In this exclusive excerpt from WORN, Sofi Thanhauser opens our drawers to reveal the impact linens—bedsheets, undergarments, nightgowns—have had on the lives of Western women.
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Number 5 on Bustle’s “17 Ways to Take Care of Yourself After a Breakup So You Can Move On in the Healthiest Way Possible” is: “Wash everything. The clothes you’ve been avoiding, towels, bedsheets (especially). You know what? If the relationship was a long one and you can afford it, buy new sheets. High thread-count ones. But seriously, getting the smell and presence of your ex off all your fiber belongings is a good start.”
This advice is reiterated on numerous online and print magazines. The lifestyle experts agree: Extirpation is the better part of healing.
The first thing to note about this prescription is that in much of the contemporary world, sheets are closely bound up with sex and love. The word “sheet” makes its first appearance as bedding in 1250: “Schene vnder schete, and þeyh heo is schendful,” which loosely translates to “she looks lovely in the sheet, but she’s a whore.” Earlier usages refer to the sheet as a bandage at about A.D. 725 and shroud sometime around A.D. 1000, establishing the sheet as companion to the wound and the corpse prior to its service as the casement of the lover. By 1347, in Chaucer, the sheet has become a commonplace, if not a right: “No down of fetheres ne no bleched shete Was kyd to hem.”
Sheets, like undergarments, had been made of linen from their earliest appearance up until the advent of cheap, mass-manufactured cotton fabric in the late 18th century and linen became metonymically linked with both sheets and underthings in the Middle Ages, yielding “lining,” “linen closet,” and “lingerie.” In France, the word “linen” migrated from adjective to noun in the 13th century, as its use to refer to household linen and undergarments became universal. Property inventories for wealthy medieval families started to list clothes worn next to the body, usually made from finer cloth than outer garments. In comparison to household linen-like sheets, shrouds, tablecloths, napkins, and toualles (a combination of a napkin and a towel), body linen remained rare in this period but was not unknown even among the poor. The 17th-century linen draper dealt both household linen (linger) and underwear (lingerie), and in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the French spoke of these as “great” and “small” linen (gros linge and menu linge). A 17th-century dictionary demarcated linen’s many types: There was table linen and fine linen, great linen, day and night linen.
By the 18th century, the use of underlinen became general throughout the population. These undergarments bore little resemblance to ours, however. An inventory drawn up by the meticulous Mme. de Schomberg in the 1760s listing all the items of her wardrobe showed she owned a great deal of underlinen: underskirts, shirts, mantles (nightgowns), mantelets (short, sleeveless capes), furbelows (flounces to adorn an underskirt), caps, cuffs, stockings formed her arsenal of lingerie.
The rise of modern-day underwear awaited indoor plumbing: the threat of thrush, which warmth invites, discouraged women from wearing a garment close in against her crotch until regular bathing and laundering were possible. Women in Europe and America wore, rather, long skirts with petticoats right up into the early 20th century. Knickers, or drawers, had been worn occasionally since the 15th century by upper-class women in Europe, though the vogue largely died out by the seventeenth century. These were tied at the waist and above or below the knee with a ribbon or string drawn tight at the closures (yielding “drawers”). The design of contemporary underwear awaited two colonial products: cotton, and rubber, which was used to make elastic.
Despite looking quite different from our contemporary undergarments, body linen, like bed linen, was closely associated with the illicit in the medieval European imagination. In its first recorded use to signal “undergarment,” linen appears in a 14th-century chronicle: “Alle þei fled on rowe, in lynen white as milke,”* and costumes the tryst in a 1607 Jacobean revenge tragedy when “He and the Duchesse, By night meete in their linen.”
Shakespeare, the most prodigal of phrase-smiths, seems to have coined “between the sheets,” in Much Ado About Nothing (1600): “O when she had writ it, and was reading it ouer, she found Benedicke and Beatrice betweene the sheete.” However, the church had already acknowledged the link between sheets and sex in a bizarre 16th-century public shaming ritual that was brought to North America with English colonists. Adulterers or fornicators were made to stand in a public marketplace or church wearing nothing but a white sheet and holding either a candle or a rod. As a chronicle from 1587 records, “Harlots and their mates by … dooing of open penance in sheets, in churches and market steeds are … put to rebuke.” This connection to respectability and its opposite was to cling quite stubbornly to linen.
From the 16th century onward, the social position of both men and women was hitched closely to the fineness and cleanness of their linen. At a time when the body was understood to be porous, susceptible to attack by waterborne miasmas, washing with water was done sparingly, and immaculate white linen became a kind of proxy for cleanliness. Linen did cleanse somewhat, insofar as when a shirt was changed, sweat was removed, but its primary function was to serve as a marker of status.
One tenet of the early modern “civilization of manners” was that dirty clothing indicated a tarnished soul. A manual of manners published in 1740 emphasized the importance of clean linen: “for if your clothes are clean, and especially if your linen is white, there is no need to be richly dressed, you will feel your best, even in poverty.” For the poor, adhering to the ideal of clean linen was difficult. In cities, water was scarce and expensive, fabrics were broken down by repeated washing, and to be clean it was necessary to own enough linen and clothes to allow time for them to be cleaned.
