The Beauty of the Basque
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Lets have no quips about white horses, marshland and separatists- and we'll not
stoop to tasteless puns - 'I
saw her Basque region and ate
'er.'We're talking underwear
here - and not just any old
underwear.We're talking the
ultimate in erotic foundationwear
- the basque.
It's worth having a look at how ladies'
underwear has developed over the centuries.
At around the end of the 18th century,
in both England and America,
corsets replaced traditional
stays. The soft muslin
dresses of 1800 clung to
the body, highlighting its
Stays spoiled the
but for those with
there was no choice.
stays were less boned
than in the late 18th
Century and were
The newly lengthend stays give a smoother slinkier shape to the hips and thighs and give the bust a more natural outline.
When it became
fashionable to wear a
white slippery silk satin slip
over the stays, the dress
line became smoother as
the muslin flowed over
the silk underskirt.
Underwear for the 'Empire line'
The Empire fashions
of the early 1800s
were often little more
than sheer nightgowns.
The practical solution
to the inconvenience
of lighter clothing was
to adopt a warm
worn only by men -
pantaloons. Made of light
stockinet in a flesh colour
they came to just below
the knee - or all the way
to the ankles.
pantaloons acted in the
same way flesh-toned
bra and briefs do today
under white or pastel
clothing - and it is for
this reason that
women in paintings
of the era often
appear to be
In the 1820s, skirts were
widened with frills and often had
horsehair padding at hemline to
make it stand away from the legs.
With this development, most women
were soon wearing corsets again.
The return of the waistline
By 1825 the high waist had dropped to its
normal level, but skirts became wider and
shorter to balance the increasingly ballooning
sleeves. Corsetry was once again a must to
create the desirable narrow waist. In the mid
1830s, basque-shaped pieces were added to
the hips to accentuate the overall body shape.
After 1840 a new style of corset was
developed, made from seven to thirteen
individual pieces. The gusseted, reinforced
stitched corsets, of strong white twill cotton,
were made to incorporate vertical rows of
whalebone, shaped to the natural body shape.
There was no change to the fastening,
however - they still had to be laced up at the
back by someone else.
Evening dresses of this era had such low
decolletage, exposing bare shoulders, that the
corset had to lose its shoulder straps and
become free standing. And, because the dress
bodices were lengthening, they were
integrally boned in sections. This gave not
only extra contour, but also helped stop
creasing across the body fabric. This is when
the true basque as we know it today first
came into fashion.
In 1899 the sociologist and economist
Thorstein Veblen, in his classic work
The Theory of the Leisure Class wrote:
'.... the corset is, in economic theory
substantially a mutilation, undergone for the
purpose of lowering the subjects' vitality and
rendering her permanently and obviously unfit
for work... the corset, and the general
disregard of the wearer's comfort which is an
obvious feature of all civilized women's
apparel, are so many items of evidence to the
effect that in the modern civilised scheme of
life the woman is still in theory, the economic
dependent of the man, - that, ... she is still the
and he continues,
'... the women of poorer classes, especially of
the rural population, do not habitually use
(a corset) except as a holiday luxury.Among
these classes, the women have to work hard,
and it avails them little in the way of pretence
of leisure to so crucify the flesh in every day
life. The holiday use of the contrivance is due
to imitation of a higher-class canon
of decency... it may be said that
the corset persists in great
measure through the period
of snobbery... it continues in use wherever and
so long as it serves its purpose as an evidence
of honorific leisure by arguing physical
disability in the wearer.'
While some of Veblen's theories were
clearly written tongue-in-cheek, they apply
most aptly to the Edwardian lady, who was
effectively quite helpless in many
ways once laced into her corset.
Engagement in sports was
certainly difficult, although
not impossible. Engagement
in housework was equally
difficult - and undesirable.
Wearing a corset
required the services of
another - a personal maid
who could pull and tug at
the lacing, reducing the
normal circumference of the
waist from 25 or 27 inches to 20
inches.Wearing a corset
precluded the rigorous effort
of household chores - but if
you could afford a
maid to lace you in, you
could afford staff to do
the housework too.
No pain, no gain
Given about two years
effort, a young woman
dedication on the part of
herself and her maid,
could achieve the handspan,
16-inch waist that some
dressmakers considered ideal.
