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Body Conscious

February 2nd, 2011

Despite a common fascination with fashion, rarely do people consider undergarments, or at least admit that they think of underpinnings at all.  Foundation garments, usually relegated to the private domain, remain essential to producing the final desired effect.  They smooth, they lift and they cinch to perfection.  When people introduce them for public wear, though, the distinction between private and public becomes murky.  The role of clothing struggles between the morality and practicality of concealing the “shameful naked body” (Arnold 67) and the lust and wanton behavior it generates.  Mario Perniola discusses in Between Clothing and Nudity, how clothing perpetuates a distinction between humans and animals.  Furthermore, he acknowledges how “clothing gives human being their anthropological, social and religious identity, in a word, their being” (Perniola) where nudity, in contrast, “is a negative state, a privation, loss, dispossession” (Perniola) of self.  He continues by mentioning how nudity degrades a person because of its historical association to “prisoners, slaves and prostitutes” (Perniola).  Even though clothing carries the reputation of hollow excess, nudity remains a far more disgracing condition.

The very eroticism evoked by risqué apparel or lingerie attracts through suggestive ornamentation and sexual promise.  A nude body is less interesting than a partially clothed one because it’s entirely exposed and all the mystery revealed.  According to Muriel Barbier and Shazia Boucher in The Story of Lingerie, Magnus Hirschfeld, a physician, discovered that “only 350 men out of 1000 were attracted by the naked body of the female, whereas 400 preferred the body semi-clothed and 250 preferred it to remain fully clothed” (Barbier and Boucher 143).  Since its conception underwear has occupied ambiguous territory.  The sight of a body “caught between dress and undress, has a disturbing yet fascinating erotic effect… we are unsure how to respond to the sight of women seemingly dressed…yet clad only in transparent fabric or items of lingerie” (Arnold 67), such attire induces discomfort since it reminds people of desire and sex, topics repressed by polite society.  Underwear as outerwear disrupts the public.  Clothing itself highlights the body with subdued sensuality but underwear serves as a blunt reminder of human carnality.

In a consideration of underwear as outwear, the codpiece makes a unique example.  While the codpiece is technically not an undergarment, it works as the next best instance of underwear/outerwear, except, of course, maybe for the boxers sticking out of low-slung jeans fad.  Men, generally, don’t have many cases of underwear as outerwear.  Valerie Steele, in Fashion and Eroticism, observes how the penis and vagina “have not been utilized by fashion for the purpose of sexual allurement” with the exception of the codpiece, which “made the penis the central focus of male dress” (40).  Essentially, the codpiece is “visible penis sheath” (Vicary 3) that was created in the 16th century when shorter doublets became popular with the wealthy (Reed).  The shorter doublets would have exposed the male genitals, hence the necessity for some type of coverage.  Multiple types of codpieces existed but the differences in materials in constructions, a padded and protruding codpiece versus a soft, triangular-flap codpiece, signaled the division between high class and low class.  The existence of the codpiece, though, has uniformly baffled historians. Even though the codpiece originated for the sake of modesty, the enhancing trend developed garish extremes in terms of size and prominence.  As a result, historians consider the codpiece an “embodiment of aggressive virility” (Vicary 3), and while that interpretation isn’t incorrect, new research proposes that a more practical reason might have invoked the conception of the codpiece.

Around 1495, a syphilis pandemic swept through Europe.  Because of the nature of the disease, spread through venereal contact and causing unsightly swelling and discharges of pus and blood, thick bandages were required to dress the affected area.  Yet those swathings were impossible to hide (Reed).  So, the codpiece was created. Initially, the codpiece camouflaged dressings and shielded wearers from additional pain – men suspended many items from their belt, such as daggers and purses, at this time – from accidental abrasions.  However, those uninfected might have donned codpieces “as a sign, or talisman to ward off syphilis” (Vicary 14), thereby making it virtually impossible to identify who had the disease and who didn’t.  As powerful leaders adopted the codpiece, they legitimized it as a new fashion trend (Reed).  Thus, the codpiece is a curious garment of both protection and pride that has not entirely dissipated over the years.  Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of A Clockwork Orange includes a re-imagined codpiece for Alex and his droogs.  By calling attention to the genitals, Kubrick implies their destructive hypermasculinity, particularly in juxtaposition to the nude female tables in the Korova Milk Bar.

