Sexuality in Fashion

Bloomers, Dress Reform, and Women’s Rights

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When you think of the word “Bloomers,” I’m sure the first thought that comes into your head is oversized granny panties or maybe a little girl’s long cotton pantalets seen beneath 19th-century dresses. “Bloomers” originated in the mid 19th century, not as a word for underwear but a type of dress reform. Amelia Bloomer’s name became linked to this new clothing style, but she did not originate it. The outfit that people started calling Bloomers was an attempt by women to gain some freedom from the highly restrictive women’s clothing of the time. They wanted to wear “gasp” something that resembled pants!

A new concept in women’s dress rose up out of the new water cure movement in the mid 19th century. In the late 1840’s, people were flocking to “restorative” water cure resorts to cure themselves of a variety of ills or just to get healthy. Hydrotherapy used water in various ways, both internally and externally, to improve one’s health. They also ate a meager diet and were encouraged to enjoy the outdoors, as well as, exercise as part of their health regimen. It was so popular that a publication The Water-Cure Journal was created as a forum for people to expand upon the benefits of the water cure and its lifestyle. In this journal we find more than just articles about health and fitness, we find women fighting for dress reform as a way to improve their health.

Women’s fashion at this time consisted of a voluminous skirt with many starched petticoats underneath to maintain the enormous bell shape. Skirts had been getting bigger and waists getting smaller since the 1820’s. Skirt hems would get muddy and dirty as they dragged on the floor. The petticoats were heavy and the cut of the bodice restrictive. Often women couldn’t fully raise their arm due to the cut of the sleeve and small armseye that left little room for movement. Under all this was a tight corset and layers of undergarments. Women wore dresses or skirts even while working around the house, in the garden, working on a farm or even in a factory. Trousers were for men only.

This type of dress was not conducive to taking the waters, nor did it help women to pursue the kinds of activity offered at the water cure facilities It was suggested to adopt the ” Turkish dress,” a full pant gathered in at the ankles as worn by Persian women under a shortened dress. By 1849, articles were showing up in the Water-Cure Journal touting the health benefits of the Turkish dress and dress reform in general.

The idea of reform dress was not born in the water cure world, but it certainly found a place to bloom there. The link between the water cure movement and dress reform may also have been fueled by the fact that many abolitionists and suffragists enjoyed taking the cure. The fight against women’s dress of the day was already a matter of concern to those women fighting for equal rights. The Water-Cure Journal was a sounding board to amplify the message that was already out these.

There were others outside of the water cure culture that advocated dress reform along with wearing Turkish dress like Dr. Lydia Sayer Hasbrouck, Lucy Stone, and Elizabeth Smith Miller. Elizabeth Smith Miller was the first to promote the new style of dress among members of the early women’s rights movement. She was one of the first to adopt Turkish dress in public. She was not only inspired by the eastern style of dress but also by the raised hems and pants worn by women at the Oneida community.

In 1851, Elizabeth Smith Miller wore the outfit while visiting her cousin Elizabeth Cady Stanton in Seneca Falls, NY. Stanton loved the idea so much she started also wearing it. Her new outfit caught the attention of her friend Amelia Bloomer. Stanton told her it made her feel like a captive set free. Amelia published a journal called The Lily, a perfect vehicle for articles about this “freedom suit” that helped her feel unfettered like Stanton and Miller. Once she published a woodcut of herself in Turkish dress, the idea caught on like wildfire. Now dubbed “Bloomer Dress,” it became a popular garment among those in the feminist and temperance movement. No longer was it confined to utopian communities and hydrotherapy spas, it was out in public.

Then came the backlash.

It was hard to change Victorian minds about women’s dress, even among women. The newspapers had a field day making fun of “Bloomer Girls” and fashion magazines that at first thought of the outfit as tasteful denounced the fad. Men, especially the clergy, didn’t like how much this looked like wearing pants and found it a threat to their authority. Women in pants were shown in cartoons as smoking cigars, proposing marriage, and putting doubt into men’s minds as to “who wears the pants” in the family. Churches turned away women arriving in bloomers. Even other women found it offensive and immoral. Some women who tried wearing it stopped because they felt uncomfortable in public. It brought far too much unwanted attention upon them. There were too many generations conditioned to think that women’s legs were never seen nor her natural form revealed. In a time where women were supposed to be frail and subservient, this new style of rational dress showed a shockingly strong and active woman. It was a concept difficult to accept.

