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  • James Wheeling

The "What the...?" factor

When not on actual trips of discovery, I’m in my mountain cabin, laptop, books and papers scattered all around the arcs of my rocking chair, my eyes searching for a tidbit, a “nugget” as authors call it.

Log cabin on Wheeling property, covered in snow in Southwest Colorado. Durango snow-covered log cabin.
Where the magic happens

I know I have something when, “Surely not,” is my initial reaction. Once reread and confirmed, I get the “What the…?” charge of energy. “Why didn’t I learn this in school?” Or, “That makes so much sense now.”

As a 20th century woman, I had always struggled with understanding how and why the women in history had to wear long skirts. They seem to be so awkward. No matter what they did, where they were, they had to drag around skirts that went to the ground. Riding horses required side-saddle. Revealing ankles in public was unheard of, and yet, I always wondered, what if their skirt hem caught and tore? What was the big deal about seeing a woman’s ankle?

And then there were outhouses. My brain just couldn’t wrap itself around a woman, in a hoop skirt, fitting herself into an outhouse. What did she do with all that fabric when she needed to do her business? She had on pantaloons and petticoats, then her actual skirt… not to mention the hoops. There had to have been quite a ruckus. Ever since I was a little girl, this bothered me. Don’t even get me started on the anxiety I felt when I wondered what the women did during their monthlies. I’d heard about belts and pads and rags and…oh, it all sounded so awful.

Inside Wheeling log-cabin surrounded by books, fire in the fireplace and leather chairs.

One day, I was researching away and came across a book that talked about clothing in the 19th century. It was mostly talking about men’s clothing, specifically the unique aspects to a cowboy’s apparel. But, there buried in the fine print was the answer to all my anxiety! The reason women had to wear long skirts, petticoats, and pantaloons was… their pantaloons were crotchless. There it was, the “What the…?” moment.

Pantaloons were basically a waistband, two gathered pieces of fabric that covered the buttock and thigh on either side of her body that tied at the ankle. Sometimes they were sewn loosely from the ankle to the mid-thigh but open from there up. There was nothing to pull down like we do today with pants. Just lift the skirts in the outhouse! And no wonder the can-can was such a risqué dance! The men weren’t hoping for a glance at the girl’s underpants, nope!

Panties, as we know them today, weren’t even invented until the 1920’s and the flapper era. It all makes so much more sense now. If you already knew all of this, well, good on you. It was an ease my poor anxious mind needed.

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