One of the first appearances of public ‘underwear’ is Marie Antoinette’s chemise dress, or the chemise à la reine, a simple gown of muslin (Arnold 66).  Marie Antoinette gravitated toward this style when her reputation as queen dwindled thanks to her lavish spending and extravagant frocks.  She hoped the chemise would make her appear more rustic and relaxed to the French people.  In the end, though, Madame Deficit’s image revision didn’t work out.  But perhaps one of the most iconic instances of underwear as outwear is Madonna and her cone bra corset designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier.  Even though he ignited the underwear frenzy, Gaultier wasn’t the only designer to include such pieces.  Vivienne Westwood, Azzedine Alaïa and Thierry Mugler all incorporated underwear styles in their collections between the mid-eighties and late nineties, and contemporary designers still return to the trend.  Additionally, Madonna’s constant image revision “suggested that identity was a construct, that it was something that one produced and could be modified at will” (Keller 162) along with one’s public perception.  By manipulating reinvention, Madonna conquered the sartorial, even when adorned only in her skivvies.  Modern pop stars, such as Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, follow her exhibitionist model, but without the same emphasis on continually revamping personal image.

Moreover, during the Eighties the public began to toy more assertively with erotic undress as “a site of empowerment for women who wanted to reclaim their sexuality” (Arnold 66), just as long as that undress was feminine and not overly provocative.  A woman in a corset or lacy bustier would be deemed playful in her sartorial approach while a woman in a codpiece or baggy boxers would most likely be condemned.  Today, underwear/outwear perpetuates as a similar expression of liberation and free will in women’s dress.  In the Eighties, however, the underwear/outerwear look first evolved with the discovery of AIDS.  Skimpy styles called for taut bodies, but “the rigorously exercised body…was as much a protective shield, a perfected exterior…to ward off anxieties surrounding death and disease” (Arnold 76) and the medical unknown.  Both the codpiece and the cone-bra corset were linked to a fixation with healthy bodies during a time of a new, widespread disease.  They prove how humans idealize the body at its physical peak, not the body declining toward death or the one riddled with illness or deformation.  Each, regardless of the codpiece’s pragmatic function, suggests agency in the face of humbling and fatal afflictions.

Stripping away clothing can’t and won’t strip away cultural influence.  In fact, even the unclothed self can display the same superficiality implicit with the clothed self. Patrizia Calefato contends in Degree Zero of Fashion and the Body that

“The naked body doesn’t really exist, it is a construction

of representation, be it photographic, filmic or off the drawing

board; it is the result of beauty treatments, exercise, medical

history and age; it is both product of and fuel for imagery (77).”

In other words, even without clothes, humans aren’t natural.  Human contact with and consumption of modern society renders individuals artificial to the core and it supplies them with visions of the physical ideal.  Regardless, states of dress or semi-dress seem more appealing and comfortable than undress.  Semi-dress in particular possesses “an erotic charge because it is the closest clothing to the private female form” (Barbier and Boucher 17) and the strongest moment of attraction because it unites the imagination required with full dress and the reality of imminent exposure.  Once a person reaches nudity, their arousal and interest gradually dissipates. Underwear as outerwear has been a style largely confined to the feminine realm.  This might be due to the fact that females live under the penetrating male gaze.  Men have nothing to gain from wearing their undergarments; women can either manipulate them to empower themselves or allure the opposite sex.  So maybe there’s a reason Pretty Woman seems to play on TV more often than American Gigolo.  We’d rather see Richard Gere admiring and rescuing the scandalously clad prostitute instead of removing his own clothes.

