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December 2017 Meeting Report

Corsets, Crinolines and Camisoles, by Fran Saltmarsh

For the December meeting, the Sawston Village History Society asked Fran Saltmarsh to take a peek at ladies underwear through the ages, or as she described it "contortions of couture".

Any gentleman expecting top shelf revelations would have been sadly disappointed after a couple of classical era ladies exercising in what would later be called bikinis. Most fashions were seemingly designed to conceal what was most interesting. Underclothes were worn to protect outer clothes from unwashed bodies underneath.

Tudor ladies who wanted to follow the fashion of a slim waist and a flat chest would take themselves to the blacksmith to make them a steel corset, which must have been an extremely uncomfortable way of straightening the spine.

They had to wait to the Georgian era for boobs to be back in fashion, but then they had to endure the ridiculous sideways farthingale at the waist which meant that they had to walk sideways through a normal width door. Later came the cage crinoline which made the skirt hang out in all directions.

The 1900s saw the arrival of the Gibson Girls who also suffered the corset and now had suspender belts and tango knickers which they could make themselves using sewing machines. The First World War meant many women had to do jobs formerly the preserve of men. Girls had their own money. The flappers were able to cut their hair short.

In the 1920s flat chest bras pulled it all in again, and by the 1930s man-made fibres such as nylon and rayon were used for underwear, and they were also essential after the Second World War for Dior's New Look.

After her talk Fran showed some of her collection of underclothes through the ages. The overall impression was the complexity of layers of underclothes worn in the times before central heating became widely available. Women today have never had it so good!

Jim Butchart

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