Sunday, 12 May 2013

No knickers will be worn to the ball

Last Friday, a fascinating programme appeared on BBC2, called Pride and Prejudice - Having a Ball. I watched enthralled. Radio Times said this about the programme:

A team of experts led by social historian Amanda Vickery re-create a Regency ball at Chawton House, Hampshire, where Jane Austen lived for eight years, in honour of the 200th anniversary of the classic novel. Amanda is joined by writer Alastair Sooke, a food historian, a costume expert, music history academics and a choreographer. Inspired by Austen's Netherfield ball from Pride and Prejudice, an event that plays a key role in the romance between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy, this documentary brings together the little that is known about such a social occasion.

What the last sentence means is that Jane Austen did not say much about what went on at the typical ball at a country house, taking it for granted that her readers would know. So a lot of research was needed to put together an authentic mix of candle lighting, costumes, dance steps, food, tableware, manners and social conventions that might have been observed if dropping in on a Hertfordshire ball held in the year 1813.

The author of the write-up has made a mistake with the name: it's Bennet, not Bennett. And I would say that that Alastair Sooke is actually an art historian and broadcaster, not just a writer. But never mind.

If, inconceivably, you have never read or even heard of Pride and Prejudice, see

I really like this kind of TV programme, which deals in detail with what houses, clothes and food were really like in a given historical period. The historian Lucy Worsley has already presented several very engaging programes for the BBC in this general area, and has very much whetted my personal appetite for this way of bringing history alive. She particularly likes to delve into the period between 1660 and 1860 - from the Restoration to the middle years of Victoria's reign. So I was in fact surprised not to see a contribution from her!

It was however pleasing to see others present their own knowledge, such as how girls' dresses were sewn together. I'd seen Alastair Sooke's own art programmes, and had greatly enjoyed them, but I associated him chiefly with classical Rome, and was a bit puzzled as to why he was getting mixed up with a Jane Austen ball. That said, he definitely looked like the sort of tall, thin, youngish gentleman who might have attended such a ball, and although his attempts at the strenuous and complex dancing were a bit dodgy, he looked decidedly credible in his Regency togs.

The programme explained the costumes quite fully. I was naturally very interested in what the female ballgoers wore, bearing in mind that the ball was an all-important chance to for an unmarried daughter to impress one or more potential suitors, especially suitors of four thousand a year, or, in Mr Darcy's case, ten thousand. (In those days, of course, a fantastic income) So a girl had to look right. The high-waisted dress was in, the dress that pushed up the bosom and hung straight down to the ankles. Even if made of the finest material, and beribboned, it was really quite plain. It exposed only the chest and neck and lower arms, the upper arms being encased in a puff sleeve. Long gloves hid the hands and elbows. The very light dancing pumps worn on the feet were visible, but nothing of the legs could be seen.

A girl was well covered-up by a dress like that! A great aid to a becoming modesty and demureness. So it was a surprise to learn that although stockings might be worn on each leg, they were not like modern tights or leggings, and did not cover the genital area. Nothing did. These Regency girls wore no knickers! And in fact it was usual for a girl or a woman not to wear any kind of undergarment resembling our modern panties or knickers until well into the late 1800s. Really.

Which poses some instant questions. One can grant that in an era of long skirts (and possibly, in earlier or later times, layer upon layer of petticoats) there was no danger of one's bottom getting cold. One can also grant that a dress down to the ankles exposed nothing to view, and shielded the lady's private parts from all lewd glances, unless she fell over, or were tipped onto her back, or she was herself inclined to assume that position. But what about the sundry leakages and exudations and seepages and drippings that might naturally occur? After all, younger ladies have periods, and all have to pee, and they couldn't have wiped themselves fastidiously with a wodge of soft paper tissues, like one does nowadays. Are we saying that, sans cotton undies, the knickerless Bennet daughters had to bound about the dance floor, and do their best to flirt with the young men on display, with trickles of sweat and urine running down their legs? Surely not.

Understandably the programme didn't dwell too much on this, but it was a point not to flinch from. I have not flinched. Today I decided to find out what happens when you put on a skirt that comes down to your ankles, but leave off the knickers.

Although coming up sixty-one, my plumbing is still in good shape, and I haven't yet become incontinent. Not even when I cough or sneeze. But I have to say, I was deeply sceptical about this experiment. I have never before in my life gone knickerless, unless of course wearing a swimming costume, always feeling that knickers are a good insurance against 'little accidents'.

After the first pee this afternoon, I said to myself, you will put them back on, no matter how meticulously you have dabbed and wiped.

Well, it didn't work out like that. I've now been six hours without anything covering my naughty bits except a long skirt, and strangely I haven't leaked. Bone dry. And no smells, either.

Well that definitely answers a question that has been nagging at me ever since a former sister-in-law (who habitually wore long, flowing skirts) mentioned that she wore no knickers around her home. I wondered how she could possibly feel completely clean and comfortable, but now I see. I'm guessing it's about the two sides of the vulva closing up to make a kind of seal. Women have a short and fairly straight tube between their bladder and the outside, and can get rid of their current supply of urine in one intense jet, with no drops left over - quite unlike men, who have convoluted plumbing and who, after relieving themselves dribble-fashion, may still have some golden liquid lurking in a U-bend. Of course, I've never given birth, and have jolly good muscles and valves down there. That would help.

So what now? Do I carry on knickerless through the entire summer? Well, possibly around the house, if wearing a suitably long skirt, as I have today. It feels nicely unconfined, and would obviously lighten the load at washtime. But no way would I go knickerless if wearing anything knee-length or shorter, not unless I want to give myself (or the neighbours) a cheap thrill. And no way if out and about, unless someone can absolutely guarantee there will be no wind or breezes or updraughts whatever - doing a Marilyn Munroe (as in The Seven Year Itch) would be altogether too embarrassing. Although the no-knicker look is potentially cool and trendy, if Gwyneth Paltrow's lead is followed.


  1. Wearing a dress it is sometimes easy to forget certain items of clothing, I put that down to age... I like the sense of freedom when it happens though I forgot last autumn when going out for a walk with friends, that was a bit chilly.

    A breeze is possibly more hygienic than tight tights...

  2. I shouldn't if I were you Lucy, incontinence can happen suddenly. It did with me, let me explain. I, like yourself have always had good plumbing and I could turn off the tap with no problems. One day about three years ago I went to a job far away from home and hadn't visited the loo for quite some time. My access to the job was restricted because the householder couldn't keep the appointment for at least an hour later (he phoned to let me know). Normally that wouldn't present a problem but by the time he arrived I was desperate to use the toilet and found to my horror that I was having difficulty in holding back the flow! I managed to get to the toilet and relieve myself but not before I had wet my underwear. I put it down to simply having a really full bladder but from that day onwards I have found that I leak a little involuntarily. Now I wear something suitable to catch any little mishaps. I have learned how to control myself better but I sometimes fear things will get worse, it may not but I cannot be sure.

    Shirley Anne x

  3. Oh, I'm back to the usual knicker-wearing habit already! I don't leak (yet) but there will one day be an incontinent moment like the one you describe. Plus a constant risk of embarrassment if the skirt I'm wearing should get taken by the wind.

    And besides, in this country, there is no chance whatever of it being too hot for underwear!



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