I've been reading a book I found at the public library sale, Speaking of Jane Austen (Harper & Brothers, 1944) by Sheila Kaye-Smith (1887-1956) and G[ladys] B[ronwyn] Stern (1890-1973). It's a fond discussion of Austen's works by writers who like her a lot, though they distinguish themselves from hard-core "Janeites." (There's always somebody more extreme than you are, no matter where you stand.) It's fun to read, not a work of academic criticism but still historically informed, and both authors grew up in an England very different from the one they died in, probably closer in culture to Austen's than to the England of the late twentieth century.
Among much else, I was intrigued by Sheila Kaye-Smith's digression on women's underwear:
Miss Bingley's remarks on Elizabeth Bennett's petticoats -- "six inches deep in mud, I am absolutely certain, and the gown which had been let down to hide it not doing its office" -- inspires the reflection that most articles of feminine underwear started on the outside. Elizabeth's petticoat was meant to be visible, a part of the scheme of her dress, with the gown above it looped up to show either a contrasting or a blending colour and a different material. Sometimes the gown was slit down the front to display that petticoat beneath, and half a century earlier had been hunched high over it in panniers. It was not until Victorian times that the petticoat disappeared under the skirt. Stays, too, by Elizabeth's time invisible, started as outside wear, much in the style that still survives among certain European peasants, with the chemise visible above them. Drawers were later than her day, but they also began as a visible article of dress, reaching the ankles and to be seen for several inches below the skirt, which finally dropped to the ground and swallowed them up as it had swallowed up the petticoat. The Victorian women, then, wore no less than four unmentionable undergarments which had in their day not only been mentionable but plainly visible. By the time that her crinoline and bustle had shrunk away into modern streamlines and what was beneath might be expected to be revealed, it was found that these had shrunk too, contracting all four of them into a single scantie. It happened that I read this progress (if that's the word) of outerwear to underwear as more controversy raged over Muslim women's headscarves. It's worth remembering that in England and Europe, respectable Christian women covered their bodies below the neck, as well as above. (Male visitors from the Muslim world still found them "immodest," of course.) The remarkable thing to me in this case was how each new covering apparently had to be covered up in turn. Where does it come from, this obsessive need to package women's bodies in layer after layer of wrapping, like a fast-food hamburger covered in tissue and paper and a cardboard box, then put in a paper bag? We seem to have left the tendency behind in the West for the most part, though I expect a reaction to come eventually; the best hope I see is that women here do have a lot of room for personal choice, whether for long skirts or short shorts. The problem isn't the degree of covering so much as making a specific degree of covering or uncovering mandatory.