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 natural outline. Stays spoiled the smooth contours, but for those with imperfect figures there was no choice. Admittedly, these stays were less boned than in the late 18th Century and were lighter in make-up. 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 undergarment, previously 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.

The flesh-tone 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 wearing no underwear.

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 man's Chattel...' 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 with sufficient 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 rubber-based yarn called Lastex. Lastex was revolutionary and replaced 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 new-style basques.

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.

Basque psychology

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, Martyn Gough.

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 excitement?

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.