I have three actually. One is a wrap around soft jersey everyday day dress. One is a madly expensive red velvet affair that I wear at business meetings when I am nervous and the other is a slip of thing made from silk which just slips over my head and settles on my curves rather like the dress that appears in a the 1980s ad for deodorant shown here.
The dress is equally revealing. I struggle with what to wear under it as any underwear will be immediately obvious. These days my curves are rather more curvaceous and most underwear either digs or bulges in a most unattractive manner.
This would not have been an issue in past times. For much of history women went commando. With all the layers of petticoats, knickers were not needed for warmth and when a lady needed to ‘make water’ all hands were required for holding up those layers of petticoats – there was no free hand available for tugging down knickers.
In the regency times this became a bit of an issue. The new paired down dresses made from light fabrics were rather transparent. The material tended to mould to the body, frequently revealing more of a lady’s charms than she wished.
There is some mention of women dampening their dresses to make them even more clinging and revealing, but the majority were at pains to conceal what lay beneath. Enter the forerunner of shapewear – the ‘invisible petticoat’ – a tube of flesh-coloured knitted stockinette worn tight around the legs. It restricted walking, but allowed the gown to fall smoothly without any unsightly shadows or glimpses of what lay beneath. The other option was the pantalettes. Two tubes of white cotton worn around each thigh and tied on around the waist.
It is interesting that Regency underwear, unlike the knickers we were today, leave the genitals exposed. It wasn’t until the Victorian era that the great cover up began. Though repressing women’s sexuality was nothing new……
….which brings us back to the red dress.
The colour red has long been associated with women’s power and sexuality. Some link it to Biblical references to The Whore of Babylon, or to give her her full title, Mystery, Babylon the Great, the Mother of Prostitutes and Abominations of the Earth.
The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries.The name written on her forehead was a mystery:
Far less exciting, but possible more valid, is the suggestion that wearing the colour red echoes the visual indicator of female fertility as displayed by monkeys. It is thought that wearing red lipstick acts in the same manner. This association is wonderfully referenced in the Handmade’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, where the red-coloured cloak indicates the Handmaids’ fertility, echoing the color of menstrual blood.
There is much written about men’s fear of women’s sexuality and the historic part religion has played in women’s disempowerment. I don’t intend to take part in this debate here. Suffice to say, the colour red has a power. I suggest we embrace it.