50 Underwear Questions: A Bare-All History - Tanya Lloyd Kyi, Ross Kinnaird Although the style of its cover illustration did not appeal to me at all, I spontaneusly requested a review copy of 50 Underwear Questions: A Bare-All History as soon as I my eyes fell on the title, because since I paged through a wonderful children’s book about the history of underwear in a British bookshop about 15 years ago and forgot to write down the bibliographic data, I am on the lookout for a title that is equally informative, well written and illustrated.

I have to admit that about the only history book I occasionally consult for the sheer fun of it in the library is “This History of Private Life” by Philippe Ariès. I should update my brain with facts and figueres on a much larger scale, because before I entered university all I did during history lessons was doodling on my margins - for which I do blame my teachers, because they were that boring -, but what interests me more concerning the people of the past is how they worked and behaved, with which means they endured or enhanced their private little or grand lives. Therefore about the only thing I remember from the the lessons on the French Revolution is that there were no toilets and only a few bathtubs in Versailles. The Roccoco ladies used to fectate just were they stood. And when they moved on to talk to another friend and swept their large hoopskirts with them, a servant took care of the evidence of genteel digestion.

I think you cannot know enough tidbits concerning the hygienic horrors of the past. Lately I visited a restored townhouse that belonged to a wealthy clothier. And although it matched the accumulated information on 18th-century hygiene I was appalled to hear that the water-filled washing-bowl in the parlor was meant to be visited after partaking of the meal in the dining room – because eating with your fingers certainly made your fingers sticky. Among all the curious hygienic and non-hygienic things our ancestors did and owned underwear belongs to the category that is at the same time the most tangible and the most questionable – why do we use underwear anyway?I do not seem to be the only one to think that way, for books on underwear history are plenty and for readers of all ages. 50 Underwear Questions is one of the newest attempts to bring “light” into that dark corner.

Although the title gives the impression that 50 Underwear Questions can be consulted ramdomly when a certain underwear-related question question turns up and begs to be answered, I think it is best to read it from cover to cover, because apart from some side-tracking to other cultures it is structured chronologically. It starts with several variations of the loincloth and ends with the Aussiebum Wonderjock.

Although I enjoyed some nice anecdotes about rulers like Isabella of Spain, who refused to change her underwear before the war was won, and although I really learned a lot reading these 100 plus pages, i.e. about the origin of the word jock (C.F. Bennett’s jockey strap, invented to cushion professional bikers’ testicles from being bruised by racing across the cobble-stoned streets) and the expression Long Johns (Boxer John L. Sullivan long, white leggins instead of knee-lenths drawers), about the glorious success of the Kenosha Klosed Krotch union suit, which had a diagonal opening instead of the difficult-to-operate bottom flap, and about the influence sports, war (American women were asked to stop buying corsets in 1917 in order to save the metal - 31,000 tons that year – for battleships) or celebrities (James Dean stripped down to his white half-arm undershirts in front of the cameras and Nick Kamen wore white boxers out of modesty reasons in a 1985-Levi’s commercial) had on the evolution of trends, I sorely missed the descriptive illustrations to go with the texts.
50 Underwear Questions is not a picture book. It has background illustrations in the form of washing-line photos which are mixed in an interesting way with cartoonish characters that are meant to make the reader laugh, but – with the exception of the crinoline - I had to either engage in futile brain acrobatics or in internet picture searches in order to get an idea of how the Japanese fundoshi, the French cache-sexe, the Roman subligaculum, a farthingale, a codpiece, a pannier, a shift, a bloomer suit, or the Alps iceman’s loincloth was hung or wrapped. That is a large minus in my point of view. A book encompassing only 30 pages without explanations would not optimal either, but this almost text-only version is though quite ressourceful, but lacking in the most essential department.
Therefore I guess that somewhere out there is a better underwear book for children around. I just haven’t found it yet.

Thank you, Netgalley and Annick Press, for providing me with an hour of educational fun.