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Object of Intrigue: 19th-Century Greenlandic Seal Fur G-String


Photo: National Museum of Denmark/Roberto Fortuna

The National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen has a formidable collection of animal-skin garments once worn by the indigenous people of Greenland, North America, North Scandinavia, and Siberia.

Among the usual furry boots, mittens, capes, and leggings made for these perilously cold climates is a garment worthy of particularly close inspection: Item Ld.132.4, a 19th-century beaded seal-fur g-string.

The indigenous people of East Greenland made this sort of underwear, known as naatsit, by sewing strips of seal pelt together using a thread of reindeer or whale sinew. The naatsit above, decorated with glass beads tied onto seal-skin fringe, was made for women and worn under seal-skin trousers. Explorer Captain C. Ryder acquired the item in the southeast Greenland settlement of Ammassalik during an expedition in 1892.

According to Peter Toft, the National Museum of Denmark’s Greenlandic fur clothing expert, this beaded, furry thong was intended to be displayed not just during intimate moments, but in polite company. Inside the warm homes of the Greenlandic Inuit, a naatsit “was the only thing worn even when having guests or visiting the houses of other families,” says Toft. ”This shocked the Danish missionaries of the 18th and 19th century, who tried to convince the Inuit to wear European linen (longer) underwear indoors. This attempt was not very successful.”

As to why the Greenlandic Inuit made their thong undergarments out of seal skin rather than reindeer, fox, bear, or dog, Toft says that in addition to their durability, seal pelts were best because they provided less insulation than caribou fur. “Sweat building up inside your garment is just as dangerous as being underdressed for the cold,” he advises, “as your perspiration will eventually freeze.” Seal skin thongs, therefore, were less likely to result in frozen sweat being trapped between the buttocks.

For a closer look at this naatsit and more Greenlandic seal fur underwear from the 19th century, either visit the National Museum of Denmark or delve into the museum’s digitized skin costumes collection online. Other highlights of the archive include Siberian squirrel-fur boas, a diaper made of reindeer skin, and a sealskin jumpsuit waterproofed with whale blubber.

 

Photo: National Museum of Denmark/Roberto Fortuna