When we turn our gaze back towards the past, that "20/20 Hindsight" extends out from the nostalgic frequently eschewing the context said nostalgia comes embedded in, setting the stage like the Strangers from "Dark City". Modern views typically place crotchless panties on the risqué end of the erotic spectrum, however it wasn't always so.
Anita Rao interviewed Cora Harrington in her podcast episode "Unbuttoned: The Surprising History Of Lingerie"
So for a very long time, it was not the norm for women to wear underwear. You wore a chemise under your dress, and that was your underwear, because the idea was, well, your skirts are going down to the floor anyway, your skirts are covering your ankles, so what in the world do you need something covering your genitalia for? And in particular, because there were so many layers to skirts, at the time, you had the outer skirt — you would have had petticoats, maybe quilted petticoats when the weather was cold, so you had all this structure, all this framework, and all these layers, and you couldn't exactly pull all that up to go to the bathroom. So it was also more convenient that women didn't wear underwear under their clothing.
When we see the rise of underwear, which is right around the Victorian era, they're actually more like split pants — and that's where you get the word a pair of panties, by the way, because they were split leg underwear, and they were completely open, and the crotch is basically two separate legs with a waist tape sewn at the top connecting them. And so having that open crotch or that split knicker, meant you could use the bathroom more easily — but what's interesting is that, at that time, if you wore closed-crotch knickers, that was seen as a sign you were a sex worker because the implication was only a lady of the night, so to say, would wear closed-crotch knickers, since it implied she would have had to pull her underwear down to do anything further. And that's fascinating to me because today crotchless knickers are seen as something very erotic, very sexual. Whereas 150-160 years ago, it would have been exactly the opposite.
Anita RaoPodcast | "Unbuttoned: The Surprising History Of Lingerie"
It slays me that underneath those cover-everything clothes of the Victorian era, many folks were wearing crotchless panties — a history fact that is well worth the Jeopardy board in my humble opinion. But it's not just function and fashion that have affected lingerie styles over time. One other influence is, wait for it — politics. One of Cora's favorite examples, World War One.
I couldn't trim that last part out about the WW1 influence on fashion, because Cora Harrington touches on a favorite piece of USA's history and a moment that altered the direction of "change itself" in so many facets. From the beginning of corset reinforcement adoption, whale bones/tusks were used as society adopted it into the fold of fashion du jour. Eventually the whaling industry contracted to reflect the demands of the time, leading to metal becoming the dominate corset reinforcement material, and that's how we get back to the interview:
So WW1 starts and the military, that's the word I'm looking for, needs metal to build various instruments of war — tanks and battleships and all these other things, airplanes. And so they asked women to support the war effort by not wearing corsets. Corsets would have been using metal bones at the time, whale bone would have been phased out by now, and they say: We need you to support the war effort — please stop wearing metal corsets, stop using metal on your corsets. And by the end of the war, there was enough metal saved to construct two battleships, so that gives us a sense of just how ubiquitous metal was in corsetry, just how much metal was used in corsets. But it also, once women gave up corsetry, and we see the image of the bra, the rise of the brasierre — a lot of women didn't want to go back to that. They were like: Well, we've given up corsets. This is pretty cool. We kind of like this vibe. They didn't want to go back to corsetry, and that's a very direct example of a time when war explicitly influenced lingerie, and after World War One, we never see corsetry become as ubiquitous again.Podcast | "Unbuttoned: The Surprising History Of Lingerie