We women have long endured the indignities of “foundation garments,” stuffing ourselves into corsets, merry widows, and bullet bras. It’s almost more than a body can take.

DON’T TELL ANYONE, but I wear a thong—on each foot. To me, “thongs” are cheap rubber sandals, not strappy little anorexic panties. I don’t need any more proof that I, a former hippie, am truly middle-aged. But I find it anyway in my reaction to the sight of Texas’s greatest natural resource—pretty young women—sashaying down the street with the tops of their satiny thongs visible above low-rise jeans. Advertising your assets in public? Might as well put a little red light in your navel district.

Thirty years back, my friends and I would have donned such wispy wearables at our peril; the sound of fainting mothers hitting the floor would have resounded across the Panhandle like cannon fire. But compared with the torturous devices that Texas women have, over the years, been compelled to wear in the name of decency, thongs seem deliciously liberating, even to a stodgy old baby boomer. So let’s step into the historical world of women’s underwear and see what we uncover.

Our starting point may shock you: crotchless panties. Although today we associate this kind of, shall we say, ventilated underwear with lingerie lord Frederick’s of Hollywood, it was once a woman’s only choice. Pantalettes, which underpinned the garb of pioneer wives and other nineteenth-century women, were essentially knee-length leggings that overlapped and tied at the waist. Their design was wholly functional: to help the wearer answer nature’s call as easily as possible. (Huge white versions trimmed with lace were Queen Victoria’s secret.) They were downright comfy compared with what ladies put on over them: corsets, ghastly creations of heavy fabric stiffened with metal or whalebone stays that aimed to squish wide waists and control heaving bosoms. But they had their advantages. In 1840, for example, Juliet Watts, of Linnville, a hamlet near Victoria, escaped injury from an arrow during a Comanche raid because it couldn’t penetrate her corset. The garment eventually morphed into the girdle and its sisters, such as the sexy but insufferable merry widow. (“I am telling you—the merry widow was designed by a man,” actress Lana Turner once remarked. “A woman would never do that to another woman.”)


More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...