Just now, I was grumbling to myself about how annoying it was to arrange my clothes to go to the toilet. "I'm sick of all these layers!" I said.
Today over the hip area I am wearing underpants, a singlet tucked into leggings, a stretch miniskirt, a T-shirt and a jumper. Can we please just pause the commentary right here to admire my new Christmas jumper:
I've yearned for a Christmas jumper for ages but I could never find any in the op-shops and cheap-shops I frequent. I stumbled across this one at Femme Connection and bought it immediately even though it's only synthetic. I plan to wear it every day, like Sarah Lund from The Killing. I really like the colours and it has reindeer on the shoulders! Now, back to your scheduled discussion…
Anyway, it takes a while to arrange these stretchy cotton layers so that they create the smoothest silhouette that most efficiently camouflages my flab. It is annoying to have to rearrange myself every time I go to the loo (says I, sipping from a pint glass of water).
But much as the Four Yorkshiremen would have dreamed of living in a corridor (it would have been a palace to them!), women in the past wore many more layers than me.
Here's Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln in the film Lincoln. In this costume she first donned a shift that went to just above the knee and stockings gartered above the knee. Over that she wore a corset, and then the tail of her shift was tucked – as I discovered last year – into her drawers. Over this she then wore a camisole, then over that her crinoline frame, then over that a petticoat, then over the whole thing, her dress. Sally Field and her costumer could get the whole get-up on in 15 minutes.
When I first read that, I wondered why the drawers went over the corset, then I realised that it's much easier to go to the loo if the waistband of your drawers is easily accessible rather than pinned down beneath your corset.
Recently I saw the French film Farewell My Queen, set at Versailles in July 1789.
Léa Seydoux plays Sidonie, a relatively high-ranking servant whose job is to read to the Queen. For almost the entire film she wears this two-piece silk dress (sometimes with a jacket over the top), but at the end of the film she's humiliatingly stripped naked in front of the Queen.
From a costume history perspective I really enjoyed this scene, because I got to see the layers of her costume. She didn't seem to be wearing a separate corset; the bodice of her dress must contain the boning and shaping. She also wasn't wearing drawers, but only stockings, shift, panniers and petticoat.
Farewell My Queen is fascinating because of its conceit of being present in the quotidian lives of people two centuries ago. It does a tremendous job of showing them at home in their clothes and surroundings; Sidonie is seen scurrying around the huge château, falling over several times. At one stage she's making out with a hot guy and they are ineffectually trying to remove each other's clothes; it's harder than simply pulling a T-shirt over your head.
However, let's not make the mistake of pitying the women of the past for their 'archaic' getup. Much as we do today, they just saw it as normal, and got used to the way their bodies moved and occupied space in their clothes.