Advertising a family’s superior morality by keeping its linens white was a burden that fell largely to women, under whose care linen was placed. In the 16th through 18th centuries, the juridical and social status of European women eroded, and a new feminine identity emphasized women’s role within the household. They became housewives, dependent within the family economy, confined to keeping up both their own personal appearance and the appearance of the household at large: including attending to the cleanliness of clothes and linens.
Europeans grew more and more obsessed with the whiteness of their linen as they dirtied their hands in brutal colonial ventures. In the early 1780s it became fashionable in Paris to send one’s linens to be bleached to a blue white in the sun of what was then called Saint-Domingue, and is now called Haiti. Although soap became commonly used for laundry, replacing ashes, by the eve of the French Revolution, Parisian linen still carried a yellowish tinge. Linen bleached in the equatorial sun with native indigo achieved a luminous, bluish tint: it had “a fineness and an azure whiteness entirely different from the linen of France,” according to the Comte de Vaublanc. In 1782, after a fleet of 100 ships arrived from the colonies, Vaublanc recalled that “Paris was full of men and women who wore the handsome linen bleached in Saint-Domingue. This linen drew everyone’s eyes. One compared the whiteness of this linen to the slightly yellow color of that of Paris. From that day the laundering of linen changed entirely; it became very difficult.”
In New England, fine white linen displayed caste, and the most prosperous colonists draped their cupboards in lace-trimmed linen, damask, and diaper. In first-generation New England, the Puritan gentry worried whether an attachment to fine linen could be spiritually compromising. John Winthrop, governor of Massachusetts whose 1630–49 journal has provided much of our knowledge of early colonial Massachusetts, tells the story of a Boston woman who brought with her from London “a parcel of very fine linen of great value, which she set her heart too much upon.” Her maid dropped candle snuff on it one night and it all was burned, “but it pleased God that the loss of this linen did her much good … in taking off her heart from worldly comforts,” Winthrop wrote, indicating a cultural milieu in which it was both necessary to display the fine linen and view it with the appropriate level of detachment.
Country and city girls lavished time and attention on their trousseaus, producing wardrobes full of household and personal linen beyond what would ever be needed, clothing historian Daniel Roche has argued. This was linen that would be exhibited on the wedding day, and never sold. Women prepared trousseau textiles together with their mothers, in preparation for marriage. Some of these textiles would be inherited in turn by the daughter’s daughters, connecting generations of women. The matrilineal side was called the “distaff side,” a distaff being a part of a spinning wheel, just as the word “wife” appears to be connected etymologically to the word “weave.” For most women, linen was the only property they could own.
Daughters received their portions at marriage rather than at the death of their fathers. In early modern Europe and America, real estate was transmitted by inheritance from father to son, while daughters received their inheritance in goods that could easily be moved from one dwelling to another: cattle, and household goods known as “movables.” The “movables” that formed the core of a New England inheritance usually consisted of furniture and textiles, and of these two textiles were by far the more valuable. In 18th-century New England, the parlor cupboard listed in the household inventory of a man named John Pynchon was valued at £3, while the table linens kept in it were worth more than £13. As the American historian Laurel Ulrich has noted, “The possession of real property secured male authority. In such a system, women themselves became movables, changing their names and presumably their identities as they moved from one male headed household to another.”
Women’s property rights in America were set by the English common-law concept of coverture. Upon marriage, a woman’s legal existence as an individual was suspended under “marital unity,” a legal fiction by which the husband and wife became a single entity: the husband.
Under coverture, married women legally owned nothing, but by custom they possessed the linens. The word “coverture” appeared in English for the first time around 1200 and was originally a term used for a coverlet or quilt. Beneath this quilt, appropriately enough, lay the rightful territory of women: the linens. Under coverture, women had no rights to their children, so that if a wife divorced, where it was permitted, or left a husband, she would not see her children again. A husband could claim any wages generated by his wife’s labor and had an absolute right to sexual access. Within marriage, a wife’s consent was implied, so under the law, all sex-related activity was legitimate.
With rights neither to land, nor wealth, nor their own children or bodies, women made their mark on linen. Unlike land, which can be traced in deeds, movables flowed, by definition, outside the law. However, it is possible to trace, albeit sketchily, lines of female inheritance, because women took care to mark linens with their own initials if not their full names. One property survey noted: “two pair of sheets marked EC, new sheets marked MC, and a pair of sheets called Hannah’s.” Women adorned linens with their names, their insignia, and sometimes with the desire not to sink into obscurity, like the 18th-century woman who stitched:
When I am dead and in my grave,
And all my bones are rotten.
When this you see remember me,
That I won’t be forgotten.
Excerpted from WORN: A People’s History of Clothing by Sofi Thanhauser. Copyright © 2022 by Sofi Thanhauser. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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