When people today wonder how
women had such small
waists, they forget that, true fashion-victims,
those women worked daily at wearing a
corset in the same way as a woman today
visits a gym to tone up. Essentially, for
the Edwardian woman, the corset
was a status symbol - a sign that
she belonged to the leisured class.
However from around 1905
onwards, so-called 'bust improvers'
or 'BBs' as they were known,
became available - and the word
'brassiere' first appeared in American
Vogue in 1907.
Elastic belts and bustbodices
evolved over the next
decade, and by the end of
World War I, women's
attitudes - and fashions -
had changed radically.
There would be no return to the heavily-boned
corset and the world was ready for the advent
of bras and girdles.
However, the corset refused to go gently
into that good night. It raged, raged against
the dying of the light, as Dunlop developed a
heavy boning and
lacing in corsetry.
Figure-control was soon
achieved throughelastic fabric
panels. A long-line girdle called
the 'Gossard Complete' was a firm,
boneless, foundation garment, worn with the
hallmark backless evening dresses of the 1930s.
It was advertised as requiring no assistance to put on,
as it fastened at the side with hooks and bars.
A rubber interlude
One garment that any woman over 60 will recall with
a wry smile is the all-rubber (YES! RUBBER!) Playtex
girdle of the late 1950s early 1960s. Its surface left
an imprint of tiny spots all over the buttocks, created
by the evaporation holes in the girdle rubber. It was
made entirely of cream rubber - think of a very thick
rubber glove or windsurf suit with pin-prick holes all
over. After wearing the girdle for an hour, the
buttocks appeared to have developed a rash
something akin to German measles.
A neater everyday girdle, commonly called a
'roll-on' was a directional stretch garment, much the
shape and size of a pair of waist-high panty briefs,
but sometimes with legs that covered the upper
thighs. These were worn up until the 1960s in place
of a suspender belt - not only did it hold up
stockings, but it gave tummy control too.
It's interesting to see that lots of ladies' panties
nowadays have in-built Lycra that controls in a
similar way when wearing slim skirts or trousers.
Perhaps if tights had not been invented the roll on
would never have gone away...
However, sexy underwear was about to return in
the 1980s with bodysuits, teddies, camisoles and the
The Dallas era
In the 1980s, with the influence glitzy American
soaps such as Dallas and Dynasty, erotic lingerie
became an outward manifestation of conspicuous
consumption and feminine luxury beneath tailored
suits (and those enormous shoulder-pads).
Women suddenly became more body conscious.
They pumped iron at the gym, honed and refined their bodies and power dressed. All-inone
satin teddies became widely available. These, similar in design to modern swimsuits
but trimmed with lace - and with a handy pop-fastener gusset and
high cut legs - were modelled without bras. Some had built-in
cups that doubled as a bra, and these, when underwired
created a body suit. This was fine on a toned body or for
anyone with surgically enhanced breasts which needed no
support as the silicone did all the work.
Simple camisoles with matching French knickers, hip
briefs or tangas became lacier and more provocative. The
camisole became popular, partly because separates
were so fashionable. Women increasingly wore
trousers, and petticoats in the traditional sense were
worn less as more mass-market clothes were lined.
Now, for special occasions and sexy
assignations, women took to wearing basques again.
This fashion was largely stimulated by the return of
the off-the-shoulder dress. A basque became
essential wear for a bride so that no understraps
were visible at the neckline - and many women
rediscovered basques as clothing to titillate in
the bedroom as well as to create a more curvy
and attractive outline.
So the basque was back, never to disappear
again. But, why? And why is the basque the
most popular erotic apparel worn by women
and, indeed, by some men? We asked
psychologist and social commentator,
Firstly, anyone can look great in a
basque. It can hide a multitude of perceived
flaws. It's a 'Rawhide' garment - it gathers
'em in, herds 'em up and points 'em in the
right direction. The bodice covers the entire
torso, from the clavicle to the groin, where
most imperfections may be and where
most women feel least confident. It also
accentuates the shape and form into what
is seen to be the ultimate desired body.
Almost like a suit of armour, a basque
becomes a uniform - and many people, men
and women, find uniforms a turn-on - nurses,
French maids, policewomen, firemen etc. (maybe
not traffic wardens). Sexually, people can fantasise
to the extent that they are making love to the
uniform and what it represents, rather than the
person inside it. The partner sees the basque and its
accessories, along with the image that it creates,
eclipsing the idea of the person within.
