Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
Since the time of classical Greece and Rome, the privileged upper classes have worn underwear.
Some of the reasons were undoubtedly practical, but others sprang directly from human vanity: These most intimate of items have not only helped shape how we look, but also how we are supposed to look.
Today, of course, the pursuit of looking good is no longer a pastime of the rich. Virtually everyone wears underwear and “going commando” is simply not very smart.
As University of New Mexico professor Dorothy Baca told a curious crowd of more than 100 Thursday evening, the idle rich have always “spent a lot of time getting dressed and getting undressed.” Baca spoke at an Alumni Association event at the Rodey Theatre called “The History of Underwear: The Foundations that Shape Us.”
The program included dozens of period undergarments, sewn by College of Fine Arts students from authentic patterns. They included bloomers, pantalets, girdles, corsets, petticoats, panniers – you name it.
But don’t get the impression that underwear has always focused on the female form. In dozens of slides, Baca included many male idiosyncrasies, from the metal corset fixed – in all likelihood permanently – around the waist of a Minoan gentleman, to Louis XIV’s faux calves and exaggerated codpieces, to the unbelievably broad shoulders of Henry VIII, to a modern ad of young men in briefs.
One of the first slides depicted a peasant whose chemise’s sleeves billowed out from under his vest, an effect sure to prompt a re-examination of the term “underwear.” It was during the Middle Ages when garter belts came about. They, too, were originally meant for men, said Baca, professor of theater costume design.
But through the ages it was left to women to bear the brunt of the underwear extremes. From Elizabethan outfits that weighed 150 pounds, to corsets fashioned of metal (related, no doubt, to the chastity belt), to the enormous hoop skirts or crinolines of the 1800s, to electric corsets (advertised as oh so healthy!) – “They were all huge and dangerous,” Baca said.
The whaling industry profited mightily as whalebone became a vital part of many a female undergarment. Then there were girdles for pregnant women and corsets for the wasp-waisted look – in which the ideal was a mere 14 inches.
In introducing Baca, Kymberly Pinder, dean of the College of Fine Arts, modeled what she referred to as “hip-buckets” – panniers that added a good foot to each side of her body.
And Randy Royster, president of the UNM Alumni Association, got into the spirit of things by adding a fashionable ruff to his costume.
The program was one of a monthly series of Lobo Living Room events presented by different UNM departments.