Was there ever a time when clothes were worn purely for warmth? La Mécanique des dessous, the book of the exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris (until 24 November) begins its investigation into underthings in the 14th century. You have to start somewhere and the actual beginning is too difficult: speculative, lacking the beautiful, horrific, enticing objects that could be photographed for this gorgeous occasion.

The earliest form of adornment, shells used as beads, is thought to date back about 100,000 years. Homo sapiens appeared 195,000 years ago. The imagination worked slowly, frozen as it probably was by a lack of history and heat. But once homo saps were warmed up, they were on the non-stop express to the couture houses of Paris and Milan. Adornment presupposes that someone is looking and that the adorned know it. The question of whether people dress for themselves or for others was answered when the first shell turned into a brooch. It may be for status or sexual attraction, or to bribe the powers that be in the afterlife, but adornment always requires another’s eye, or the idea of another’s eye. Underwear, except in sexual circumstances when underwear is outerwear for the naked flesh, is not so much to be admired for itself, but for how it variously presented the wearer in his or her day and night clothes for the eye’s shifting pleasure.

Underwear is only minimally practical. It might be another layer of warmth, or a device to catch and contain the body’s seepings or inconvenient activity, that can be kept clean or renewed more easily than fur, brocade and lace. In my first school we had regulation navy blue knickers with a pocket on the front. We had to keep our hanky there. I don’t know why: it involved considerable rummaging and revelation – knicker elastic in those days was very prone to break, and I liked to extract the rubbery threads inside and nibble on them. I can’t think that the idea was to keep a sleek pocketless outline in the uniform of six-year-olds.

Perhaps underwear was merely useful beneath the voluminous fabric that draped the Greeks and Romans and provided the fluid silhouette of medieval maidens, but it became essential beyond the practical for those apparently physically varied sub-species of humans who kept coming later on. An innocent (me, say, diverting myself from the trouble I’d be in for yet again losing my knicker-hanky) surveying portraiture from the robed bundles of Giotto, through the rigidly constructed Renaissance notables, up to the regulation casual of present-day sitters, might conclude that humans had continued to undergo wild evolutionary changes to and from waists the size of a thumb, sharp, towering or droopy shoulders, hippopotamus or slinky hips, bottoms and breasts waxing and waning like the moon, penises filling ever more bulky and elaborate embroidered and leather packages.

Human beings have never been happy with what they’ve got. We reshape the world, construct machines and contraptions of every kind to alter and control it. We are proud of our innovative dissatisfaction, and quite begrudge the odd chimpanzee using a stick to pry around in termitaries. But while an orangutan might put a large leaf on her head for her amusement or to alleviate the boredom, we are the only ones who actually shape-shift through sleight of body. Until recently, the only way to make major alterations was to push or pull, squash, flatten or compress, lengthen, broaden or enlarge by means of concealed apparatus. Controlling the body is difficult. It requires carefully thought-out structures and appliances which take account of the fact that squeezing one bit will cause a bulge elsewhere, and that death can result from a too constricted ribcage. A degree of rigidity is required but so is pliability. With ever increasing gasps of relief from the wearers, iron, whalebone, rubber and plastic have been used to keep stomachs flat and breasts high. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, I watched my mother dust her rubber ‘roll-on’ with powder, roll it down on itself, then step into it, unroll it to cover her upper thighs and stomach, and stop just below her breasts to take care of the roll of flesh that appeared at the top as the flattened tissue rose to escape capture. Stockings were clipped on with suspenders at the base of the roll-on and a bra with ever-decreasing circles stitched around each cup made her breasts suitably pointed for the period. That generation of women were grateful to Playtex for finding this new use for rubber and saving them the pain and wrinkles of the stiff and tightly laced whalebone corset.

I never imagined that my body could look anything like my mother’s to me strangely formless naked form. Not having seen other older women naked, or fully grasped the nature of ageing, I supposed its bumpy boundary and baggy breasts were particular to her, and caused her need to constrain herself into the right shape for the tight twinsets and flared skirts. I daydreamed about crinolines. The way they swayed as if at sea, swung and pivoted around the beauties at their waltzes, and then bounced back to stillness. Sitting down looked difficult and there was clearly a problem getting through doorways, although that elegant side turn had a certain something about it. There was also, and differently, the imagined airy gap around the legs beneath the cage under the dress. I was forever trying to find small, hidden places to snuggle into, and that crinoline-void struck me as a thrilling private space. To the wearer, a place to keep secret things, love letters tied to the struts, a dangling snack for peckish moments, a book or two shelved. To the imagined me huddling under there, it was a place to be dark and private. The absurdity of the body it pretended never struck me – unlike with the bustle, which I thought ugly, inconvenient and silly.

By the time I’d grown a body that could be cultivated into the shape of the time, there was no shape. Or rather it had returned to the more or less unstructured form of antiquity that depended on the look, cut and exiguousness of the outer garments for its effect. You needed to be slim, have good legs and the right kind of hair, but undergarments didn’t help with any of that. (Imagine being in the mass changing room at Biba and taking off your clothes to reveal a corset – to reveal thatyou were not actually thin. Even now it makes me shudder.)

But undergarments these days are nostalgia, museum pieces or cultural history, for making beautiful books that seduce the eye and consider the social meanings of the shapes they were intended to produce. We’ve cut out the middleman, cut up the actual woman (and man), filled and sculpted, lifted, tightened, enhanced and suctioned the actual body. The surgeon’s knife is the new corset, and surely, in terms of discomfort and effect, a step back from my mother’s supple rubber device pricked with tiny airholes to allow the skin to breathe. Or if we can’t manage the knife, from squeamishness or lack of money, there’s changing the shape of the body by the rigorous manipulation of muscle and fat into our notional perfect form. Suzy Menkes, reviewing La Mécanique des dessous, says that ‘the rigidity of underclothes has been exchanged for the tyranny of the gym.’ And yet again, it seems to me that the young of the 1960s had the best of it. It must have been the only time (perhaps rivalled by the 1920s) when, given a degree of genetic luck, the body was more or less left to its own devices, and underwear was optional.

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