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"Why Nice Girls Abandon Underwear"

by Helen Lawrenson



Vol. 3, No. 1,  1956

     A FASHIONABLE New York store was recently thrown into a slight tizzy when a well known actress came in to look at dresses. She selected a few, went into the fitting room. The clerk hung the dresses on a hook, and when she turned around, there was the actress standing there without a stitch on, except her shoes. "Well," she said, oblivious to the clerk's startled look, "let's try on the blue one first."
    Mumbling incoherently, the clerk fled back to the main room. "What'll I do ?" she queried the other clerks. "Miss X is in there stark naked!" The problem was relayed to the floor manager, who stalked back to the fitting room.
    "Excuse me," she murmured in embarrassed tones, "you know, it is customary to try on clothes over your underwear." Miss X looked at her blandly. "I never wear any," she said.
    This is a problem which may be new to New York, but is old hat in Hollywood. The fad of wearing no underclothes apparently started in the movie colony and only last summer spread to The East. Miss Marilyn Monroe is usually given credit for having pioneered this somewhat unnerving trend in women's fashions, being adopted by many young women both in and out of the theatrical profession. How widely it will spread is a topic of lively speculation and considerable alarm, especially to the underwear industry.
    "We're frantic about it," a spokesman for a brassiere firm was quoted as saying. "This thing will mean that in five years the American girl will look like people in a jungle."
    Others doubt that it will go that far. One consoling thought, pointed out by students of the psychology of women's clothes, is that even the females of primitive tribes seldom appear completely nude, but insist on some sort of fashion adornment, even if it's only a girdle of feathers.
    On the other hand, the habit of wearing underclothes is only comparatively recent. In classical times and in the Middle Ages--and even in periods of the Eighteenth Century--there were no such things as brassieres, underpants, chemises, or girdles. Historians report a time in Athens, after a long war which left a shortage of men, when the government did its bit to help women attract men. A State decree was issued ordering all women to split their tunics from the hip down. Needless to say, underwear was non existent in those days, or there wouldn't have been any point to the decree.
    In merrie olde Englande, things were made a lot merrier in the time of Charles the Second by the fact that women not only wore no undies, but their gowns were of thin muslin which they dampened before they put them on, so they would stick to their bodies. Similarly, the height of fashion in 18th Century France was to sport a muslin dress so thin it could he pulled through a wedding ring. Again, no underclothes, and, again, the dresses were put on wet. Of course, the women died like flies, of pneumonia, but while they were alive they looked mighty enticing. There is a variety of theories why the modern American girl should suddenly decide to leave off her underwear. One is that this is just one more step-in the rebellion against confining garments, which began after World War I, when women first struck a telling blow for freedom by taking off their corsets. They have been dispensing with clothing ever since, are down to a bare minimum of bra and panties. Their dresses have been cut away as far as the law allows: backless, strapless, sleeveless, plunging neckline, and so on. There just wasn't anything else to take away except the underclothes.
    Others feel that the girl who just slips on a dress over her birthday suit is what psychiatrists call an exhibitionist. This theory is somewhat supported by the fact that most girls who don't wear underclothes seem impelled to call attention to the fact. They either come right out and tell you; or else they prance, posture, and sashay around in such a manner that it is almost inevitable that you come to the conclusion yourself. The motive for this is probably sexual in origin. There is, I suppose, something enormously titillating about the thought that a girl has nothing under her dress but herself. It also, in this age of "falsies", removes all doubts. At least, the girl without underwear is not deceiving anyone. She is, in effect, saying to whoever is interested (and who isn't?),. "Look! This is all me--just little old me !" And for girls who have good figures, it proves it.
    In fact, this last may be an underlying motive with some of the girls. Our national emphasis on the female chest in recent years, spurred on lately by the spectacular bosoms of Italian movie stars, has been a boon to the brassiere industry, which last year grossed $250,000,000 in sales, including some 70,000,000 pairs of "falsies." The latter are now built into not only brassieres, but also many dresses, bathing suits, and even--of all things--nightgowns. The result has been that even the flattest chested woman can appear in public looking as if she were as voluptuously built as Jane Russell. This can well prove very discouraging to those who actually are endowed by nature with a lavish superstructure. A girl caught in this pickle may figure that the only thing left to do is to prove to the world that her own figure is a triumph of nature and not of science. The best way to do this, short of appearing completely nude, is to wear nothing but a dress, and then make sure everybody knows it.
    J. C. Flugel, a European psychiatrist, claims in his book, The Psychology of Clothes, that whatever women wear or leave off is for reasons predominantly sexual. At different periods of history, different sections of the anatomy are emphasized as erotic zones, although usually the bosom is the winning favorite, hands down. However, he says, "there was a period in the Middle Ages when the breasts were rendered inconspicuous and the abdominal region emphasized...Women tried to produce the appearance of being always pregnant. They even adopted the gait of pregnant women, and their clothes were fashioned to carry out this impression."
    Flugel's theory is that the sexual freedom of women is reflected in their style of dressing. Where women were completely subservient to men in Mohammedan countries, they went around bundled up from head to foot in clothing and even covered their faces. If his theory holds true, then the present trend of reducing clothes to an absolute minimum must presage an era of greater sexual freedom and giddy whoop-de-doodle for women than has been seen since those licentious days of the Roman empire when ladies displayed their obvious charms by draping a tunic gracefully over one breast and leaving the other one completely exposed.
    A group of American girls interviewed on the subject stoutly maintain, however, that the current fashion has nothing to do either with sex or with freedom. It is indicated by the modern styles. Scoop neck dresses, off-the-shoulder styles, and plunging necklines, they point out, make brassiere straps impossible. Strapless brassieres are uncomfortable or unattractive. In addition, the style of tight-fitting sheaths demands an absolutely smooth surface underneath. The wearing of a girdle, or even panties, results in bulges and lines which spoil the effect. So there!
    These, then, are the different theories, and you can take your choice. For all I know, the reason a girl leaves off her underclothes may be a completely different one. She may just want to keep cool on a hot day.
    Personally, I doubt if the style will become widespread in popularity. But to those who have already tried out the fashion, I should like to dedicate the following verse, with abject apologies to Ogden Nash:
    Girls without chemises
    Should stay away from breezes
    Or they may catch sneezes
    In addition to being the cynosure of all eyes
    When their skirts fly above their kneeses.

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