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Materially Manchester

Manchester, or rather the county of Greater Manchester, is another ceremonial concoction formed on 1st April 1974. Unlike Avon, it endures. For the most part, the county is five hundred square miles of concentric, and very compact, settlements comprising the urbanisation best known as Manchester, England’s second largest city. The region has gone on to become famous for its Victorian two-up, two-down terraced homes epitomised in the soap opera “Coronation Street.” That’s not to say there aren’t any attractive green spaces, it’s just they are like moles on a body - randomly dotted all about the place.

Upon superficial inspection, Greater Manchester is arguably the most toxically-masculine of the English counties. Chester, it is posited, derives from the Roman “caestrum” meaning “encampment”. Greater Man Camp. I’m undecided which word ought to be emphasised, but no matter which one is stressed, it has an undeniable impact on one’s imagination.

However, the “Man” is not “The Man” whatsoever. The syllable most likely correlates to the Celtic “Mamm”, as in “mammary”, meaning “of the breast”. Greater Boob Camp. This has it sounding like an exotic bra for the ample-chested, a particularly apt interpretation given Manchester’s material role driving the Industrial Revolution.

In 1700, Parliament passed the Calico Act, blocking the importation of cotton cloth from the east and India specifically. Naturally, this had the effect of making cotton a very attractive commodity indeed to the common English anarchist or fashion-savvy avant-gardist. In response, 1721 saw the government passing legislation prohibiting the sale of almost all cotton cloth be it domestic or imported, with the exception of raw cotton.

Thankfully, during this period Englanders weren’t of the knicker-wearing persuasion, having abandoned the wearing of any form of underwear, snappily named “subligaculum”, once the Romans wandered off back in the direction from whence they came in the fifth century.

The 1721 abolition of cheap cloth from the east drove the need for machinery to process raw cotton. Cotton was now being harvested in the west, driven by the slave-trade and colonialism, it then required a larger market of wearers. Inventors invented, pencils snapped, heads banged, before the cotton-weaving spinning jenny spun into prominence.

Henceforth, landlocked Manchester, via its ship-canal, became the textile processing capital of Europe. By 1770, the mill owners were heartily campaigning to legalise the sale of pure cotton cloth once again. The successful deregulation occurred in 1774 and England’s demand for cotton ballooned. All of a sudden, bulk went vogue. Wide skirts, kilted up with loops, ribbons, buttons and tassels, formed fold after fold. Others preferred the full curtain drapery, from shoulder to floor, pinched in the waist, which occasionally, and daringly exposing, a mass of under-layers. This trend expanded women’s rear ends in every direction.

Next came the “drawers”. Necessity being the mother of invention, women required undergarments that would protect their plush outer garments from themselves. In the absence of Tena Lady, knee-length billowing cotton smalls were added to the catalogue. Naturally, of course, no one would know what was going on down there, fabrically-speaking, as the glory of the knickerbockers were discreetly covered by a football pitches’ worth of material.

Then came along women’s rights activist, Amelia Bloomer. The American owner of the feminist The Lily publication demanded that women’s costumes better suit her wants and necessities, rather than being an adornment seeking man’s approval. With that asserted, she shortened her skirts and lengthened her knickers. Her "bloomers" truly bloomed, giving birth to a new range of lingerie. From the 1850s onwards, clearly exposed from beneath knee-length dresses, bloomers became the undergarment of political statement for suffragettes world-wide.

One suspects that the usual slurs were lobbed.

And so began the era of women wearing underwear to attract attention from causes célèbre to cars. From the early 1900s, titillation via ankles and arms was sufficient, but then the novelty wore off. In response, Knickers got shorter. Knickerbocker Glories became knickers, which in America became panties, before turning into briefs, which then were undercut by the introduction of thongs to the world in the 1990s.

Thongs came into being after Californian legislators in 1974 wished to outlaw nude sunbathing, demanding that, in the interests of common sensibilities, women should wear bikinis. Shortly after, the Austrian-born American fashion designer Rudi Gernreich spotted a gap in the market.

So now to the top half of the story. Once upon a time there was no such thing as a bra. Instead a band of cloth or leather, called a Strophium or Mamilare, was bound around one’s chest to flatten it if necessary, but preferably to quell their enthusiasm during physical exertion. It wasn’t until the 14th century that the corset encapsulated women, and its purpose was about denying the breasts any freedom whatsoever.

The corset only enacted itself to women’s enslavement in the 16th century. Its many iterations saw women increasingly crushed into cages as they aspired to change body shape to fit the fashion of the era. The fashions, of course, being gowns accentuating ample décolletage and tiny waists.

Things took a drastic turn when a French women’s rights activist, Herminie Cadolle, along with the support of greater men, from the sphere of physicians, successfully focused on the damage done to women’s chests. Ms Cadolle split the corset in two in 1889 before filing for a patent for the first bra, which she complicatedly called a corselet-gorge.

Incidentally, the bikini was the invention of a French car builder in 1946 whose legacy is to forever link together buxom ladies, bras and bonnets in the marketeers’ eye for good salesmanship.

The rest, as they say, is history.

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