Intimate apparel, a term in use by 1921, has played a crucial role in the development of the naughty but nice feminine ideal that emerged in the twentieth century. An Intimate Affair, Jill Fields's engaging, imaginative, and sophisticated history of twentieth-century lingerie, takes the reader on a tour of the world of women's intimate apparel and arrives at nothing less than a sweeping view of twentieth-century women's history via the undergarments women wore.
Undergarments have long given shape to the clothed female form while also shaping our understanding of femininity. Fields charts the changes in both the design of these garments and the meaning of intimate apparel in America by closely examining the history of specific garments - including drawers, corsets, girdles, brassieres, and black lingerie - and by exploring the visual world of intimate apparel advertising, the fashion sensibilities and contribution of garment workers, and intimate apparel art. Lavishly illustrated throughout and drawing on a wealth of evidence from fashion magazines, trade periodicals, costume artifacts, Hollywood films, and the records of organized labor, An Intimate Affair is a provocative examination of the ways cultural meanings are orchestrated by the fashion-industrial complex, and the ways in which individuals and groups embrace, reject, or derive meaning from these everyday, yet highly significant, intimate articles of clothing.
"In November 1937 a surprise hit opened on Broadway: 'Pins and Needles,' a musical revue/political commentary staged by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. The play featured actual garment workers entertaining Depression-era audiences with a surprisingly professional production featuring songs, dances and skits about working-class life. In 1938, 'Pins and Needles' was performed for Franklin..." Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) and Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House.
What does a musical revue have to do with the history of lingerie? In the skilled hands of historian Jill Fields, 'Pins and Needles' bridges 'the glamorous culture industry' represented by fashion and Broadway and the 'unglamorous garment industry,' where predominantly female — and predominantly white — workers toiled in drab conditions to make sexy items of intimate apparel. Fields challenges modern readers to think about the often invisible connections between production and consumption, an invisibility that parallels the nature of garments not meant to be seen — at least not until recently — and yet which play such a key role in influencing notions of femininity, sexuality and erotic behavior.
This wide-ranging and literate book is not a coffee-table history of lingerie. Instead, it treats intimate apparel, a term first used in the 1920s, as social and cultural history. For example, the evolution of drawers (as underpants were called until the 1920s) from open-crotch to closed-crotch was not just a matter of changing fashion styles but also represented women's new freedom to wear divided garments (as in trousers) previously associated only with men. The transition (by the 1920s) from corsets to girdles reflected a complicated interplay between corset manufacturers, who argued that all women should wear corsets, and individual women, often young, who demanded less restrictive garments to match their more active lifestyles. And the emergence of the brassiere paralleled the increasing cultural attention to breasts as the most important bodily marker of gender in 20th-century America.
Fields provides an especially rich discussion of black-colored lingerie, tracing its history to traditional mourning clothes (playing on the connection of sex and death) as well as the changing role of black clothing in the fashion industry. In addition to introducing us to garment workers and their unions, she analyzes the ongoing attempts by manufacturers to market their lingerie through advertisements that often border on voyeurism. The book is generously illustrated but will still leave readers wishing for more. After all, a book about lingerie should be fun as well as a little bit naughty.
'An Intimate Affair' begins in the late 19th century and ends with the introduction of Dior's New Look in 1947, a cinch-waisted silhouette that symbolized a return to femininity after the rigors of World War II but also a possible step backward for convenience and comfort in women's attire. Unfortunately, Fields doesn't present much to take her story up to the present. Instead of its epilogue on representations of women's intimate apparel in contemporary feminist art, the book cries out for at least a stab at the changing cultural meanings of underwear in all aspects of popular culture since the 1950s, such as the link between second-wave feminism and bra-burning, the significance of lingerie for cross-dressers and drag queens and the recent phenomenon of underwear as outerwear.
Despite these limitations, 'An Intimate Affair' offers a rich and nuanced understanding of how pieces of everyday clothing reflect the changing historical context of women's lives just as much as they shape the actual contours of women's bodies. Reaching into the top drawer for a piece of black lingerie will never be the same.
Susan Ware is writing a book about Billie Jean King, Title IX and the history of women's sports.
" Reviewed by Lily KingRon CharlesBruce SchoenfeldSusan Ware, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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Intimate apparel, a term in use by 1921, has played a crucial role in the development of the naughty but nice feminine ideal that emerged in the twentieth century. Jill Fields's engaging, imaginative, and sophisticated history of twentieth-century lingerie tours the world of women's intimate apparel and arrives at nothing less than a sweeping view of twentieth-century women's history via the undergarments they wore. Illustrated throughout and drawing on a wealth of evidence from fashion magazines, trade periodicals, costume artifacts, Hollywood films, and the records of organized labor, An Intimate Affair is a provocative examination of the ways cultural meanings are orchestrated by the fashion-industrial complex, and the ways in which individuals and groups embrace, reject, or derive meaning from these everyday, yet highly significant, intimate articles of clothing.
"Erudite, exhaustive, and engaging, Fields' wonderfully original study deftly navigates several current literatures: women's and gender history, the history of sexuality, cultural studies, and the burgeoning scholarship on consumer culture. Using fashion to gauge changing conceptualizations of femininity and the female body, Fields traces discursive production and the policing of boundaries without ever neglecting the material contexts of social and economic relations."--Regina Morantz-Sanchez, author of "Conduct Unbecoming a Woman: Medicine on Trial in Turn-of-the-Century Brooklyn"
"Theoretically sophisticated, methodologically innovative and just provocative, "An Intimate Affair" joins together the histories of production, consumption, representation, and fashion to claim the body as an arena upon which questions of pleasure and danger, power and authority, gender identities, racial purity and class access, became contested during the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century. After reading Fields, putting on or taking off lingerie will never again feel the same."--Eileen Boris, Hull Professor of Women's Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara
"This is a delightful book on a surprisingly important-and one can legitimately say-revealing topic. The archival work is impressive, the analysis solid; we gain greater knowledge of women in consumer society and of ongoing controversies about sexuality from the results."--Peter N. Stearns, Provost, George Mason University
""An Intimate Affair "is a major contribution to the histories of fashion and of women. Wide-ranging in scope, this book demonstrates conclusively the importance of clothing in historicalanalysis and pushes the boundaries of cultural studies theory about the body to encompass the most intimate body covering. Fields illustrates how cultural studies and women's studies theory, the investigation of material objects, and the history of laboring people and women can be brought together to produce a compelling narrative. Both academics and general readers will find this book fascinating, for it has major implications for how all of us regard our bodies."--Lois W. Banner, Professor of History and Gender Studies, University of Southern California, and author of "American Beauty"
"Jill Fields has produced a remarkable book that reveals the ways in which intimate apparel has shaped modern conceptions of glamour, femininity, beauty, and sexuality. She brilliantly traces the creation of lingerie from the workers who made it to the advertisers who glamorized it to the women who bought it."--Steven J. Ross, Professor of History, University of Southern California