Unfortunately, the negative images of manly women in pants became linked to women’s rights events. Suddenly suffragists weren’t too thrilled with the look, nor with the Bloomer name, and tried to distance themselves from it. Even Amelia herself went back to regular dresses, stating that the new skirts were lighter weight thus more comfortable to wear. The water cure movement also wanted to disassociate themselves from the Bloomer dress indicating that it was ruining the positive benefit of wearing the outfit at their resorts. Even though the women’s right movement started moving away from the Bloomer dress soon after adopting it, the dress reform movement didn’t. The dress reformers were more than happy to have the suffragists walk away and take their bad press with them.

Bloomers lost their appeal to the masses, but there were others who felt they needed to continue the fight for less confining and debilitating forms of dress. Members of the Dress Reform Association continued to wear bloomers. Women working during the civil war found it a much easier form of dress to attend to injured soldiers, such as Dr. Mary Walker and Dorothea Dix. Harriet Austin created her own version called “American Costume” with a shorter skirt and narrower pants in the hopes of drawing people away from the bad press connected to the Bloomer name and renew interest in dress reform. Mary Tillotson, an early adopter of Turkish dress, continued to write and talk about the subject into the 1860s in various newspapers and the dress reform journal, Sybil. Mary decided to revitalize the stalled dress reform movement in the 1870s and started the American Free Dress League.

It would take nearly 50 years since the first spark of interest in reformed dress for the Bloomer style to be reborn. The late 1890s saw bicycling rise in interest as a form of fun and exercise thanks to the new chain system and a redesigned frame. Women in the 1890s were still wearing long skirts, full petticoats, tight bodices, and restrictive corsets. Women’s bicycles were designed without the center bar to make room for their skirts (that’s why there’s “boys” bikes and “girls” bikes) and to make sure they didn’t have to raise a leg thus revealing limbs or other areas while mounting. As bicycles became all the rage, the bicycle dress evolved from a split skirt with a center panel into wide poufy pants with gaiters or knee socks. Not a skirt in sight. At this point, the women’s movement was gaining strength. More and more women were no longer content to fall under the weak and delicate label forced on them for ages.

Revealing the female form during the Victorian era was a struggle for power and independence. Willingness to give a woman ownership to her body and desires was one of the hurdles for the dress reform movement. If women have freedom of movement, then they might not be easily tethered to the home where they toiled for husband and children. The water cure movement was embraced so quickly because it offered women a chance to take care of themselves for a change. Often this was the only time they were allowed to function separately from the hearth and home. Wearing “Bloomers” or “Turkish Dress” in public was a great risk for these women. The harsh criticism and resistance to change may have temporarily derailed the movement, but thankfully there were those who would not be bullied out of their bloomers.

Want to know more about dress reform and the early women’s rights movement?  Here is some suggested reading. (I make a commission on purchases made through the following affiliate links.)

Life and Writings of Amelia Bloomer by D.C. Bloomer

Reforming Women’s Fashion, 1850-1920: Politics, Health, and Art by Patricia Cunningham

Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Women’s Rights Movement by Sally McMillen

 

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Sexuality in Fashion: The Codpiece

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I am a huge fan of the 1980’s British TV series, Blackadder. Comedian Rowan Atkinson plays Edmund Blackadder with each season taking place in a different time period. A scene in the first series involves The Black Adder’s (the 15th century Blackadder) clothing choices while getting ready to attend the announcement of the new Archbishop. He chooses the most ostentatious of clothing items, most notably his codpiece called The Black Russian since it always terrifies the clergy. The reveal of his magnificent codpiece shows a large stiff upward-curving shape.

The first Blackadder’s clothing choices are not too far from what some nobles might have done back in the day. Sexual display in male dress manifests in different ways over the millennia and many a noble was keen on some sexual display. They also like to show their power and virility. One of the more impressive displays from the past is the codpiece. These ornate protuberances started out small and practical then rose to decorative prominence then fell out of favor. How men decided to make their crotch such a fashionable focal point is an interesting evolution.

