Underwear, the unseen garments which sit in close proximity to genitals, skin, and all sorts of unmentionable orifices, are the most poorly-documented garments in history yet they shaped bodies, minds, and societies in complex and interesting ways. Sometimes we do really tight, analytical episodes. This is not one of those episodes. The history of underwear does not lend itself to that kind of treatment. It’s long, uneven, and extremely hard to get at because of poor documentation. So get ready for a wild and rambling adventure. Today we take on the global history of underwear from 3,000 BCE to the 20th century.

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Transcript for: Underwear: A History of Intimate Apparel

Researched and written by Marissa Rhodes

Produced by Marissa Rhodes and Sarah Handley-Cousins

Marissa: The term “intimate apparel” came into use some time around 1921. It immediately had a feminine association, evoking images of girdles, hose, brassieres, garters, bloomers and slips rather than knickers, trunks, undershirts or briefs. Prior to the 20th century, English-speakers used varying terms which also had feminine associations. The term “underwear” dates to the 1870s and seems to have replaced the term “under-garments” which came into use in the 1530s and fell out of fashion 350 years later. Underwear and undergarments referred almost always to intimate apparel for women. Underclothes, a term used only occasionally in the 19th century, was more likely to refer to garments meant for men.

Elizabeth: As the terminology implies, underwear was itself gendered. It also played an indispensable role in emphasizing sex difference and defining gender roles. Modern intimates– often called “foundation garments”– feminized women’s bodies by accentuating the body parts most associated with womanliness, and minimizing body parts that were, according to societal norms,  unbecoming of a woman. For example, corsets or girdles (which narrowed the waist and boosted the bosom) were most popular in times when societies were most concerned with defining gender roles. Corsets enjoyed universal appeal among women in the 19th century, when gender roles were rigorously enforced. They fell out of fashion briefly in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s when flappers, suave Hollywood stars, and a new generation of wartime working women earned notoriety and admiration by transgressing Victorian gender norms. After WWII, the corset craze was revived, peaking in the 1950s. For postwar societies, the corset sought to harken back beyond the corsetless genderbendery of the previous decades to a “simpler time” when women knew their place and it was in the home as wife and mother.

Marissa: Underwear, the unseen garments which sit in close proximity to genitals, skin, and all sorts of unmentionable orifices, are the most poorly-documented garments in history yet they shaped bodies, minds, and societies in complex and interesting ways. Sometimes we do really tight, analytical episodes. This is not one of those episodes. The history of underwear does not lend itself to that kind of treatment. It’s long, uneven, and extremely hard to get at because of poor documentation. So get ready for a wild and rambling adventure. Today we take on the global history of underwear from 3,000 BCE to the 20th century.

I’m Marissa Rhodes.

Elizabeth: I’m Elizabeth Garner Masarik.

Marissa: And we are YOUR historians for this episode of Dig.

Elizabeth: Clothing has always had at least two purposes: a practical purpose firstly. But clothing has always also had social function- usually as a means of class distinction. This two-pronged purpose actually delayed the development of undergarments. Only a few ancient societies have left us documentation about its clothing: ancient Egypt, Bronze Age Crete, classical Greece, and ancient Rome. In these societies, climates were mild and most people lived a subsistence lifestyle. Fabric was expensive and few people had the resources to purchase or make garments which did not have an immediately obvious function.

For elites, habits of dress revolved around status, appearance, and messaging. Those who could afford such luxuries were status-motivated but no one would see their underwear so there was little point in wearing any. So in the ancient world, most people went without. Understanding this part of historical people’s lives is made even more difficult by the fact that we have no way of knowing the prevalence of undergarments because even if they were common, they weren’t regarded as important and, therefore, their construction and function were never recorded for posterity.

Marissa: We think that most underwear evolved gradually and that they started as outer garments. As modes of dress became increasingly complex, people began adding additional layers of clothing. Outer layers became more elaborate over time but initial layers remained simple and functional… since no one would see them or talk about them. This process happened at different times in different places but the historical record suggests that most articles of undergarments followed this general path.

