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A Brief History of Underwear

March 15, 2018

A Brief History of Underwear


Western History of Underwear:

Some of the earliest knowledge of underwear stems from ancient Rome in 100 AD. Women wore a subligaculum (su.bliˈɡaː.ku.lum), which is basically a glorified diaper. Women also wore band of fabric called a strophium to cover their chests and to bind their breasts, because large breasts were considered unattractive - that’s in complete opposition to our modern standards of beauty.

The next major development of women’s undergarments came in the medieval period when there were no subligaculum in sight! Instead - women commonly wore a long sleeved nightie called a shift or chemise. This underwear garment was a loose fitting ankle length dress that had long sleeves and a round neckline. So, a long simple dress was basically worn as underwear. No bra or underwear during this time, just a “chemise”.

Around the mid 14th century, when women’s clothing started getting tighter, so did the undergarments. We see the chemise sleeves getting more fitted and were being made out of thin and sometimes transparent fabrics.

Also, during the medieval period we see the introduction of corsetry and the bustle.  The bustle was an understructure situated at the lower back used to create fullness, accentuate the behind, and keep dresses from dragging on the ground. The most primitive bustles were made by sewing fox tails into their skirts. So now, women are wearing a chemise and a corset - still not underwear!

Between the late 1400s and 1600s chemises evolved to be more embellished at the neck and sleeves. This is because lower square necks and slashed sleeves started gaining popularity and often revealed the chemise below. During this time see the emergence of hoop skirts, AKA farthingale, which was a hooped petticoat. For the ballers on a budget, the cheaper version of this was called a bum roll - a crescent-shaped pad, that mimicked the effect of a  hoopskirt, farthingale, crinoline, bum roll and bustle. Here’s the modern bum roll - panties with butt pads. Women were wearing a chemise, corset and hoop skirt.

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Women finally start wearing a version of underwear. Italian women of the early 1600s began wearing silk or linen breeches, or drawers, under their gowns - it was a slit short style with hip ties. Fun fact: the reason women started wearing “drawers” (long baggy shorts) is because they thought that their mens underwear looked comfortable so they started stealing their husbands drawers! It makes sense because during the 17th century, we saw a slight resurgence of renaissance art, and I’m speculating, but whenever there’s women’s liberation it common to see women reject feminine characteristics and adopt mens - so we see women starting to wear bifurcated garments. At this time, women were wearing drawers, a chemise, corset and a hoopskirt. That’s a lot of layers!

200 years later, most of europe had adopted the short underwear style and in the 1800’s we see hoop skirts at their biggest. The hoop began as an inverted v then became the quintessential dome shape and then moved out to the hips. It was during this time that the chemise started to fall out of fashion, or split into two pieces - the corset and the drawers. Corsets during this century became longer and covered from breast to hip.

In the early 1900s, chemises were slowly losing popularity in favor of separate top and bottom garments. Corsets in the first 20 years of the 20th century we getting shorter above the waist and longer below, furthering the empire waist style. Due to the closer fitting gowns of the era, drawers became a closer fitting garment and were often referred to as pantalettes which started to be made out of synthetic fabrics, like rayon.

Until the 1920’s women wore knickers, a chemise or tank top and a corset/girdle on top - then your dress on top of that.

Between the 20s and 30s we saw drawers/ knickers which were then shortened and referred as panties and became known as pantie briefs by the end of the 30s.

By the end of the 40s women had done away with corsets due to the rationing from the war, and underwear had gotten shorter and women were wearing briefs more regularly. During WWII, British women were known to steal parachute silk to sew their knickers.

The 50s is mainly responsible for the ‘sexy’ connotation that underwear has due to the prominence of pin up girls.

The 60s saw more development and differentiation in styles of underwear where briefs, bikini, and hip huggers were popular, in many fun and youthful prints.

The most notable change to underwear in the 70s came from the invention of the thong. Made famous via thong bodysuits.

The 80s aerobic culture and leotards made the high cut style popular as well as the development of g-strings.

The 90s underwear trend that took over the entire decade was the sensationalism of calvin klein underwear and their choice to display their name on the waistband which became a status symbol and was often displayed above the waistband of jeans.

The early 2000s saw the introduction of spanx and similar shapewear. But the biggest contribution to underwear in the 2000s was whale tail. If you aren’t familiar with whale tail, its when your thong rise is above your hips, and was visible when wearing low rise jeans which were popular during the time. We wish this trend wasn’t burned into our eyeballs.

And finally that brings us today! Today underwear trends fall on the side of comfort. While shapewear is still popular it is more of a special occasion item, and not an everyday necessity. We are also seeing a decline in the popularity of the thong for the comfort of a full brief.

Underwear from Around the World:

Just as outer garments, women's underwear/ undergarments was heavily influenced by the social beliefs and humans' understanding towards beauty in different parts of the world. Here are a few of my favorites…..

In the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh, Tutankhamun, various articles of clothing were found. These included tunics, shirts, ‘kilts’, socks, and a large supply of undergarments in the form of triangular loincloths made of linen. For the average ancient Egyptian, however, clothes were expensive.

Furthermore, the hot Egyptian climate meant that wearing lots of clothing was impractical. Therefore, the loincloth was probably the clothing of choice for the average man in ancient Egypt. For women, on the other hand, the usual clothing was a simple dress known as a kalasiris. It is unclear if ancient Egyptian women wore undergarments, but considering the climate, it is unlikely that they did so.

A breechcloth is a long rectangular piece of tanned deerskin, cloth, or animal fur. It is worn between the legs and tucked over a belt, so that the flaps fall down in front and behind. Sometimes it is also called a breechclout, loincloth, skin clout, or just a flap.

In most Native American tribes, men used to wear some form of breechclout. The style was different from tribe to tribe. In some tribes, the breechcloth loops outside of the belt and then is tucked into the inside, for a more fitted look. Sometimes the breechcloth is much shorter and a decorated apron panel is attached in front and behind.

A Native American woman or teenage girl might also wear a fitted breechcloth underneath her skirt, but not as outerwear. However, in many tribes young girls did wear breechcloths just like the boys until they became old enough for skirts and dresses. That style was very similar to that of some of the Pacific Islands.

Chinese cultures also wore a loincloth, but in a slightly different style. Similar to that of the Egyptians but thinner.

Japanese cultures have also worn the traditional loincloth for thousands of year and the picture below is from the 1800’s. It's the style that we associate with Japanese sumo wrestlers - thus proving that a great thong style can stand the test of time!

What is your favorite underwear trend?

Do you feel lucky to be living in the age where women aren’t as pressured to wear cosets?

Do you long for the days of hoop skirts and pantalettes?  

Did you learn anything new?

Let us know in the comments below!

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