“In olden days a glimpse of stocking

  Was looked on as something shocking,

  Now heaven knows -

  Anything goes.”

Cole Porter’s lines could stand as the epigraph to Shelley Tobin’s Inside Out: A Brief History of Underwear, which is one of those books that takes a small subject – in this case, smalls – and makes something rather large and fascinating out of it. Tobin’s history of stays and corsets, hoops and crinolines, petticoats, bras and basques, turns out to be an eccentric history of all sorts of other things too: the changing shape of the “ideal” female form; the perennial conflict in fashion between the natural and the artificial; the gradual triumph of permissiveness over restraint; women’s lib; and how to choose the right colour of knickers.

The idea of underwear as something to be looked at and enjoyed, rather than furtively glimpsed, is a relatively modern phenomenon. Tobin identifies the start of the twentieth century as the turning point, the moment when a new and more freely hedonistic attitude to underwear began to take hold – aided and abetted by revolutions in fibre technology that would eventually lead to Rayon, Lycra, and other alluringly sheer and diaphanous fabrics.

In 1902, a certain Mrs Pritchard wrote an interestingly titled volume The Cult of Chiffon, in which she claimed that “the woman possessed of the laudable desire to appear lovely in her husband’s eyes will not fail, if she be wise in her generation, to give this part of her wardrobe careful consideration.” It was a revolutionary remark for the time. As Tobin comments, “the right to wear colourful underwear had to be fought for, because Victorian attitudes died hard”. She illustrates the point by quoting from Eleanor Glyn’s novel, The Vicissitudes of Evangeline,...

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