There's more than meets the eye to underwear. Nominally, this category of garments is defined by the fact that they are not meant to be seen in public. But like the relation of private life to public life, the relationship of underwear to outerwear is complicated and symbiotic.
The cultural changes which have influenced our visible costumes have also influenced what lies beneath. And some of those changes have been extreme, particularly for women. Today, as the yearly parade of Oscars outfits attests, it is socially acceptable for the ultra-fashionable woman to have visible underwear, or visibly no underwear. But it was not so long ago, in the absolute scheme of things, that the slightest glimpse of feminine ankle was considered gasp-worthy.
The liberalisation of women's wear, particularly underwear, is deeply associated with other social forces - women's growing economic independence from the mid twentieth century onwards meant that they could, for pretty much the first time, dictate what was made for them through spending power.
Less obvious forces have also come into play. It was probably no coincidence that the fashion for pretty evening lingerie arose towards the end of the nineteenth century at the same time as the development of birth control - it is easy to imagine the rational process behind women's efforts to wear horrible nightdresses in the days of unlimited pregnancy. Yet the most emotive and long lasting of female undergarments, the corset, was clearly designed largely for the benefit of the male onlooker.
By reducing the waist (to shockingly small proportions in its heyday - as little as 13 inches), and emphasising the hips and bosom, it remodelled a woman's body into the stuff of male fantasy. In its most extreme forms, it restricted breathing and movement enough to make the wearer not only shapely but agreeably 'delicate'. Good job that's all gone. That's not to say that the less restrictive corsets didn't have some practical use as supports. Indeed, the Director of the Women's Bureau in the US Department of Labour during the Second World War, Miss Mary Anderson, vocally insisted that good corsets were essential to the war effort.
Today, corsets, like other items of women's lingerie, are designed to look good and feel comfortable. Generally speaking there's never been more choice of underwear available, or social freedom to wear it. Men, whose underclothes have traditionally been less restrictive but also less adventurous, are now beginning to get in on the act. They are taking more interest in what they wear, both on the outside and underneath, and - shock horror - are even beginning to buy their own briefs. These changes can only be a good thing.