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The Uncomfortable Fashions of West Yorkshire

(Materially Manchester has been re-written for the book as the themes worked better in West Yorkshire)

The West Yorkshire market town of Penistone is perhaps, after Shitterton, England’s most excruciatingly and embarrassingly-named settlement. One might anticipate its moniker has filtered down to the Town of Penis; presuming one has been paying attention to how English spelling, accents and naming conventions have evolved over time.

Alas, it does not follow the logic. The town initially appeared as Pengeston, town of the penge, in the Doomsday Book. Penge is the Danish for money, yet unusually for the region, it is not thought to derive from the language of our viking cousins. In later years, it was recorded as Peningston, meaning: town of the head. Perhaps, then, it was always destined to become a notorious place name of smut.

But money is what rules our waves: Penistone’s history replicates a wider national story of how England obtained her wealth. By the 17th century, Penistone was acclaimed far and wide for its cloth, and the textile is what established it as a flourishing market town.

The Penistone Sheep prospered within the rugged moorland. The moors are a Foulby zone of discomforts: harsh winters, exposed terrain and a dearth of good sustenance. Neglect is what the Penistone Sheep thrived on and this very existence may well explain why its wool was notably robust and enduring. Alas, it was also itchy, scratchy and prickly.

Unsurprisingly then, the average Englishwoman wantonly, and unpatriotically, availed themselves of imported cotton, particularly the affordable commodities that were calico and chintz. These cheaper materials permitted the emerging middle-class women to more readily emulate the fashions sported by their uppers. Somewhat understandably, it wasn’t long before the region’s farmers, shepherds, shearers, spinners, weavers and dyers, whose very livelihoods were imperilled, called on parliament for protection of our native industry.

In 1700, Parliament swiftly passed the Calico Act, blocking the importation of cotton cloth from the east and India specifically. As public policy went, banishing cotton spectacularly backfired amongst the consumer groups, wishing not to return to the days of irritation. Not to be pushed around, our parliamentarians passed further legislation prohibiting the sale of almost all cotton cloth, be it domestic or imported, with the exception of raw cotton. Those caught wearing cotton could expect a thorough shunning.

And so it remained for the women to wash and to wait for the industrial revolution to bring turmoil back upon our lands. The abolition of cheap cloth from the east drove the demand for refining machinery to process raw cotton. Inventors invented, pencils snapped, heads banged, and shortly after the cotton-weaving spinning jenny spun into prominence. The honing of production ensured the material became both cheap and plentiful, and quickly Englanders returned to their former scratch-free existence albeit the ultimate consumer was now far removed from the horrors of the production fields. The demise of the Penistone wool would have been a near-certainty, except a new market was found for it: it was sold as coarse cloth to be worn by the enslaved persons handpicking the cotton fields in western lands under the lash of the white immigrant man endeavouring to provide wealth for the now rapacious English economy.

By 1770, the mill owners were heartily campaigning to legalise the sale of pure cotton cloth once again as the illicit second-hand market was burgeoning. Deregulation swiftly occurred in 1774 and England’s demand for cotton was free to balloon. In an instant 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 underlayers. This trend expanded women’s rear ends in every direction and for once board bottoms became the rears of the year. I lament that I missed my time to shine.

Until this period of time, Englanders had not been of the knicker-wearing persuasion, having abandoned the wearing of any form of underwear, which was snappily called “subligaculum”, once the Romans wandered off back in the direction from whence they came in the fifth century.

And so, the next “must have” addition for the wardrobe was: drawers. Not the boxy containers for storage although they too became essential, but undergarments that were pulled up and tied. Hence their laconic name. Necessity being the mother of invention, women required something to protect their plush outer garments from themselves or else the nether regions would be a veritable

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.

That is until the women’s rights activist, Amelia Bloomer, happened. The American owner of the feminist ‘The Lily’ publication demanded that women’s costumes better suit her wants and needs, rather than being an adornment seeking man’s approval. With that outrageous demand, she shortened her skirts and lengthened her knickers. Her "bloomers" truly bloomed, giving birth to a new range of lingerie. From then on, clearly exposed from beneath knee-length dresses, bloomers became the undergarment of political statement for suffragettes world-wide. One suspects that the usual slurs of whore and witch were lobbed.

And so began the trend of women wearing alluring underwear to attract attention, from causes célèbre to fast cars. From the early 1900s, titillation via ankles and arms was sufficient, but then the novelty wore off. In response, knickers got shorter. Knickerbockers became knickers, which the more politely-inclined called ‘smalls’. In America, they took to calling them panties, which morphed into briefs, but were also referred to as one’s ‘delicates’.

By the 1930s, men were increasingly contemplating how and where they should...

Coopers Inc of Chicago, designed the world’s first briefs with the now infamous Y-shaped access hole keeping it all snug and tidy when out of operation. By 1938, the ‘jockey pants’ arrived on these shores, and sold like the proverbial hotcakes. Within ten years, some men preferred a little less of a

So designers adapted the sportswear Boxers as an undergarments. Men have been debating which is best ever since.

And absolutely no one anticipated the birth of

Thongs came into being when 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 substantial gap in the market. Consequently, many a young woman's rear end has been chomping away at their outerwear usually when out and about in public.

Now to the top half of the story, the

... as one might say. 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, particularly to quell their enthusiasm during physical exertion, especially if one had been gifted anything beyond an

It wasn’t until the 14th century that the corset encapsulated women and its purpose was to deny the breasts any freedom whatsoever. By the 16th century, its many iterations had increasingly crushed women into cages as they aspired to change their body shape to fashions of the era. Women's enslavement to fashion was sealed: demanding forevermore their gowns accentuate the décolletage and diminish one’s waist.

Things took a radical turn when the French women’s rights activist, Herminie Cadolle, along with the support of greater men from the sphere of physicians, successfully focused on the anatomical damage done to women’s chests as much as their midriffs. Ms Cadolle split the corset in two in 1889 before filing for a patent for the first bra. This she called a corselet-gorge. Elsewhere, in America, the press preferred the term “Brassiere”, despite it meaning “child’s undershirt”, and that’s what ultimately took hold. Shortly after, as was typical of the fashion industry pursuit of de minimus, it didn't take long before the ‘siere’ was stripped off.

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.

The rest is, as they say, history.

Except for Penistone’s eponymous sheep. These days, they have been rebranded as Whitefaced Woodland Sheep.They are contemporarily classified as an endangered and vulnerable rare breed with fewer than two hundred breeding ewes meandering across a few random fields.

Slavery was, after a battle royale, abolished in England in 1807. Although the slaves held within her territories were not freed until 1838. They were only reluctantly released from their servitude upon the payment of substantial compensation for loss of income. The emancipated workers were not given a penny to assist in their transition from owned stock to human beings.

The remuneration paid to the plantation owners remains bound up within many of England’s upper echelons today. They went on to build some impressive boarding houses and fashion houses still depend on them to inform our clothing consciousness today.

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