• Angharad Rixon

Friday Fashion Folly - Women Who Wear the Pants


For a while now I have been thinking of organising the Textile Support blog into distinct sections, and today I will begin with the first of my Friday Fashion Follies; a collection of historical facts and anecdotes to end the week with a glimpse of some of the more curious aspects of fashion and costume history...

Courtesan’s Drawers... prior to the invention of the Crinoline in the mid 1800s, drawers were quite uncommon in female costume, occasionally being worn during very cold winters or when horse riding but otherwise seldom used by respectable women. Because of this there are very few pairs of surviving women’s drawers from the Renaissance and Baroque periods and one of the best conserved and most spectacular is this pair which can be found in the Museo del Tessuto in Prato, Italy:

Venetian Courtesan's Drawers, Museo del Tessuto, Prato

Among courtesans, however, drawers were quite common and explored both notions of cross dressing or dress-ups and the idea of an exotic Orient where women not only wore trousers but were also free of rigid European social rules. This vision of the sensuality and eroticism of the Orient left its mark on Western taste, costume and decorative arts but there are also linguistic connections still to be found and an example in English is that we continue to use the term “harem pants”, an expression which links this item of clothing directly to the woman’s sexual role and status as being a precious possession of a powerful man.

This peculiarity of drawers being a part of a courtesan’s costume can be clearly seen in this image after Cesare Vecellio’s De gli habiti antichi et moderni di diverse parti del mondo libri due (Of Ancient and Modern Dress of Diverse Parts of the World in Two Books), published in Venice in 1590. The front part of her dress has been cut away by the illustrator to reveal her richly decorated drawers beneath as well as her high platform shoes known as chopines.

Venetian Cortesan, after Cesare Vecellio, c. 1590-91

Strangely, though, Vecellio’s depiction of the costume of a “Meretrice Pubblica” (quite a brutal title for a prostitute, meaning literally “She who sells herself to the public”) wears but a transparent skirt and does not seem to be wearing drawers at all; a detail which might be indicative of the vast differences in status between these two classes of sex worker in 16th Century Venice; those who managed to use their charms to secure themselves a position of security and privilege as opposed to those who turned to prostitution out of desperation.

Cesare Vecellio, "Meretrice Pubblica", Venice, 1590

This particular pair of drawers is very special; the dainty blue pattern which is so beautifully embroidered all over the fabric bears the text “VOGLIO IL CORE” (“I WANT THE HEART”), wheather seen as playful or provocative, these words suggest an owner who was conscious of her desires and in command of her femnine charms. Indeed it could be read as a lasting tribute to female sexual assertiveness...or as one might say... to women who wear the pants.

Venetian Courtesan's Drawers (detail), c.1630,

Museo del Tessuto, Prato

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