Western fashion before the 15th century consisted of tunics and hose. Hose being woven cotton, not the sheer nylon we use today. It started as two separate leg coverings that attached to a linen undergarment. The undergarment and chemise (shirt worn under the tunic) covered the crotch, which was also covered by the tunic. The tunic (called a doublet by the 15th century) kept creeping up until it barely covered the bottom, thus exposing the open space between the hose. When the tunic got short enough to be a risk when sitting or getting on a horse, they came up with the idea of sewing the hose together in the back and adding a triangular piece of fabric to the front. The front covering was attached to the hose at the bottom to create a flap then tied to the hose at the top with ribbons or cord. The new style of hose now tied to the doublet. As the doublet got even shorter the triangular flap, now more exposed, got bigger and more decorative. Dubbed the codpiece, it began to bulge and grow until it was almost as big as Edmund’s Black Russian as it became a symbol of virility, sexual prowess, or just to show off

The word codpiece comes from the Old English/Germanic word for bag, pouch or husk and the Middle English word for scrotum. The codpiece reached its peak in the mid-1500s, around the 1540s. At the beginning of the 16th century, hose became divided into upper stocks and lower stocks. They were attached to each other, but the upper stocks were made to look like a separate garment. The upper stocks evolved into breeches while the codpiece became more padded and pouch-like, so it protruded between the hose. It also may have emerged as a handy dandy pocket to store items like jewels, letters, or even, as legend has it, the occasional orange.

While the codpiece growth coincides with the spread of syphilis, it may not have been used or developed because of it. According to Anthropologist Grace Q. Vicary, the codpiece was padded out so that it didn’t press against a painfully syphilitic penis or provided space for an ulcered member wrapped in bandages. The codpiece also kept the unguents from staining the garment. This does not seem to be the case as surviving codpieces were not shaped in a way to accommodate these theories. It wouldn’t be the first time venereal disease inspires fashion as this happens more often than you think.

The codpiece was mostly the fashion accessory of the rich, the ranked, and the royal. Many Henry VIII portraits show him with a fashionable protuberance. He may have been enamored with a full stuffed codpiece because of certain insecurities. Henry was unable to produce a healthy male heir despite a parade of wives. His fascination with large codpieces was a way to let people know he did not lack in the bait and tackle. The rise of the codpiece is also seen in military dress, and some surmise may have started first in armor before clothing. Metal codpieces were a popular piece of military garb, so Henry had one as part of his ceremonial armor.

The padded codpiece is found in art from Germany, Italy, Austria, France and Spain. As the codpiece increased in size, it’s resemblance to the male member in the rest of Europe increased, especially in Italy. Paintings such as Portrait of a Halberdier by Jacomo Pontmoro, Pietro Maria Rossi – Count of San Secondo by Parmigianino dated 1535-39, Guidobaldo II della Rovere by Agnolo Bronzino dated 1530-32, and Portrait of Antonio Navagero by Giovanni Battista Moroni dated 1565 show that Italy was quite fond of the upwardly mobile, highly phallic, codpiece. You can find German woodcuts and paintings with the slashed look that was fashionable at the time, as were puffed out codpieces. Portrait of a Young Man by George Pencz, a German artist, dated 1544 has quite an impressive codpiece that seems to defy gravity.

As we enter into the Elizabethan era, from the mid to late 1500s, we see the codpiece start of whither. Well, not exactly whither but get overshadowed by other pieces of clothing. Emphasis goes away from the codpiece as the peascod belly doublet rises. The peascod belly, or goose belly, is a doublet padded in a way that resembles the chest of a bird. There is even peascod shaped armor. The puffed and padded doublet extended downward with most of the padding at or below the waist. Trunk hose now separate from the hose covering the leg, billowed out so that the fullness obscured the codpiece. Between the full belly and the full breeches, the codpiece faded into obscurity by the end of the 16th century.

Emphasis on genitalia in some way persisted until we get to the staid Victorian era. Around the 1920’s, fashion brought attention back to the body. The codpiece was resurrected in the 20th century, as seen in A Clockwork Orange, Kiss, and Cameo. We can still see it as a symbol of sexual voraciousness and the well endowed in the entertainment industry as bands from a variety of genres like heavy metal, alternative, and R&B sport modern codpieces. The prevalence for codpieces in Renaissance armor is seen on Star Wars characters and superheroes. It hasn’t made its way back into everyday clothing, but every once in a while it shows up on the runways. As a culture, we’re still obsessed with size and virility, except nowadays it’s more about pleasure than progeny.

