathe, so we do owe them a certain debt.
The thought of men wearing a corset may be shameful to some, but if women wore them, too, it seems a bit hypocritical to criticize them too much. But there was a another fashion device for which ridicule is justly deserved – the calf pad. From about 1770 onward, men began padding their stockings to make their calves look more round and well developed. This fad lasted until men discarded their knee breeches and took to wearing full length, loose fitting trousers. In Sheridan's play A Trip to Scarborough, the character Lord Foppington berates his hosier for thickening the calves of his stockings too much. When the hosier, Mr. Mendlegs, protests that the stockings are the same he supplied in the fall, Foppington explains that "if you make a nobleman's Spring legs as robust as his autumn calves, you commit a monstrous impropriety, and make no allowance for the fatigues of the winter."
So we have men padding their legs to make them look muscular, cinching their waists with corsets to make them look trim and fit, what did they do with the shirts? After all, shirts were considered the basic undergarment for a man for at least the last 500 years. In the early 19th Century, they added "ears" to the shirts by creating collars that were so high, before being turned down, they entirely covered the head and face. Even when folded down, the points of the collar still came to nearly ear level. Lady Stanley commented "I think that part would be very comfortable to keep one snug from flies and sun."
Since most of the time it seems to be women who are slaves to fashion's torture, I found it amazing to see the devices used by men in the name of vanity. But then it really should have come as no surprise, since men were also the first to wear wigs and high heels.
Thank heavens the men in my family pay no attention to fashion and are content to wear whatever's on the top of the laundry basket. You never know when corsets might make another comeback!
Leave a comment for your chance to win an ecopy of your choice of Kate's books! Two winners!
Kate Dolan writes historical fiction and romance under her own name and contemporary mysteries and children’s books under the name K.D. Hays. You can learn more about her misadventures with history by visiting www.katedolan.com.