From the mysterious depths of prehistory to the present day, men and women have sought to cover their bodies with clothing. With functional designs a priority, some clothing was designed to be worn underneath other clothes. And so the history of underwear began.
From loincloths to lingerie, from long johns to thongs, the millennia are filled with a huge variety of undergarments fulfilling different functions, meeting the expectations of cultural mores and aesthetics to the biological necessity of their intended use.
Hidden in public and flaunted in the bedroom, this is the history of underwear in all its glory.
The earliest dedicated form of underwear was most certainly the loincloth. A simple strip of material that could be wrapped around the waist, between the legs, and tucked in, it was a practical and simple design that still finds use in certain parts of the world today. Loincloths didn’t, however, all have the same design. Some were designed to take the form of skirts rather than underpants and were fastened around the waist with a girdle. Another, more revealing form of loincloth came in what is known as a cache-sexe. It was generally just a small triangle with strings or loops designed to cover just the genitals. The modern equivalent of this would be the g-string.
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Of course, all these iterations of loincloths need not be classified as underwear. In hotter climates, they would have served as outer garments too.
The oldest evidence of linen and leather panties comes from the Badarian culture of pre-dynastic Egypt from around 4400 BCE. Linen and leather seem to have been the most common materials, with linen being used for everyday use, while leather panties were used by women when they were menstruating. This trend continued for thousands of years and was also common in ancient Rome.
In the Roman Empire, wool was also a common material, and silk made its appearance too, but it was expensive and thus only available to the wealthy. Nudity, for the Romans, was tied to class. Enslaved people and gladiators wore loincloths and other forms of underwear as outerwear, while the higher classes tended to cover their entire bodies with dresses, togas, and other garments while dispensing with the day-to-day wearing of underwear. The Roman approach to nudity was more socially conservative than that of their Greek forerunners, who liked to exercise nude. While Greek men are said to have worn loincloths, it is unclear whether women wore underwear at all.
Roman women made use of strophiae (breastcloths) and sublicula (small loincloth-type undergarments also worn by men), especially when exercising at the gym.
Roman society, however, lasted for over one thousand years and was not homogeneous. Fashion trends and cultural norms changed dramatically throughout the course of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire.
Of course, the Mediterranean world wasn’t the only place where underwear was making an appearance. Cultures from all over the globe started inventing their own underwear that aligned with their own cultural mores and societal needs. In China, different undergarments were worn throughout the ages. During the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), a tunic-style undergarment called a xieyi was worn. During the time of the Northern Dynasty (420 CE – 588 CE), a one-piece breastcloth called a moxiong was popular.
Underwear in the Middle Ages
In the Middle Ages, men, especially of the lower classes, tended to wear a loose-fitting pair of pants called braies. These pants were stepped into and then tied around the waist and legs just under the knee. Although they were initially used as outer garments, by the late Middle Ages, they were used exclusively as underwear. Braies were designed with a flap at the front which could be untied, allowing men to urinate without needing to take the entire garment off.
These flaps, called codpieces, would undergo extensive change through the centuries, and by the Renaissance, some codpieces were statement symbols of wealth, power, and size. They were padded and shaped to display rather than conceal the wearer’s manhood. In so doing, they evolved from underwear to outerwear, reaching their height of popularity in 1540 and then declining around 1590.
Among the wealthier classes, chausses were worn over the legs, covering the lower half of the braies, which tended to be tighter and more form-fitting. Chausses were individual leggings that did not cover the groin area or the buttocks. They would eventually evolve into tights, and by the Renaissance, chausses weren’t expected to be worn under any clothing; therefore, they were no longer technically underwear.
Both men and women wore a close-fitting shirt called a chemise. Men tucked their chemise into their braies, while women would tuck their chemise into a petticoat, an underskirt worn underneath the dress. Hoop skirts, such as farthingales, were petticoats that evolved during the Renaissance and were stiffened with reed or willow rods, giving the garments their characteristic shapes.
In China during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and all the way through to the Qing Dynasty, which ended in 1912, women wore a close-fitting type of bra called a dudou. It was designed to flatten the breasts, as flatter chests were fashionable in these eras. The dudou extended from the top of the chest and also covered the belly. In the modern era, the dudou gave way to Western clothing when China modernized, but it has found a resurgence in the younger generation of today who wear it as an outer garment, especially as beachwear.
The bra is one of the most iconic and important pieces of underwear today, and until recently, the modern look and design are thought to be the result of 20th-century fashion trends. The recent discovery of a bra from the 15th century, however, had upended the original belief. The item of clothing, found in the vault of an Austrian castle, has the classic bra cup design with support straps that go over the shoulders.
Underwear in the Industrial Era in Europe & the United States
The onset of the age of mass production and the introduction of cotton as a readily available source of material made the acquisition of underwear much easier. Before the 18th century, people usually made their own underwear at home, but now they could buy them in shops. From the simple bloomers to elaborate lace-decorated items that came into vogue, there was much to choose from.