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Sexuality in Fashion: When Men Were Peacocks

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Some time ago my kids and I were visiting a park where the peafowl ran free. I say peafowl because peacocks are only the males of the species; peahens are the females. It was spring so many brilliantly trained peacocks seemed to be everywhere that day, ready to impress. They strutted around with tails fanned out, giving them a shivering shake every now and then, as the smaller neutral feathered peahens seemed to be going about their business nonplussed. Several moms were standing with us in an open field watching nature’s show when I noticed some mom’s referring to the peacocks as “she” and “her.” It seemed they thought the courting male fowl to be female.

It’s always frustrating for me when I hear parents give their children misinformation instead of just saying, “I don’t know” then seeking out the right info. Dare I say something and correct these women in front of their children?

I couldn’t help myself. I had to. For science.

When I pointed out the fanciful birds were indeed male, they were surprised. It was strange to them that the female would be dull colored and the male so extravagantly plumaged. Because I couldn’t shut my mouth at that point, I also pointed out that pretty much the entire animal kingdom is set up that way. I eventually wound up explaining that males are colorful to help attract a mate and females are camouflaged to protect them, important vessels of procreation as they are, from predators. What I didn’t get to is that men have also been peacocks in our past, we just don’t remember. I’m not just talking about the swinging 60’s, the glam 80’s or even the metrosexual new millennium. Men centuries ago have had periods where they rocked wigs, highish heels, makeup, and fanciful dress. These were mostly affluent nobles but a rising merchant class meant the middle-income crowd could also indulge in fanciful fashion.

For most of ancient times, men and women dressed pretty much the same. In the 15th and 16th century, dress in the upper class becomes more elaborate. By the Tudor and Elizabethan time period men are slashed, puffed, sporting thigh high pumpkin hose and stockings. Then the 17th century arrived. Noblemen and aristocrats begin a journey into ostentatious display the likes of which we have rarely seen. The elaborate jewel pearl encrusted Elizabethan era becomes the sumptuous fabrics and ornate lace collars of the Jacobean era. Men are all about the ruff but not in the curled shaped upright ruff, instead, it’s wide, flat and made with exquisitely edged lace. There are even fancy lace cuffs appearing at the sleeves. The leg coverings saw short breeches descend from their height at the thigh, to knee length and full, then relaxing to a more natural form. Sashes and fancy garter ties are now all the rage. The heeled shoe makes its appearance, as does the high-topped boot that soars to such height it become fashionable to have them hang and sag around your calves.

As we head into the 17th and 18th centuries, men are wigged out, wearing makeup, high-heeled, and looking fabulous. Early 17th century Jacobean moves to the jaunty mid-century Cavalier, made popular by the Three Musketeers movies. Cavalier brings long curled locks, fancy long poufy sleeve peeking out from the end of coat sleeves, longer more elaborate coats, ribbon loops, the birth of the cravat and Jabot as neckwear, and petticoat breeches which were so wide they often looked like short skirts.

It culminates with the Restoration era where long curly locks are replaced by bigger long curly wigs, garter ties with bows become festooned with ribbon loops, jackets bloom with more ribbon loops, hats grow wider brims and longer feathers, shoes are heeled with fancily decorated as are the ever widening cuffs. Makeup becomes popular, mostly to hide scars due to smallpox along with the use of beauty patches that also help to cover scars. If you’ve ever seen The British Fops Lucien Callow and Fagan on Saturday Night Live, this is what they were making fun of. The Restoration era is the Fops heyday.

Dandy fashions continue into the rococo period to the early 18th century, but with fewer ribbon loops. The last stand of men’s fashionable extravagance, at least until the 1960s, would be the “macaroni” of the mid 18th century. Trendy men’s court fashion becomes its most metrosexual until it calms down to a more sedate dandyism spearheaded by Beau Brummel. Men’s fashion would become increasingly dull and drab as attitudes towards masculine dress become more rigid in the 19th and 20th centuries.