Ultimately, women rule suggestive semi-undress as a source of reauthorization. This practice gives women a sense of empowerment without true power.  A woman could, say, sport a bra sans shirt to reclaim jurisdiction over her own body, her choice in apparel is a theatrical proclamation of self, but her male audience, on the most simplistic level, could reduce the performance for instant sexual gratification.  Everything is on show; displayed upfront.  Furthermore, such garments are imbued with a flirtatious edge.  Women like men to look, whether or not they have purposeful intent, and they enjoy the idea of controlling that gaze, whereas men just like to look. In reverse, this situation simply cannot function because the man would gain nothing, real or illusory.  By dressing in this way, the male would abandon his stature of patriarchal dignity, stability and order in favor of the feminine.  The reversal of the gaze alters gender roles dramatically.  Women, throughout history, have been dismantled for visceral enjoyment to their anatomical parts.  Breasts are nothing new, though vaginas are slightly more unsettling in comparison, but penises are sacred territory.  Because of the implicit authority on the masculine side of the gender dichotomy, the image of a man’s genitals ousts him of culturally inherited birthright and aligns him with the exposure, lack of control, lawlessness and irrationality affiliated to femininity.

Works Cited:

Arnold, Rebecca.  Fashion, Desire and Anxiety: Image and Morality in the 20th Century. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001.

Barbier, Muriel and Shazia Boucher.  The Story of Lingerie. New York: Parkstone International, 2004.

Calefato, Patrizia. The Clothed Body. Trans. Lisa Adams. Oxford: Berg, 2004.

Fashion Television CTV. “FT: Underwear as Outerwear.” Online Posting. YouTube. 19 February 2010.  2 February 2011. <>

Perniola, Mario.  Between Clothing and Nudity.  Mario Perniola Personal Website. 1 February 2011.  <>

Reed, C. S. (2004), “The codpiece: social fashion or medical need?.” Internal Medicine Journal, 34: 684–686. doi: 10.1111/j.1445-5994.2004.00635.x

Steele, Valerie. Fashion and Eroticism: Ideals of Feminine Beauty from the Victorian Era to the Jazz Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Vicary, G. Q. (1989), “Visual Art as Social Data: The Renaissance Codpiece.” Cultural Anthropology, 4: 3–25. doi: 10.1525/can.1989.4.1.02a00010

Image Credits:

“A Clockwork Orange: Milk Bar.” Photo. 10 February 2011.

“A Clockwork Orange: Rape Scene.” Photo 10 February 2011.

“Lady Gaga.” Photo. 26 May 2010. 14 May 2012.’s-hangout-grace-jones-outside-studio-54-–-ok-so-gaga-you-need-to-salute-the-queen/

“MadonnaGaultier.” 25 April 2012. 14 May 2012.

“Marie Antoinette.” Painting. 2 November 2010. 10 February 2011.

“Natalie Portman and Clive Owen in Closer.” Photo 22 May 2007. 24 February 2011.

“Richard Gere: American Gigolo.” 10 February 2011.

“Spring Trend: Underwear as Outerwear.” Photo. 27 March 2010. 10 February 2011.

“Taylor Momsen.” 10 September 2009. 10 February 2011.

Holbein the Younger, Hans. “Portrait of Henry VIII.” Painting. 5 December 2006. 10 February 2011.

One Response to “Body Conscious”

  1. Kevin says:

    “Men have nothing to gain from wearing their undergarments; women can either manipulate them to empower themselves or allure the opposite sex.”

    I can’t help but think that this still has to do with the fact that men’s genitalia is taboo (sacred?) and female genitalia is acceptable in a public sphere. Of course arising from the fact that as the female is already valued as lesser, while we might still be taken back when seeing a bra over a blouse, we are not so bothered as we might if a man wore a pair of briefs under a suit coat.

    I asked my fashion theory class yesterday what they thought would happen if a male and female student walked down campus walk and the female was dressed in a bra and long suit coat, and the male was dressed in a pair of underwear and a sweatshirt tied around his waist. Who would the campus police remove for indecency…..

    Also interesting is that a women in her underwear can be empowered but a man in his underwear would, I think, just be vulnerable……

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