With a uniform, comes a perception of
authority. It is no co-incidence that the archetypical
dominatrix is portrayed as a whip-wielding Amazon
dressed in thigh-length boots, black stockings and a
black basque. Dress a woman like this, and she can
seem to have power over a man. But, it works the
other way around as well. Constrict a woman in a
basque and she can seem to be controlled as a man's
sex-toy. It all depends on the circumstances -
or the couple, or the atmosphere at the time.
The seduction of suspenders
Almost always, a basque is worn with stockings - which
many men find highly erotic and which women and,
indeed, some men, love to wear. They are part of a classic
erotic image. There will always be those who claim
otherwise, but true sexual liberation in western cultures
began in the 1960s and grew through the early seventies.
Unfortunately, at the same time, fashion went through
what many regard as its darkest period with women
wearing miniskirts and hot pants. Everything on show
and nothing left to the imagination. These styles
obviated stockings and suspenders - they only worked
with nylon tights. No matter how good a figure a
woman may have, it is not possible for anyone to look
'sexy' in tights - even Robin Hood. Not only are they
awkward to put on and take off, unflattering and
sweaty - they also mitigate against spontaneous,
clothes-on sex. Footwear and tights have to be
removed before intimacy can really take place (tights
at half-mast has never been a successful look).
Stockings not only facilitate immediate sex, but
also stand as an open invitation - especially if
worn without knickers.
Looking back, you can feel sorry for
the sexual explorers of three and
four decades ago - the standard
white Marks and Sparks bra,
the Pretty Polly fleshcoloured
tights and the
Laura Ashley tents.Where
was the seductiveness -
the expression of
desire and intent -
The second time around
From the early eighties, people have been looking for new forms of sexual
eroticism - not least those who were virgins in the sixties and seventies.
By this time they were approaching middle age and in long-standing
relationships - what could be better than to go back and explore the sexual
buzz of erotic underwear that they had missed when they were young? It
was sexy, it was exciting, it was relatively cheap and it was a private and safe
way of rekindling desires.Within a few years, beautiful lingerie, blatantly
designed with only one real purpose in mind, had become standard issue in
even the dullest of clothes retailers and was beginning to outsell the functional
passion-killers of the past two decades. Designs became more provocative and it
wasn't long before high-street stores were stocking a wide variety of basques,
previously only available through specialist outlets or by mail order.
Underwear was flattering and fun, and everyone was buying it - either for
themselves, or, increasingly, for their partner. 'New Man' now had the bravado to
walk boldly into a store and buy a 'naughty' set for his wife, girlfriend or secretary
(sometimes all three!). To many men, it was a powerful statement: 'Hey! Look at
me. I'm buying sexy underwear for my woman. I'm special, 'cos I've got someone
who wears this sort of stuff? Aren't you jealous?'
Whatever the skin colour of the wearer, while white and pastel basque sets can
suit intimate moments with low lighting, soft music and scented candles, far and away
the most prevalent colour is black, closely followed by red or red and black. Again, this is
all about the images we associate with these colours.
The lore of colour
Throughout the ages, in western societies, the colour black has meant bad - almost to the
point of evil. It is the Devil's colour - the black abyss, the black knight, and the black-dressed
gunslinger. The black sheep - the abnormal and unpredictable one. But black is also the colour
of power and control. Spades is the highest suit in cards and black is the brooding chess colour;
defending, waiting for a chance to strike at white's over-extended naivety. Black also carries a
sense of menace and foreboding.
Red, too, means danger. It also means heat, excitement - ripeness. It is the colour of
blood and it is the colour of sex - from strong lipstick and bright lacquered nails - to a
baboon's bottom! Red lights have shone outside of brothels since Roman times. Even
today, in some parts of the world, to wear red shoes is a sign of being a prostitute or, at
least, a woman of easy virtue.
Put these two strong colours, together and you have the perfect visual indicator
for sex. Combined they say bad, dangerous, risky, naughty - but exciting.Would there
be such a buzz if a roulette wheel comprised beige and sky blue?
Colour aside, the basque outfit - for it is an outfit with its stockings and
heels - says, quite simply, 'I want sex! I want you to have pleasure, I want me to
have pleasure.' It is a bold and obvious statement of desire and intent.
There is no doubt that a woman
would be more comfortable in
a loose T-shirt, tracksuit
bottoms and trainers.
But, until something else
replaces it (and I can't
imagine what that could
possibly be) the basque,
along with its accessories,
remains the quintessential
icon of pure sex.