It’s interesting to note that the times that men are letting their peacock flags fly, are when sexual mores are more relaxed. The renaissance saw an increased acceptance of sex for pleasure, although usually within the confines of marriage. While cheating had to be kept on the down low, mistresses and boys on the side start to become more apparent in the literature of the time. The 17th and 18th centuries find the aristocracy enjoying what seems like a great deal of sexual freedom. Men marry to procreate and pass their fortunes and titles onto their progeny while pursuing mistresses and courtesans for pleasure. There is a sense that men flirted more and sex was more acceptable.

The 18th century is a time where a more modern attitude towards sex takes root. When sex gets tightly buttoned up in the Victorian and Edwardian eras (19th to early 20th century) men’s dress becomes less ornate. During the sexual revolution of the 60s, we see the return of the dandy and a blurring of the gender lines in fashion. It makes me wonder if the absence of the metrosexual in preference for the more conservatively adorned hipsters has something to do with the current clash of sexual identity. Only time with tell. I’m hoping the peacocks return to parade and shake their stuff again.

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Sexuality in Fashion: The Myth of Wet Dresses and the Muslin Disease

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James Gillray [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the late 17th to early 18th century, upper class women’s fashion changed dramatically. For centuries, they wore multilayered complicated dresses that often changed their silhouette to something not quite natural. Women were a mystery from the waist down with voluminous skirts and undercarriage that ranged from the tubular cartwheel farthingale to the basket like hips of panniers. It was a time of revolution both culturally and politically. The taking down of the extravagant monarchy in France during the March on Versailles in 1789 brought on a period of “austerity” in fashion. Gone are the grand gowns bedecked with ruching, ribbons, lace, and furs. The new era gowns were often made of muslin a type of cotton fabric. There are other influences that shaped this new silhouette and style. It’s said that the rise of the chemise style gown came about because it was what the women wore while imprisoned during the revolution. The classical style of ancient Greece and Rome becomes extremely popular and is seen in the rising waistline, draping fabric, and Grecian inspired dress trim, accessories, and hairstyles.

Between 1795 and 1799 a new group of fashionistas take the simplicity of the classical style to extremes. With the revolution somewhat in the past, decadent fashion makes a return with the Incroyables and Merveilleuses of the Directoire period. The Merveilleuse wore lighter weight muslin, gauze or linen gowns that were sometimes quite sheer. They did away with the underpinnings and often just wore a pink bodysuit underneath to accentuate the appearance of being nude underneath. Necklines were low and skirts often slit up the side. They wore sandals or lightweight slippers with ties that crisscrossed up their calves to the knee. The dresses worn by the general public were already scandalous even though they were still worn with undergarments that included a corset, petticoat, and even underwear, as long pantaloons were necessary under the less structured dress. This was mostly because the dresses and lightweight petticoat revealed a woman’s figure more than it had in centuries. You could almost see the natural shape of a woman’s legs and posterior! The Merveilleuse would take this to the extreme showing more than a silhouette but the hint of skin.

Unfortunately, I read often about the wetting down of muslin dresses to further expose the body in all its glory. Stories of women coming down with pneumonia which could lead to death, otherwise known as the muslin disease, due to walking around in wet garments. Despite it being repeated on many websites, I could not find any evidence of this actually happening. It looks like many people have taken the words of harsh critics who thought the clingy dresses looked like they were wet down as truth. There are lots of scathing caricatures that exaggerate the style to make fun and criticize. Out of all the images I’ve seen none of them indicate that the dresses were wet in any way. And really, I wonder how long these dresses can stay wet, certainly not long enough to make it through an entire ball I would think. It’s more likely “muslin disease” was just the product of women going out on a cold wintery day with plunging necklines and semi sheer fabric to remain de rigueur.

The wet t-shirt style escapades of the Merveilleuse are decidedly unsubstantiated. It was a short time when women could celebrate their silhouette. This freedom of sexual expression in dress would be short lived. Napoleon would bring on the return of repression and take away the more egalitarian role women had during the revolution. It would be more than a century before the flapper would bring back a similar freedom of dress and sexuality we saw with the marvelous Merveilleuse.

