Erotic Modesty: (Ad)dressing Female Sexuality and Propriety in Open and Closed Drawers, USA, 1800–1930



When middle–class women began to wear drawers in the early 1800s, they were feminised by fabric, ornamentation and an open crotch. Incorporating open drawers into respectable women’s dress within a framework of ‘passionlessness’ constructed female sexuality as both erotic and modest. Crotch construction figured in the twentieth–century struggle to establish modern boundaries of women’s sexual propriety. The accepted sexual and moral meanings generated by open– and closed–crotch undergarments reversed as women increasingly chose to wear closed drawers during a period of women’s greater public presence and feminist activism. The transition from open to closed drawers reveals not only the power of clothing as a medium of significance, but how women’s struggles for autonomy interact with resistant social forces to reconfigure gender distinctions.