Jazz Age Undies | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Jazz Age Undies 

Notes on the Evolution of Intimate Apparel

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It's an older, overwhelmingly female crowd gathered today in the ballrom of the Dawes mansion in Evanston: well groomed and well dressed. The air is thick with their comingled colognes. They await the arrival of today's lecturer, Janet C. Messmer, biding their time admiring the stained glass windows, regal staircase, and general ambience.

Messmer finally appears, opening the program with a bold request; she asks the assembled for their old underwear. Well, maybe not theirs, but perhaps their mothers' or even grandmothers'. Anything silk from the 1920s or 30s will suffice, although the Evanston Historical Society's costume collection does suffer from a lack of pajamas and foundation garments. "So," she says, "If you have anything gathering dust in the attic . . . you should consider making a contribution."

Messmer is Chair of Design and Technical Studies for the theater department at DePaul University and head of its costume-construction program. She is also costume curator of "Everything's Peachy, We're Feeling in the Pink," an exhibit of "lady's lingerie, sleepwear, and boudoir accessories of the 1920s and 1930s" currently at Dawes House, headquarters of the society. The exhibit's title refers to the two most popular--and colorfast--lingerie hues of the jazz age: peach and pink.

Her lecture and slide show concerns the "revolution" in women's wear that occured between the two world wars. Messmer's a true raconteuse; the audience is charmed by her theatricality; her readings of Prohibition-era underwear ads have just the right sarcastic edge. After all, I imagine, it's difficult not to feel some ambivalence toward an industry that associated the ownership of fine, dainty underthings with "confidence". Or to feel disdain for an industry that has been defining and redefining the ideal body type for over a century. But politics don't visibly surface in Messmer's lecture; her primary purpose is to educate and entertain. And this she does, with supreme flair.

Messmer describes prewar undies, displaying a "naughty" postcard from 1902: a woman with an hourglass figure more distorted than Jessica Rabbit's is wearing a chemise (a loose undershirt) and drawers (knee-length "underpants") next to her skin, topped by a whalebone corset. The crowd giggle and shake their heads when Messmer describes how women had to bunch up the legs of their drawers in order to hook up their garters. This was not a well-designed system.

They laugh, too, when Messmer explains that in the early twentieth century, silk underwear was considered "much too French to be really proper." Yet she notes that it was indeed the French who were responsible for the shift in the ideal. As early as the teens, a French designer, Paul Poiret, began styling clothes for his slim, flat-chested wife. Around 1918, Coco Chanel (herself pencil-thin) jumped on the bandwagon, along with several other French designers. No longer were wasp-waisted, bosomy women the accepted norm. Clothes were designed for younger, rather than older, women: the "woman on the go, who engaged in active sports, who," Messmer takes a breath for emphasis, "even worked for a living!" The audience howls.

Messmer states that by the 20s corsets were unfashionable, along with hourglass figures. Thin women could finally be comfortable, although the naturally curvaceous were now slipping into elastic girdles in quest of perfect, tube-like torsos. The sole purpose of brassieres, or "confiners" was to hold you in and flatten you out. In fact, the first brassieres designed for "two breasts, rather than one," were not marketed until the late 20s.

The jazz age, according to Messmer, also introduced the delicate art of leg-shaving. As skirts became shorter, daring flappers rolled down their stockings, brazenly exposing their legs. The faint of heart stayed unshaved, opting for sheer silk hose over opaque, flesh-colored stocking. Drawers, like skirts, got shorter and shorter, until they finally became panties. And although many older women stayed true to their old cotton drawers, young fashionable women--at least those who could aford it--wore nothing but silk.

The exhibit accompanying Messmer's lecture is an ode to the peach-pink silk of the jazz age. Five daintily posed vintage mannequins wear bed jackets, dressing gowns, nightgowns, slips, and even a lacy chemise-drawer combination called a "step-in." The exhibit descriptions credit not only the contributor, but the original owner of the ensembe, as in "worn by Mary Smith." A glass case contains smaller, more personal underthings, including bras, bedroom slippers, and even boudoir caps. "One did not know what could happen in the middle of the night," says Messmer with her biting edge. "A boudoir cap could prevent a head cold!"

Our refreshments, originally scheduled for after the program, are now served during an impromptu intermission, as a Society official races home at breakneck speed for a replacement projector. During a break we eat finger sandwiches and drink coffee out of china cups. I'm duly impressed with The Evanston Historical Society; this is like afternoon tea at Windsor: silver samovars, chandeliers, and real cream. And the opening is free, I only needed to phone in my reservation. They handle the crisis of a burnt-out projector bulb smoothly, too.

I am nibbling black bread and pink cream cheese when a charming old man tells me it's "past my curfew." He's ninety-three and doesn't look, or behave, a day over sixty-five. He's a true relic of the jazz age; during his formative years he watched the transition from floor length skirts to bare knees. I wonder if he remembers rolled stockings, or the New York chorus girl who made her chemise, or "shimmy" shake. When I ask him the secret of his youth, he says he owes it all to "25 vitamins a day, and sex at least twice a year." He solicits my address, so he can "mail me a list of vitamins," one of which, he proclaims, is "a birth control pill." Maybe he remembers the jazz age all too well. Maybe that's the secret of his youth.

Messmer concludes her lecture with a brief overview of pajamas and hostess gowns. Marlene Dietrich, I learn, was chased down the streets of Paris for publicly wearing her huband's pajama's. And today, I note, Monica Schaappaugh, truck driver, poses between the pages of my subscription Newsweek wearing nothing but a Jockey for Her undershirt and panties. Monica "enjoys the freedom of the open road . . . and the total comfort of Jockey for Her Underwear. A jet-printed strip addresses me by name ("ATTENTION MS LAUREL DIGANGI . . . ") and directs me to a sale at Field's. I'm not sure if this indicates strides in feminism or Orwellian prophesies. But for whatever it's worth, Monica's panties and undershirt are peach.

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