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Sexuality in Fashion: Split Drawers to Crotchless Panties

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I remember the first time I bought a pair of crotchless panties. I went to Fredrick’s of Hollywood and bought a set that comprised of ruffle-trimmed nipple-less bra and crotchless panties in a shiny black fabric. It seemed sexy at the time. I had imagined buying them ever since I saw them in Fredrick’s magazine ads when I was younger. When I put them on the fabric was a little cheap and uncomfortable. Don’t think I had them on for very long. I eventually found wearing a sexy pair of panties over a garter much sexier. That wouldn’t be the last time I wore crotchless undergarments. I would soon get into the world of historical reenactment and find myself wearing crotchless undergarments nearly every week, in the shape of Victorian drawers.

The idea of drawers being open at the crotch did not have the same erotic intention of the modern crotchless panty. In fact, up until the late 1700s women just wore a long chemise that went down past her knees under her dress, corset, and petticoats. Nothing was worn underneath since the skirts were long and the chemise and underskirts provided enough coverage. Undergarments that consisted of two legs that tied at the top but left the crotch area uncovered show up in the 1700s. It was thought that only prostitutes and women of questionable morals wore them. When dresses moved to a more natural shape at the end of the 1800’s this idea is discarded and pantalettes or pantaloons become acceptable. There was some reluctance to accept them at first as having something on underneath that resembled pants did not meet with immediate approval.

The reason split drawers are open at the crotch is to make going to the bathroom easier. When you have a corset and several layers of petticoats and skirts you can’t pull down underwear to sit. It’s easier to hike up your skirts and squat. Having been there and done that I can attest to the easy of the open crotch drawers. I once made the mistake and wrestled with my underwear in a bustle dress in a way that was completely exhausting and made me worry the underwear would win. My long cotton split drawers never once felt remotely sexy, even ones with pintucks, lace, and ribbons at the hem. My chemise came down to nearly my knees so nothing was exposed. In fact, I walked around in my skivvies in front of people often when I demonstrated how the Victorian woman dressed for a history event. One young gentleman found it difficult to talk to me in my underthings even though not a bit of skin below my sans cleavage neckline was exposed. Just the idea of me being in my underwear was enough to make him uncomfortable with my relative state of undress.

It interesting to see how we can go from going commando being perfectly acceptable but wearing tubes of cloth around our legs is immoral, to the idea of wearing a dress without panties bringing about a hefty dose of slut shaming. But then again we’ve gone from a glimpse of stocking being something shocking to the string bikini in less than a century. Our concept of what is considered scandalous in our clothing, even undergarments, can change in ways that seems odd to our modern sensibility. The idea of a certain style of underwear being acceptable while women of questionable morals only use another seems to be common in western dress. I imagine in several hundred years we may find what is acceptable under our clothes will change again.

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Sexuality in Dress

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Sometime in my distant past, I was part of an education program about life in the Victorian era. We dressed in reproduction clothing and talked about life, culture and architecture around the turn of the century. One of the presentations I did was on how upper middle-class women dressed at that time. I would start with just my “unmentionables on” which were my split crotch drawers, a chemise that went down nearly to my knees and a partially laced corset. Under my drawers, I had on some thick tights since it was always cold in that room. I had a maid who dressed me while I talked to the guests. She tightened my corset, helped me put on my corset cover, then my petticoat, followed by a skirt then the matching bodice of my gown. I did this over and over again as groups came through at regular intervals.

In another part of the house (this was in a renovated historic home) other reenactors talked about courtship, running a household, local business, and the “fads” and “new innovations” of the day. Before we began to receive guests, I was called into the parlor by another reenactor who wanted to introduce me to his friend who was new to our merry band of history players. I was waiting for our first group to arrive so I was in my chemise, drawers, and corset. Since it was winter I had a long velvet shirt I brought that looked somewhat like a short dressing gown. It was not buttoned up in front so I could just throw it off when our visitors arrived. I was introduced to the new addition and we began talking about our day and what it’s like to speak in character in front of guests.

I began to notice the new recruit seemed to be avoiding my gaze. I have a tendency to look people in the eye when I talk but not in an aggressive way, just in a connecting way. His body language seemed to broadcast a bit of unease and he kept turning away and spending most of the time just looking at the other gentleman. Finally when I asked a question that required a long answer from him (not intentional since I wasn’t really sure what was going on) the oddest thing happened. When he turned to talk to me, he raised his hand and kept it outstretch as if I had a blinding light coming from me and he had to shield it. He then laughed nervously and said he just couldn’t talk to me dressed like that. It was very distracting and it felt wrong looking at me while I was undressed.

Undressed??

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