Sans culottes

When I was a doctor, in general practice, I was a little intrigued by the large number of young women who didn’t wear panties. A fair number of young men did likewise, but not as many, it seemed, and the implications regarding modesty and propriety seem somehow not to apply so much to boys. It seemed strange to me that young ladies should go to the doctor and not think that it might be a good idea to wear panties. Didn’t their mothers caution them about this very scenario? Or were they just being practical? If the doctor were to want to take them off, why not leave them off? Perhaps, bearing in mind their mothers’ admonitions, they deemed that no panties was preferable to their only clean ones, with holes in them and perished elastic.

I’ve read that 6% of women in the USA “go commando”. Allegedly, American marines are encouraged to dispense with underwear, because any task that involves dropping the trousers is more efficiently accomplished without the impediment of boxer shorts. The term “going commando” probably derives, however, from the older expression, “going regimental”, whereby Scottish soldiers were required not to don briefs under their kilts. I suspect that Australian girls, from my own workplace survey, are a lot less prudish than their American sisters. I reckon that maybe 15-20% of Australian women of child-bearing age have deleted panties from their shopping lists. Across vast tracts of our ever-warmer planet, panties are considered to be a ridiculous western extravagance. I’ve never known anyone I could ask, nor how to do so politely, whether muslim women are required to wear panties under the burqa.

Not wearing panties, by western women, could just be a matter of fashion, of course, and dread of the embarrassing “visible panty-line” but, if that’s the case, why do so many girls wear thongs and g-strings, the waist bands of which sit in plain view above the backs of their jeans?

It’s probably more comfortable not to wear panties under a skirt, but surely it’s damned uncomfortable under jeans, with a bulky denim seam insinuating itself between one’s labia. On the other hand, maybe it’s more uncomfortable still to wear a g-string. Then again, perhaps it’s uncomfortable in a nice, sexy way; a bit of a turn-on for the thong-wearer, and also for the man whose eye follows the thread of the sartorial conversation inevitably to the crux of the matter.

There’s something to be said, medically, of course, for a woman allowing a bit of fresh air, and perhaps also some sunshine, into her nether regions. It helps to prevent thrush. Indeed, I used to occasionally recommend the practice to women of an excessively yeasty disposition. Harking back a couple of hundred years, women wore not panties, but pantalettes, which covered their thighs and perhaps most of their legs, fastening at the waist with a lace or drawstring, but not joined at the crotch, because it was thought to have been more hygienic that way.

These pantalettes came into being during the French Revolution. Before that, women generally wore no underpants. Curiously, the revolutionaries, men and women, were called the “sans culottes”, which meant that they wore trousers, rather than the knee-length, rather gaudy creations favoured by the aristocracy, called culottes. This creates confusion, nowadays, because in modern French, the word for “panties” is “culottes”, so “sans culottes” now means “without panties”, and it’s considered pretty avant-garde and chic to go thus in public. However, I suspect that a lot of young women mistakenly go without panties as a political act, to demonstrate their sympathy with the sentiments of liberté, fraternité and égalité, not realising that the brave women they’re seeking to emulate actually invented undies.

The word culottes, in English, now refers to a garment that looks like a short skirt, but is actually sewn together at the centre to form two leg openings; what English women call “French knickers”, when worn as lingerie, but which can also be made out of more substantial fabric and worn over panties. Or not. Fascinatingly, culottes came into being in the early 1800’s when the French police decreed that can-can dancers, who had been in the habit of doing  their high kicks in crotchless pantalettes, must wear something less scandalous, so the girls sewed up the peek-a-boo bit and voila! Les culottes!

Crotchless panties, though, have not gone away because of an edict by the fashion police. They are worn, one imagines, by women who can’t quite make up their minds to go without, but more commonly perhaps, by the more common sort of girl, seeking, by placing a lacy fringe around it to attract the prurient masculine interest all the more to the obscure object of desire. I suppose, too, that there are a few well-bred girls who choose, by wearing crotchless knickers to grant the necessary access for procreative purposes to their husband or husband-equivalent, without actually having to undress, just as Victorian women would embroider a vertical slit in the front of their nighties for the same purpose.

As the decades have passed, dresses have become shorter, so pantalettes and culottes gave way to bloomers and drawers, then to panties or knickers. This process of abbreviation has continued to the thong and the g-string. By reductio ad absurdum, I suppose, the next step was bound to be to go without panties altogether.

I was fortunate enough to be at university during the heady days of women’s liberation, the hippy era, anti-Vietnam-war demonstrations, plentiful cheap marijuana, and, of course, readily available and reliable oral contraception. It was a great time to be young! I heard Germaine Greer speak. I went along with my girlfriends and cheered when they joined in bra-burnings. Girls went topless at the beach, at parties, rock festivals, pretty much every chance they got. But they they tended to keep on their panties most of the time, as I recall.

What, then, do the daughters (and grand-daughters) of those women’s libbers do when they want to make a political statement? Much as has been achieved by the elder generation of feminists, the battle is far from over! Think of the world-wide campaign of slut-walks, whereby girls have proclaimed their right to dress and behave as they choose, and it’s none of men’s business. Prominent women have been lining up to appear in “The vagina monologues” and to say “cunt” on stage. If your mother burned her bra, then that is now passe. Politically aware young women in the front lines of the battle for women’s rights are aptly going commando!

In my retirement, I’ve had plenty of time to ponder the no-panties phenomenon, but I still lose sleep about it.

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