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Unmentionables Throughout History: The Naked Truth About Underwear
by Marjorie Dorfman

page 2

Mary Phelps Jacob’s new under-garment greatly complimented the fashions of the day. On November 3, 1914, her new creation had a name, "the Backless Brassiere." Mrs. Phelps changed her name to Caresse Crosby, which she used for production of her new product. But she didn’t like the world of business and sold her patent to the Warner Brothers Corset Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut, for $1,500. (Was she in her cups or what?) Over the next thirty years, Warner’s made over 15 million dollars from her bra patent. In 1928, a Russian immigrant named Ida Rosenthal founded Maidenform. It was she who invented the idea of grouping women into cup size categories.

men's hosieryStockings have been around since 1589, ever since Reverend William Lee invented the knitting machine. They were originally made from wool, silk and cotton and referred to as "hose," which came from the word "hosiery". Men generally wore these early stockings, and it wasn’t until the 20th century when women got on the stocking bandwagon. This phenomenon coincided with changes in the fashion industry that deemed it socially acceptable for women to show their legs. When nylon was invented in 1930, it became the new affordable alternative to silk.

ladies hosieryIn 1935 Julian Hill, working with a team led by Wallace Carothers, discovered nylon, but the process wasn’t patented until some two years later by DuPont. In 1939 this new synthetic fiber burst upon the scene at the World’s Fair in New York City. Its name derives from NY, the city’s abbreviated name. On May 15, 1940, the first nylon stockings appeared in New York stores and over 780,000 pairs were sold on that first day alone!

During that first year 64 million pairs were sold in the United States. (That’s a lot of legs!) Nylons soon became the generic name for all hosiery products containing nylon. During World War II all production of nylon went into the war effort and stockings became so scarce that women were known to have painted seams on the back of their legs so it would appear that they were wearing stockings!

The stockings of this early period were called "fully fashioned". That meant that they did not stretch and were fashioned to the shape of the leg. That was also the reason they came in so many sizes. They were knitted flat and then the two sides were joined by hand with a fine seam up the back. The comfort and strength of hosiery were greatly enhanced in the late 1950s with the invention of Lycra, which could stretch up to seven times its original length without breaking and could recover its shape.

With the advent of the mini-skirt in the 1960s, tights became the alternative to stockings and soon hosiery was manufactured in a tube instead of being knitted flat, which eliminated the seams. Today, with all the changes in technology, the choices are many when it comes to tights and stockings.

modern underwearLast but certainly not least of our impromptu study of the history of unmentionables is the ubiquitous T-shirt. Its origins are somewhat in question, but one of the most popular stories dates the T-shirt to the days of Queen Victoria’s reign when sailors wore tank tops for shipboard duties. Before she came to inspect the royal fleet, officers ordered the men to sew sleeves on the tops to prevent the queen from seeing underarm hair. Another tale claims that the T-shirt started out as women’s underwear, the product of the Russell Manufacturing Company. Perhaps only The Shadow knows the real truth about its origins, but if he does, he isn’t telling.

longjohnsIn any case, the A-shirt that featured a deep neck and no sleeves was very popular in the 1930s and was produced in great quantities by Hanes and Sears Roebuck. It remained, however, an undergarment to be worn under a dress or work shirt. In the late 1930s, Sears introduced a T-shirt for sailors (the Gog T-shirt). The marines soon followed with a green camouflage shirt that could be under or outerwear. World War II brought the first printed T-shirts. According to the Smithsonian, the oldest printed T-shirt reads, "Dew-IT with Dewey" from his 1948 presidential campaign.

Today T-shirts continue to evolve as well as all other types of under garments. Even though that old song, "Anything Goes" dates back to the 1930s, its message couldn’t be any truer today. Who knows what’s to come in the shadowy world of unmentionables? There’s no predicting what awaits us all. Just when we think there’s nothing new under the sun, wham! At least we know it won’t be the corset or codpiece of old. That’s some kind of relief. Like I said, the "Shadow" might be able to predict the future, but it’s not likely he (or she) will ever tell any of us!

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