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Sexuality in History of American Fashion

Crime and Punishment

In colonial America, clothing could be utilized as an outward badge of inner sin and shame for misdeeds. In New England's Plymouth Colony, throughout the seventeenth century, people found guilty of adultery were publicly whipped and forced to wear an "AD" badge. If they were discovered in public without the badge, they were to be branded on the forehead or publicly whipped again.219 Concepts of indecency and shame have certainly changed through the centuries, as the history of underwear attests.

Intimate Affairs

The notion of "going commando," or without underwear, is usually associated with the modern indiscretions of young starlets caught by paparazzi while climbing into and out of their cars. But even the most respectable of adult women didn't wear underpants until the early nineteenth century. Young girls from middling and elite families wore pantalettes from the late eighteenth century onward, but they customarily abandoned them upon reaching adulthood. When female underwear did become customary for adults in the 1830s, it was designed with an open crotch (a phenomenon usually associated today with fetish wear in sex shops). The reason for the original open-crotch underwear may have been to facilitate bathroom trips in an age of outhouses and otherwise restrictive corsets. Historian Jill Fields also surmises that it was "to distinguish women's drawers from men's."220 These drawers were very large in comparison with modern lingerie, and they reached down to the knees. Then in the 1910s, as women organized for female suffrage, better pay, and birth control rights, their underwear became closed-crotch. This shift took place gradually from the 1870s onward, as drawers became shorter and narrower to conform to changing skirt styles.

Nonetheless, the first wave of the women's rights movement imported a whole new range of meaning to the concept of lingerie design and function. When women began speaking up for political rights, economic independence, and sexual liberation, their struggle translated into the potential for intimate apparel to express a newly independent, sexual—and for many people, threatening or disturbing—identity. Nor was this an entirely liberating development; closed-crotch underwear also enabled the objectifying wardrobe changes of the 1920s, where flappers flaunted their legs with shockingly short dresses. The exaggerated bell-shaped style in women's skirts that predominated from the 1840s to the 1860s may also have contributed to a growing public fascination with the female crotch that was concealed beneath. Illustrations in men's newspapers and magazines, which were considered humorous at the time, depicted fallen or otherwise incapacitated women whose skirts had flown upward, exposing them to men's eyes.221 By the 1930s, open-crotch underwear were not associated with sexual difference but with sexual access and lasciviousness. Women's undergarments clearly retained their power of sexual symbolism and even fetishized attention throughout the subsequent decades, as the college panty raids of the 1950s and 60s attested.

Cross-Dressing and Crossing the Gender Divide

Clothing has also proven an effective means of traversing the gender divide. For men and women, gay and straight, who sought to explore new identities as members of the opposite sex (whether temporarily or with a long-term objective in mind), cross-dressing could provide the answer. In director Billy Wilder's comedy Some Like It Hot (1959), stars Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon dressed as women to hide from the mob, but had some fun with switching gender roles in the process. Female stars of the 1930s, '40s, and '50s like Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn incorporated pants and other traditionally "male" clothing into their wardrobes for a mysterious and alluring (if sexually ambiguous) effect. Artist Andy Warhol featured cross-dressers in the films he made from his Factory cooperative in New York during the 1960s and 70s. Many cross-dressers experimented in private or during their spare time, and led perfectly routine lives as seemingly conventional—or even conservative—members of society. J. Edgar Hoover, the intimidating head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for much of the twentieth century, was rumored to be a cross-dresser, but this was never conclusively proven.

Drag queens, on the other hand, are typically gay men who consciously impersonate and often exaggerate female sexuality for the sake of parody and play. This phenomenon has existed for decades, but has just recently enjoyed a wider degree of public acceptance and popularity. Particularly famous drag queens like RuPaul have appeared on couture fashion runways and on television shows, and hip restaurants in New York City and San Francisco feature a waitstaff of unapologetically bold drag queens in revealing outfits as minimal as bras, corsets, and garter belts.222

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