- An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie, and Sexuality
In her remarkable book, An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie, and Sexuality, Jill Fields has written an impressively wide-ranging history. She sets herself the daunting task of exploring "the history of undergarments in modern America both as manufactured objects and cultural icons, intertwining their fabrication and distribution as mass-produced goods and objects of material culture with their construction and circulation as representations of the female body and producers of meaning"(5). And she succeeds. While most historians of fashion, sexuality and the body focus on either consumption or production, Fields studies them in tandem and in a way that never wanders far from critical issues of power. In fact, she argues, in the early twentieth century, a new transnational "fashion-industrial complex" took hold as a result of the second industrial revolution. Just as garment workers stitched undergarments, piece by piece, Fields stitches together a complex, inter-disciplinary secondary literature with disparate and copious pieces of documentary evidence including oral histories, popular movies, fashion magazines, novels, trade journals, advertisements and material artifacts. Amply and beautifully illustrated, it opens with four histories of specific undergarments: drawers, corsets, bras, and black lingerie, then shifts to thematic analyses of advertising, the garment industry, and Christian Dior's New Look, with a closing overview of "feminist intimate apparel art." At times, the breadth of Fields' research and ideas make for difficult going and the overall narrative is a bit choppy, but taking one's time with this book is well worth the effort.
Though Fields presents a chronological narrative, each chapter puts forward a complex, self-contained thesis that merits close reading. In the first chapter, "Drawers," Fields explains that in the nineteenth century, when women first began wearing divided garments, open drawers demarcated gender difference (men wore closed drawers) as well as both modesty (open drawers presented no scandal to "passionless" women) and eroticism (once married, sexual accessibility). But by the 1920s, closed drawers became pro forma. Why the shift? Fields, surveying everything from extant undergarments to silent films, argues that modern notions of female sexuality and the New Woman made open drawers risqué. Similarly, in her analyses of "Corset and Girdles," she argues that as twentieth century social changes decreased the "need" for women to wear corsets, manufacturers quickly developed new rationales rooted in science, race and gender in order to protect and advance their profits. Using niche marketing, standardized sizing and corset saleswomen, manufacturers campaigned against the "corsetless evil." Where corsets once stood guard against "moral turpitude," they now offered protection against aging, ill-health, figure flaws and confusion with the uncivilized, "thick" bodies of the racially impure.
"Brassiers," which Fields states are "a twentieth century garment," details the evolution of the garment from corset covers and camisoles to the introduction [End Page 793] of cup sizing in the 1930s and the Maidenform padded bras of the 1940s (81). Highlighting the relationship between "pin-up girls," Hollywood glamour and young GIs overseas, Fields argues that brassieres fetishized large, firm, separated, uplifted breasts but with the right bra any woman could wield the "illusionist's power to captivate." In doing so, women won not only male attention but also since eroticism had shifted from "breasts to sweater to glamour," they now had "a method to enhance their power as a force to be reckoned with in themselves" (112).
Fields' treatment of black lingerie ranges from a discussion of the historically contingent relationship between nineteenth century mourning clothes, death and sex to a detailed exploration of twentieth century "cultural constructions of blackness, black female sexuality, and black clothing" all to show its specific historical meanings and changes in them over time (133). Several mini-histories could stand alone within this chapter including sections on Saartjie Baartman (the Hottentot Venus), the history of black lingerie in popular film, and the psychoanalytic theories of Lacan, Freud and Bataille, but standing at the center of it all is a provocative discussion of black lingerie's racialized content both in...