Book Review: “An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie and Sexuality”

An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie and Sexuality

I’m really glad I read An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie and Sexuality by Jill Fields. I was really looking for a more academic lingerie text and this definitely fit the bill. I enjoyed the combination of history with feminist criticism and it definitely got me thinking.

The book is about the history and the sociological implications of lingerie in the United States in the 20th century. This is not necessarily a book ideal for the casual reader– a lot of the terminology and ideas assume familiarity with philosophical, psychological and feminist ideas of the 20th and 21st centuries. As someone who only just graduated from university where I studied a lot of similar subject matter, this academic rigor felt like an old friend (I never thought I’d get so excited about references to Foucault). If that sounds unfamiliar or intimidating, you can still enjoy this book; just accept that there are some obscure bits and don’t let a little bit of Freud put you off.

I was fascinated to learn that throughout the 19th century, women usually wore open-crotch drawers (i.e. crotchless) and that these were considered modest, as opposed to closed-crotch drawers which were considered scandalous because they were too similar to trousers and therefore threatened the boundaries of gender difference. Fields explains that open crotch drawers were easier when wearing a corset because they didn’t need to be removed to perform bodily functions, but also that women were seen as constantly sexually available to their husbands. In the 1910’s and 20’s, the rise of close-crotched drawers was considered scandalous and deviant because of the way they resembled men’s trousers and the fact that they also signalled that women were taking ownership of their own sexuality by controlling access to their genitalia. As quickly as the 30’s however, the meaning was reversed: closed-crotch knickers were considered modest and crotchless as risqué and daring (as indeed it has remained today). Fields explains this change by saying that as women’s ownership of their own sexuality became more prevalent and therefore stopped being so clearly in the domain of a husband, this perceived sexual availability was considered dangerous and uncontrolled.

One of the most interesting ideas that Fields discusses is the way in which lingerie possessed fetishistic qualities because they were more acceptable stand-ins for women’s sexualized bodies. This was especially true for corsets and girdles, but still has implications for bras and panties, because, as these pieces of underwear were considered essentials for women to wear, they also functioned in large part as a way to construct womanhood and femininity. The idea of the “invisible woman” that existed in many advertisements of the time, which was a way of representing lingerie without including a nude woman, shows how it was lingerie itself that could stand in for women’s bodies and that the piece of clothing, rather than the female body, would be imbued with the qualities of femininity. This is definitely an interesting idea to consider when thinking about the construction of gender and how lingerie can be seen as a source of femininity or gender identity.

Fields also discusses race and how the sexual implications of black lingerie might have roots in the stereotype of the heightened sexuality of black women as opposed to the stereotype of the chaste and virginal white woman. I found this idea very intriguing, especially when you look at the ways these stereotypes play out in contemporary society. I think Fields dealt well with race, but I think there could be another whole book on the way the history of racial stereotypes affect the way women of color and white women are portrayed in lingerie (as sexually aggressive vs. vulnerable, for example).

Fields covers plenty of other interesting topics, too. She looks at the history of the undergarment industry as well as the way lingerie played an important part in feminist art of the 70s. There is also an interesting section on at the way corsets and girdles have been marketed and the evident terror of undergarment manufacturers that women would abandon their corsets or girdles. All in all, there were a lot of fascinating things that I learned from this book and I would definitely recommend it to someone who wants to take a more theoretical and sociological look at the history of lingerie in America in the 20th century. It definitely raises a lot of questions, and made me think about the language around of lingerie today and how its presentation both differs from and resembles historical precedent.

Have any of you read this book? Do you want to? What did you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

  1. Thanks for writing about this book, I didn’t even know it existed and just ordered it. Obviously I am delighted to find a book discussing the historic, social, and political aspects of lingerie as I was always fascinated with the subject.

    I ended up getting another book that Amazon recommended titled “Uplift- the bra in America”, which seems somewhat related. The description for the book mentioned the writers “use this item of clothing to gauge the social history of women and to understand the business history of fashion”.

    If interested I’ll send you a detailed email once I finish reading both.
    Shana Tovah!

  2. Oooh, this sounds fascinating! Thanks for the review! I love how ouvert panties were the norm back in the day… and now they’re considered deviant at best. I really want to start “fleshing out” my lingerie library and may very well start with this book!

  3. Thanks for the recommendation. It is in my local library and I will rent it out tomorrow! By the way, your blog is an absolute pleasure to read.

  4. Ooooh thanks for this (delayed comment, haha), I’ve been considering doing fashion history in the late 19th century for a research paper for my Body and Visual Culture seminar, I saw the word “Foucault” and I was like OH GOD NO SO MUCH FOUCAULT. (Translated as: alright, this is legit, maybe I can use this in an academic paper, haha.) (Seriously, sooooo much Foucault – women’s studies minor + art history major with a future specialization in women’s representation in art, oh lordy.)

    • You should definitely check out Valerie Steele’s ‘Corset: A Cultural History’ if you do! It’s also excellent & very well researched.

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