Bloomers, briefs and bustles at Guildford

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Surrounded by old suitcases, boxes and hat stands, Rosemary Hawthorne will delve through two hundred and fifty years of bloomers, briefs and bustles when she brings her show The Knicker Lady to the Mill Studio at Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, from Thursday to Saturday, September 27 to 29.

She’s promising to take her audiences back to the muslin-clad elegance of Jane Austen’s England, the corset-bound 19th century, the suffragettes and the daring darlings of the roaring 20s.

As for why, it’s a long story, admits Rosemary: “I was a professional actress. I went to RADA and was in rep for a few years in the late 50s and early 60s, and then I got married and had a big family and gave up on professional theatre.

“But I had always been interested in fashion history. I was a London child and my mother had worked in the rag trade. I was used to being involved in that kind of world.

“My husband had been in advertising and had a mid-life crisis and took holy orders. I really was the actress that woke up in bed one morning with a parson.

“I had always collected clothes, and to earn a bit of money, I used to go around with the clothes in a carry cot and give talks to various groups.

“I would take a few knickers which was a little bit of a titillation, and I realised that they always fancied the knickers! Go on a few years and the talks were getting bigger and bigger.

“When my husband retired, about that time some theatrical agents entered my life, and it was suggested that we could do the talk as a one-woman show, just concentrating on the knickers. I wrote the script and I learnt it which was hard for something that I had ad libbed for years - and it took off.”

What emerges is a fascinating reflection on women in society. Men had been wearing pants for years; for women, knickers are relatively recent.

“They came in mainly, one presumes, because they got a bit chilly when women started wearing the Jane Austen-type muslin. The clothes were less voluminous and some clothes were diaphanous.”

And so knickers were born, though they were slow to take off: “It was not until the 19th century, with Victoria well on the throne, that generally most classes were wearing drawers.”

Things have moved on considerably since then. In Edwardian times, a hint of eroticism was introduced, and these days, women are confronted with a veritable forest of choices when it comes to their smalls.

“How deep is your pocket? How big is your purse? Women could change their pants six times a day if they wanted and always have different types and different moods of underwear!”

Tickets on 01483 440000.