The history of women’s underwear in the West confirms its connection between the parallel constructions of taboo and male desire. Fashion historians Anne Hollander and Valerie Steele have traced the trajectory of underwear from being “an absolute masculine prerogative” (i.e., worn only by men) to an erotic obsession when adopted by women. Long taboo for any respectable woman, a “dirty-minded” interest in women’s underpants arose as pant-like undergarments began to be worn by middle-class women in the 1850s. Before this time any separation of women’s legs by cloth had been regarded as obscene or unholy. Pants were worn only by female acrobats and prostitutes, and such professions were viewed as sexually depraved. This legacy of sexual taboo intensified the eroticism associated with women’s underpants. In Paris the can-can teased the audience with suggestive views of frilly underwear. Eventually even “virtuous wives” began to artfully conceal their genitals in seductive play which intensified the thrill of exposure in what Steele calls, because it is so commonplace, “normal” fetishizing.
The focus that Garden of Nirvana places on the sensorial aspects of panties – their stains, smell and textures – characterizes, in Steele’s terms, that of a “true” fetishist. Whereas normal fetishism is directed toward the artifacts of a specific person, the true fetishist is aroused by the smell and feel of the panties themselves (p. 124). Steele relates how, in Japan, vending machines have been stocked with underpants “guaranteed to have been worn by a Japanese schoolgirl” at $30 apiece. Describing a context where Japanese law prohibits the representation of female public hair, yet where no-panty cafe’s and panty auctions are long-standing popular attractions, Steele notes that “the ubiquity in Japan of panty voyeurism is so great that not only specialist fetish magazines, but also mainstream periodicals cater to it”
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