In Mesopotamia, circa 3000 BCE, loin cloths morphed into primitive briefs. But they were not yet worn as underclothes. Sumerian terracotta figurines depict women wearing what we now call underpants (in the style of briefs) with nothing on top. Their breasts are exposed. The same was true for women in ancient Egypt. Their breasted were usually visible, though their outer garments were much more linear and elaborate that Mesopotamian loin cloths. Even though they may have invented briefs, can we really call them underwear if nothing was worn over them? Probably not. * Interestingly, in both these societies, men and women wore the same garments. It is hard for us to imagine but clothing was apparently ungendered for most of human history. (We can see this when women became Egyptian pharaohs– like Hatshepsut– they wore beards because, well, pharaohs had beards, whether they were men or women.) This doesn’t mean that people themselves weren’t gendered. They certainly were. But their garments just tended not to function as a gender tool.

Elizabeth: The development of underwear was far from linear. Some cultures developed elaborate undergarments very similar to the ones we now know. Then these garments were lost to history for several centuries at a time, only to be reinvented again somewhere else. For example, we have a few surviving images of women from the island of Crete, home to the Bronze age Minoan civilization. Cretan women were bare-breasted, just like women in Mesopotamia and Egypt, but they wore what appear to have been a corset and crinoline around their middles and bottoms. Crinolines are hoop skirts… But keep in mind this was 3,800 years before the invention of the hoop skirt. None of these garments survive and we see nothing like this again for thousands of years. But it’s still interesting to point out that items that we see as fundamentally modern may have existed in cultures that are now lost to us.

Marissa: Ancient Greeks were descended from Bronze age Minoans so perhaps it is unsurprising that they are credited with having invented primitive corsets and brassieres. In classical Greece, they didn’t wear undergarments per se, but women used bands of cloth to achieve certain functions that underwear would later serve. Greek men AND women commonly bound their waists with a girdle made of linen tied tight around their middle. This was called a zona. It cinched their tunics and also served as a primitive sort of pocket underneath their draped clothing. Women also wore striophions, which were twisted swaths of linen that were tied underneath the breasts for support. These were typically worn over a tunic (so not quite underwear but supportive like brassiere might be). Many women, especially women athletes, also wore breast bands (aka mastodesmos). These were bands of linen tied tight around a woman’s breasts to support and de-emphasize their chests. Scholars liken these to primitive sports bras. The goal of wearing one was to prevent breasts from moving during strenuous activity.

Spartan goddesses were depicted as wearing briefs (like those depicted by Mesopotamians) as well as a more elaborate breast band (called a stethodesmos) with straps that went over the shoulder. These resemble modern brassieres but it would be a mistake to associate them with the bras we know (and hate) today. These were pragmatic solutions for Greek women warriors and athletes who were hampered by uncomfortable (and inconvenient) breast tissue during their exercises. They had nothing to do with preserving modesty or the sexualization of breasts.

Elizabeth: Nonetheless, these, my friends, are very early examples of “foundation garments.” Foundation garments are also underwear but they serve two functions which are closely related to each other: (1) to give shape to outer layers of clothing, and (2) to permanently modify people’s bodies. Even though these foundation garments may have been functional for the ancient Greeks, later cultures would use the same principles of support and structure to create foundation garments that served complex social, cultural, and symbolic functions in patriarchal societies which we’ll get to later. This happens a lot in history– some sort of technology that was meant to solve a practical problem morphs into something that has deep cultural meaning.

Marissa: This is definitely the case with the forbear to all men’s undergarments– “barbarian trousers.” Initially, trousers served a practical purpose for Eurasian tribal groups. They fitted closer to the body than the loose draperies worn by Mediterranean peoples. They kept Germanic and Asiatic peoples warm in their cooler climates. Celtic peoples called them “braies.” They were also specifically designed for horseback riding, an activity that was central to nomadic culture and survival. Both men and women wore trousers. Roman historian Tacitus wrote about the Germanic peoples he encountered said their bottom clothes were “tight and exhibits each limb.” These fashions were worn by both men and women. During the decline of the Roman empire, trousers quickly became political. Roman soldiers took to wearing trousers as a strategy to appear more “barbaric” and as the Roman empire fell, trouser-wearing was briefly criminalized in certain parts of the empire as a treasonous act. Averill’s episode on breeches will get even further into some of these issues surround the cultural meaning of pants.

Elizabeth: The Roman capital was relocated to Constantinople in the 6th century CE. For the next millennium, the Byzantine Empire would serve as the world’s most powerful empire. By this time, nomadic tribes and Mediterranean peoples had coexisted in the same regions for centuries. Germanic and Asiatic tribes became increasingly sedentary, adopting the loose-fitting garments of the Romans. Mediterranean peoples had also depoliticized and decriminalized the wearing of trousers. Trousers were the precursor to all two-legged garments: breeches, chaps, boxer shorts, slacks, pants. * During the medieval period, trousers were also not particularly masculine. In fact they were most popular among Byzantine women who often wore knee-length trousers.  

