At St. Petersburg, in 1774, Sir Nicholas Wraxall observed
“the promiscuous bathing of not less than two hundred persons, of both sexes. There are several of these public bagnios,” he adds, “in Petersburg, and every one pays a few copecks for admittance. There are, indeed, separate spaces for the men and women, but they seem quite regardless of this distinction, and sit or bathe in a state of absolute nudity among each other.” (Sir N. Wraxall, A Tour Through Some of the Northern Parts of Europe, 3d ed., 1776, p. 248).
It is still usual for women in the country parts of Russia to bathe naked in the streams. In 1790, Wedgwood wrote to Flaxman:
“The nude is so general in the work of the ancients, that it will be very difficult to avoid the introduction of naked figures. On the other hand, it is absolutely necessary to do so, or to keep the pieces for our own use; for none, either male or female, of the present generation will take or apply them as furniture if the figures are naked.” (Meteyard, Life of Wedgwood, vol. ii, p. 589).
Mary Wollstonecraft quotes (for reprobation and not for approval) the following remarks:
“The lady who asked the question whether women may be instructed in the modern system of botany, was accused of ridiculous prudery; nevertheless, if she had proposed the question to me, I should certainly have answered: ‘They cannot!'” She further quotes from an educational book: “It would be needless to caution you against putting your hand, by chance, under your neck-handkerchief; for a modest woman never did so.” (Mary Wollstonecraft, The Rights of Woman, 1792, pp. 277, 289).
At the present time (Ellis‘ time) a knowledge of the physiology of plants is not usually considered inconsistent with modesty, but a knowledge of animal physiology is still so considered by many. Dr. H. R. Hopkins, of New York, wrote in 1895, regarding the teaching of physiology: “How can we teach growing girls the functions of the various parts of the human body, and still leave them their modesty? That is the practical question that has puzzled me for years.”
In England, the use of drawers was almost unknown among women half a century ago, and was considered immodest and unfeminine. Tilt, a distinguished gynecologist of that period, advocated such garments, made of fine calico, and not to descend below the knee, on hygienic grounds. “Thus understood,” he added,
“the adoption of drawers will doubtless become more general in this country, as, being worn without the knowledge of the general observer, they will be robbed of the prejudice usually attached to an appendage deemed masculine.” (Tilt, Elements of Health, 1852, p. 193).
Drawers came into general use among women during the third quarter of the nineteenth century.
Drawers are an Oriental garment, and seem to have reached Europe through Venice, the great channel of communication with the East. Like many other refinements of decency and cleanliness, they were at first chiefly cultivated by prostitutes, and, on this account, there was long a prejudice against them. Even at the present day (Ellis’ days), it is said that in France, a young peasant girl will exclaim, if asked whether she wears drawers:
“I wear drawers, Madame? A respectable girl!”
Drawers, however, quickly became acclimatized in France, and Dufour (op. cit., vol. vi, p. 28) even regards them as essentially a French garment. They were introduced at the Court towards the end of the fourteenth century, and in the sixteenth century were rendered almost necessary by the new fashion of the vertugale, or farthingale.
In 1615, a lady’s caleçons are referred to as apparently an ordinary garment. It is noteworthy that in London, in the middle of the same century, young Mrs. Pepys, who was the daughter of French parents, usually wore drawers, which were seemingly of the closed kind. (Diary of S. Pepys, ed. Wheatley, May 15, 1663, vol. iii). They were probably not worn by Englishwomen, and even in France, with the decay of the farthingale, they seem to have dropped out of use during the seventeenth century. In a technical and very complete book, L’Art de la Lingerie, published in 1771, women’s drawers are not even mentioned, and Mercier (Tableau de Paris, 1783, vol. vii, p. 54) says that, except actresses, Parisian women do not wear drawers. Even by ballet dancers and actresses on the stage, they were not invariably worn. Camargo, the famous dancer, who first shortened the skirt in dancing, early in the eighteenth century, always observed great decorum, never showing the leg above the knee; when appealed to as to whether she wore drawers, she replied that she could not possibly appear without such a “precaution.” But they were not necessarily worn by dancers, and in 1727 a young ballerina, having had her skirt accidentally torn away by a piece of stage machinery, the police issued an order that in future no actress or dancer should appear on the stage without drawers; this regulation does not appear, however, to have been long strictly maintained, though Schulz (Ueber Paris und die Pariser, p. 145) refers to it as in force in 1791. (The obscure origin and history of feminine drawers have been discussed from time to time in the Intermédiaire des Chercheurs et Curieux, especially vols. xxv, lii, and liii).
Prof. Irving Rosse, of Washington, refers to “New England prudishness,” and
“the colossal modesty of some New York policemen, who in certain cases want to give written, rather than oral testimony.”
“I have known this sentiment carried to such an extent in a Massachusetts small town, that a shop-keeper was obliged to drape a small, but innocent, statuette displayed in his window.” (Irving Rosse, Virginia Medical Monthly, October, 1892).
Popular feeling in South Africa would not permit the exhibition of the nude in the Art Collections of Cape Town. Even in Italy, nude statues are disfigured by the addition of tin fig-leaves, and sporadic manifestations of horror at the presence of nude statues, even when of most classic type, are liable to occur in all parts of Europe, including France and Germany. (Examples of this are recorded from time to time in Sexual-reform, published as an appendix to Geschlecht und Gesellschaft).
