CM . . .
. Volume XVIII Number 17. . . .January 6, 2012
50 Underwear Questions: A Bare-All History. (50 Questions Series).
Tanya Lloyd Kyi. Illustrated by Ross Kinnaird.
Toronto, ON: Annick Press, 2011.
116 pp., pbk. & hc., $12.95 (pbk.), $21.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-55451-352-9 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55451-353-6 (hc.).
Grades 6-8 / Ages 11-13.
Review by Gail Hamilton.
There were a few problems with the cage crinoline trend. Now everyone- everyone!- was wearing enormous hoops. The huge skirts, combined with flammable dress materials of the time, made for an instant fire hazard. While an aristocrat on her way to a ball might be relatively safe, a mother preparing dinner over the kitchen fire was taking her life in her hands.
In London in 1863, two women were burned to death when their skirts brushed against fire grates. In Manchester, England, a young woman was passing by the kitchen fire when her crinoline bumped a kettle. The boiling contents scalded and killed a child.
Across Europe and North America, crinolines led to hundreds of injuries and deaths. Did the list of horrible accidents convince women to wear smaller skirts? Well, no. Apparently fashion was worth the small risk of fire.
50 Underwear Questions, a history of underwear, is one of titles in the "50 Questions" series. From ancient times, when loincloths were de rigueur, to the present day, when lingerie stores boast a wide variety of colours, fabrics, styles and shapes of unmentionables, undergarments have evolved with the times. Underwear design reflected social mores, social status, and body image and aesthetics, and was influenced by fashion trends, climate and the kind of work that people did.
Following a brief introduction, seven chapters, each of them pertaining to a specific time in history, explain the design and development of both men's and women's undergarments. Questions are printed on jockey briefs hanging on a clothesline, but they read more like headings or puns that allude to the answer. For instance, the question, "Isn't that just dandy?" relates to Beau Brummell and his friends who were known as dandies and wore chest-to-hip corsets to create a narrow body shape; and "Is there a crack in their logic?" relates to boys who purposely wear their pants so low that their underwear shows.
Major topics in the book are presented chronologically, starting with undergarments worn in ancient and medieval times, followed by the corsets, hoops and crinolines of the 1500s to the late 1700s, the movement to freedom from constricting wires and "cages," and war-time underwear and the introduction of bras and girdles. With the invention of fabrics such as nylon and elastic, underwear evolved into more form-fitting shapes. In the 1950s, its design was also influenced by movie stars such as James Dean and Marlon Brando whose appearance in white undershirts on the silver screen started the popular t-shirt trend, with underwear worn as outerwear. The last chapter of the book discusses the impact of the invention of new fabrics, such as Lycra (also known as Spandex), and modern-day underwear as a fashion statement, meant to be seen, and, according to one American economist, even a predictor of economic trends. (Economics guru Alan Greenspan says that when the economy is poor, men do not buy new underwear, but when men buy more briefs and boxer shorts, the state of the economy is improving.) From fashion designer Calvin Klein's enormous billboard, in New York's Times Square, showing a male model clad in tight white briefs, to Victoria's Secret's "angels," modeling scanty lingerie on the catwalk, underwear is no longer the taboo subject of the past.
Readers will learn about the origins of names such as bloomers, union suits, boxers, jock straps and long johns and will also learn some slang terms for specific types of underwear and the wearing – or not (hence the term "going commando")- of underwear (whale's tail, dental floss, tighty-whities, and banana hammock are just a few of today's slang terms). Text boxes, entitled "Private Parts," are printed on underwear washing instruction labels and appear throughout the book, providing additional trivia. One example of trivia is the urban legend that Al Capone owned bulletproof boxers. "Garment Games" also appear throughout the book. These pages present activities for readers to try, but it is unlikely that readers will actually attempt them. Some examples include making a hoop out of a hula hoop and ribbons to see for oneself how ladies would sit in hoop skirts, tie-dyeing a pair of boxers, and making a gladiator's loincloth.
An attractive layout and text areas printed on shapes such as jockey briefs, garment labels and sleeveless undershirts add to the book's appeal, but the real scene-stealers are the colourful and humourous cartoon-like illustrations which will elicit more than a few chuckles.
New underwear styles tend to appear whenever social changes sweep the world, and 50 Underwear Questions does a good job of giving examples of that trend. Though the book is well-written and well-researched, it falls slightly flat at the end (perhaps a conclusion was in order). Due to its subject matter, it is unlikely to garner much interest in the school library. Readers who do check it out might just skip to the chapters or questions that they find appealing or interesting. A table of contents, an index and a brief list of books for further reading are provided.
Recommended with reservations.
Gail Hamilton is a former teacher-librarian in Winnipeg, MB.
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