How to cover the upper bodies of women became big business. For formal occasions, corsets were worn. The iconic V-shape of the garment, reinforced with wood or “whale-bone” (actually baleen), accentuated the breasts by pushing them up, straightening the back, and forcing the shoulders back. Many corsets also incorporated entire frames made of metal! For informal occasions (or for breathing), a quilted version called a jump was used, which was only partially “boned” and not as restrictive.
Corsets remained popular until the early 19th century but became targets for the representation of repression of women. In 1917, after the entry of the United States into the First World War, the government asked women to stop buying corsets. This move freed up 28,000 tons of metal, which was enough to build two battleships!
On the lower half of the body, it was fashionable for women to wear petticoats. One particular style that gained traction in Europe during the early 18th century was the pannier, which extended the skirt to the sides while leaving the front and back flat. In the 19th century, the crinoline became popular. This hoop skirt widened slightly at the sides and the rear, leaving the front relatively flat (in later versions). The wide cage that was the crinoline was dangerous because it was large and flammable. Thousands of women died as a result of knocking over candles and being unable to escape the flames while trapped in their huge, constrictive garments. The crinoline thus went out of fashion in the late 19th century and was replaced by the smaller bustle. Discomfort was still the order of the day, however, and many doctors began to decry women’s fashion as hazardous to women’s health.
The crinoline continues to exist as a popular design for wedding dresses.
Of course, this period in the history of underwear also included garments designed for men. Also used by women and children, the union suit was a one-piece garment that buttoned up at the front. A buttoned flap at the back facilitated going to the toilet. The union suit eventually evolved into long johns, which was a tight-fitting, two-piece undergarment consisting of a long-sleeve top and leggings. It was likely named after the famous bare-knuckle boxing champion John L. Sullivan, who wore this type of clothing in the ring.
Underwear in the 20th Century & Beyond
In the early 20th century, union suits continued to be popular and were produced in staggering numbers. For women, the liberty bodice came into fashion. The introduction of new materials offered support without the need for rigid whalebone, wood, and metal. The liberty bodice was, naturally, far less restrictive. Although invented in the late 19th century, it found popularity among women and girls in the early 20th century.
The beginning of the 20th century also saw the first appearance of underwear resembling modern boxer shorts. The company, however, went out of business, and it would be another 20 years before actual boxer shorts would emerge.
In 1910, advertising for underwear kicked off in the United States. These adverts focused on comfort rather than fashion. This period also saw the invention of the modern undershirt and drawers. The design for women was similar and became known as the camisole and tap pants.
Although women had been wearing brassiere-like undergarments for many years, the invention of the first modern bra is attributed to Mary Phelps Jacob, who, in 1913, created the design by tying two handkerchiefs together. The style was patented and marketed, becoming extremely popular. In 1928, the company Maidenform introduced modern cup sizes.
As the years went by, dresses and skirts became shorter, and women started wearing stockings as undergarments. This necessitated the invention of the garter belt to hold the stockings up.
The first Y-front briefs were sold in 1935 by Coopers Inc. and were an immediate success. They were named “jockeys” as they offered more comfort and the same support as jockstraps had before. In 1938, jockeys were introduced to Britain, where they sold at an astounding rate, eventually overtaking all other forms of men’s lower underwear.
The 1950s saw a major revolution in underwear design in that, for the first time, underwear started sporting fashionable prints. This revolution pushed the mores of societal dynamics, and underwear was promoted as something that could be sneakily revealed in public instead of being something purely functional and designed to be hidden. This went hand-in-hand with the miniskirt and other revealing outerwear.
The 1950s and 1960s also saw new trends in bra design. Pointed bras were trendy in the West, and the introduction of push-up bras accentuated women’s breasts. Pantyhose, combining panties and hose, became extremely popular and then declined.
The trend in the 1970s and 1980s was for sexier underwear that emphasized fashion rather than comfort and durability. Tank tops, originally worn as undergarments, were now being worn as outer garments, while g-strings, thongs, and other similar items became popular among a wider demographic, originally being worn only by exotic dancers.
As the world’s views on sexuality relaxed, the impact of advertising was huge. Underwear started being advertised with photographs of near-naked models, including both men and women. Big companies in this regard include Calvin Klein and Victoria’s Secret as the most famous examples, with the latter becoming very famous for its lingerie catalogs.
In the 1990s, a new trend emerged with the creation of underpants that combined the tightness of briefs with the length of boxers. “Boxer briefs” remain extremely popular to this day. Originally intended to be worn by men, there are also boxer brief designs for women.
The history of underwear is almost as long as human civilization itself. While biological needs have remained the same, fashion trends have forced the evolution of underwear into an incredibly diverse range of options that reflect cultures from all over the globe.