Undressed: Undergarments as Cultural Limina in Eighteenth-Century France
In the sixteenth century, few Europeans wore undergarments; by the nineteenth century, undergarments were commonplace. This change came about through the invention, production, and adoption of a new form of clothing, closely connected to changing concepts of the body as well as evolving social codes of consumption, hygiene, and class. Over the course of the eighteenth century, the people of Europe, and particularly of France, developed an obsession with undergarments. Full court dress began to lose its appeal, and by the end of the century, Queen Marie Antoinette shocked the nation with her Gaulle, an informal gown made to look like an undergarment itself.
Through a multitude of sources and interdisciplinary methods of analysis, this study presents an interpretation of undergarments as the limina between public and private, as well as the locus in where changing concepts of the body played out over the long eighteenth century. By analyzing ideas about undergarments and their relationships with the body and society in comparison with social and individual conceptions and uses of undergarments, this study illuminates cultural concepts of outer and under in addition to notions of public and private. Similarly, by interpreting ideas about the outer and under and the role of undergarments for personal, individual use versus public, social use, this study probes evolving concepts of private and public in eighteenth-century France. By incorporating personal sensibilities about undergarments with social and cultural analyses of undergarments as material goods, this project contributes to studies of material culture and material life, as well as to understandings of the body and its relationship with material goods and society. Hence, this study, with its systematic, cultural approach provides a new, historical conceptualization of undergarments, so long unmentionable, as they emerged in the eighteenth century.