Some years ago, (1898), it was stated that the Philadelphia Ladies’ Home Journal had decided to avoid, in future, all reference to ladies’ under-linen, because
“the treatment of this subject in print calls for minutiæ of detail which is extremely and pardonably offensive to refined and sensitive women.“
A man, married twenty years, told me (told Ellis) that he had never seen his wife entirely nude. Such concealment of the external reproductive organs, by married people, appears to be common. Judging from my own inquiry, very few women care to look upon male nakedness, and many women, though not wanting in esthetic feeling, find no beauty in man’s form. Some are positively repelled by the sight of nakedness, even that of a husband or lover. On the contrary, most men delight in gazing upon the uncovered figure of women. It seems that only highly-cultivated and imaginative women enjoy the spectacle of a finely-shaped nude man (especially after attending art classes, and drawing from the nude). Or else the majority of women dissemble their curiosity or admiration.
A woman of seventy, mother of several children, said to a young wife with whom I am acquainted: ‘I have never seen a naked man in my life.‘ This old lady’s sister confessed that she had never looked at her own nakedness in the whole course of her life. She said that it ‘frightened‘ her. She was the mother of three sons. A maiden woman of the same family told her niece that women were ‘disgusting, because they have monthly discharges.’ The niece suggested that women have no choice in the matter, to which the aunt replied: ‘I know that; but it doesn’t make them less disgusting,’ I have heard of a girl who died from hæmorrhage of the womb, refusing, through shame, to make the ailment known to her family.
The misery suffered by some women at the anticipation of a medical examination, appears to be very acute. Husbands have told me of brides who sob and tremble with fright on the wedding-night, the hysteria being sometimes alarming. E, aged 25, refused her husband for six weeks after marriage, exhibiting the greatest fear of his approach. Ignorance of the nature of the sexual connection is often the cause of exaggerated alarm. In Jersey, I used to hear of a bride who ran to the window and screamed ‘murder,’ on the wedding-night.
At the present day it is not regarded as incompatible with modesty to exhibit the lower part of the thigh when in swimming costume, but it is immodest to exhibit the upper part of the thigh. In swimming competitions, a minimum of clothing must be combined with the demands of modesty. In England, the regulations of the Swimming Clubs affiliated to the Amateur Swimming Association, require that the male swimmer’s costume shall extend not less than eight inches from the bifurcation downward, and that the female swimmer’s costume shall extend to within not more than three inches from the knee. (A prolonged discussion, we are told, arose as to whether the costume should come to one, two, or three inches from the knee, and the proposal of the youngest lady swimmer present, that the costume ought to be very scanty, met with little approval). The modesty of women is thus seen to be greater than that of men by, roughly speaking, about two inches. The same difference may be seen in the sleeves; the male sleeve must extend for two inches, the female sleeve four inches, down the arm. (Daily Papers, September 26, 1898).
“At ——, bathing in a state of Nature was de rigueur for the élite of the bathers, while our Sunday visitors from the slums frequently made a great point of wearing bathing costumes; it was frequently noticed that those who were most anxious to avoid exposing their persons were distinguished by the foulness of their language. My impression was that their foul-mindedness deprived them of the consciousness of safety from coarse jests. If I were bathing alone among blackguards, I should probably feel uncomfortable myself, if without costume.”
A lady in a little city of the south of Italy, told Paola Lombroso that young middle-class girls there are not allowed to go out except to Mass, and cannot even show themselves at the window except under their mother’s eye; yet they do not think it necessary to have a cabin when sea-bathing, and even dispense with a bathing costume without consciousness of immodesty. (P. Lombroso, Archivio di Psichiatria, 1901, p. 306).
“A woman mentioned to me that a man came to her and told her in confidence his distress of mind: he feared he had corrupted his wife because she got into a bath in his presence, with her baby, and enjoyed his looking at her splashing about. He was deeply distressed, thinking he must have done her harm, and destroyed her modesty. The woman to whom this was said felt naturally indignant, but also it gave her the feeling as if every man may secretly despise a woman for the very things he teaches her, and only meets her confiding delight with regret or dislike.”
“Women will occasionally be found to hide diseases and symptoms from a bashfulness and modesty so great and perverse as to be hardly credible,” writes Dr. W. Wynn Westcott, an experienced coroner. “I have known several cases of female deaths, reported as sudden, and of cause unknown, when the medical man called in during the latter hours of life has been quite unaware that his lady patient was dying of gangrene of a strangulated femoral hernia, or was bleeding to death from the bowel, or from ruptured varices of the vulva.” (British Medical Journal, Feb. 29, 1908).
The foregoing selection of facts might, of course, be indefinitely enlarged, since I have not generally quoted from any previous collection of facts bearing on the question of modesty. Such collections may be found in Ploss and Max Bartels Das Weib, a work that is constantly appearing in new and enlarged editions; Herbert Spencer, Descriptive Sociology (especially under such headings as “Clothing,” “Moral Sentiments,” and “Æsthetic Products”); W. G. Sumner, Folkways, Ch. XI; Mantegazza, Amori degli Uomini, Chapter II; Westermarck, Marriage, Chapter IX; Letourneau, L’Evolution de la Morale, pp. 126 et seq.; G. Mortimer, Chapters on Human Love, Chapter IV; and in the general anthropological works of Waitz-Gerland, Peschel, Ratzel and others.
Timidity, as understood by Dugas, in his interesting essay on that subject, is probably most remote. Dr. H. Campbell’s “morbid shyness” (British Medical Journal, September 26, 1896) is, in part, identical with timidity, in part, with modesty. The matter is further complicated by the fact that modesty itself has in English (like virtue) two distinct meanings. In its original form it has no special connection with sex or women, but may rather be considered as a masculine virtue. Cicero regards “modestia” as the equivalent of the Greek σωφροσύνη. This is the “modesty” which Mary Wollstonecraft eulogized in the last century, the outcome of knowledge and reflection, “soberness of mind,” “the graceful calm virtue of maturity.” In French, it is possible to avoid the confusion, and modestie is entirely distinct from pudeur. It is, of course, mainly with pudeur that we are here concerned….