The flowing robes and togas of the Romans slowly morphed into more structured tunics. And two-legged garments gave way to knit stockings. This combination of garments became the basic uniform for most societies in the Western world for the next thousand years. Braies or trousers were still worn by men, especially laborers and horsemen.

Marissa: The tunic and stockings or trousers served as a kind of blank slate. By tracing the changes in these garments, we can see the painfully slow emergence of undergarments. Men and women’s attire was quite similar in the early stages of the medieval period and neither generally wore underpants. But they did wear an undershirt of sorts and it was called the chemise. A chemise is basically a long tunic/shirt made out of some kind of lightly woven material. It was T-shaped and was worn by both men and women. Men work them under cloaks or mantels. Women wore them under a woolen tunic or tunic-dress. Women’s chemises were most often called shifts and women wore them into the 20th century (more on that later). Their primary function was hygienic. They wicked sweat and other bodily fluids away from the skin and protected their outer layers (which were less washable) from their excretions and secretions. They were cheaper and easier to wash so people could change/launder them more easily than their heavy outer garments. Chemises also protected skin from the rough, scratchy fabrics they wore on the outside.

But chemises are only half underwear. Both men and women wore chemises against the skin, yes, but they were often designed to be visible beneath outer garments. Chemises and shifts were often called body linens because they sat directly against the body but they could also serve as outerwear. They were not generally hidden from sight. Store this thought away in your back pocket for later because this will become important in the 18th century.

A black and white etching of a devil wearing a corset

Fiend of Fashion | Cottanian Manuscript, 12th century, British Library

Elizabeth: By the time of the High Middle Ages (1000 CE- 1250 CE), garments were becoming increasingly gendered. European women never wore two-legged garments. Ever. Women in the near east and Asia continued to wear trousers during this time. It became a defining feature of Moorish women, African Muslims who had conquered southern Spain. European women would not wear two-legged garments again until the 19th century with the invention of bloomers. Despite the strict ban on pants, medieval women’s clothing evolved extensively. Women began donning garments which closely fitted their form. Initially, their tunics lengthened and tightened into form-fitting dresses which were laced in the back. Over time, women laced these tunic dresses more and more tightly. By the 12th century, the modern corset or girdle emerged out of these tight tunic-dresses. There is an illustrated manuscript from this period which shows the Devil (dressed as a woman of course) wearing a fitted girdle bodice and tulip skirt.

Men’s fashion also became more form-fitting. Men’s tunics became tighter and shorter, and elites consistently chose stockings over trousers. If Greek and Roman fashion was all about the quality of the material, medieval fashion was all about the silhouette. For the first time in recorded history, people were striving to achieve an ideal body shape. It is not surprising then, that medieval societies turned to foundation garments– underwear– to achieve their fashion goals.     

A tattered bra from the 15th c. on a mannequin along side a more modern version of a bra

B. Nutz, 15th century linen bra (right) beside a 1950s era bra

Marissa: But it took time. For example the corset/girdle was, for hundreds of years, an outer garment. It wasn’t until the 15th century that the girdle became underwear. As we mentioned earlier, clothing became increasingly elaborate over time, with more and more layers. This was a slow and uneven process. And it’s why we’ve been talking mainly about outer wear for half of this episode. The 15th century was precisely the time when all of the outerwear we’ve been tracing so far (briefs, trousers, tunics, girdles) became what we now call underwear. Somewhere in this period, European people took their body-shaping underground. Or more accurately, underclothes. The earliest known bra dates to the 15th century and it was found in Lengberg Castle in Austria in 2008. It is mostly intact today which is just incredible considering how quickly textiles degrade. This find solved some mysteries for medievalists who had been unable to define an article of clothing that was referred to in manuscripts as “breast bags.” French royal surgeon, Henri de Mondeville wrote around 1300:

Some women… insert two bags in their dresses, adjusted to the breasts, fitting tight, and they put them [the breasts] into them [the bags] every morning and fasten them when possible with a matching band.

Until this breast bag was found recently, no one had any idea what he was talking about. And I want to point out that these items were probably just for elites. Ordinary women likely did not wear any kind of breast bags.

Elizabeth: It’s interesting to think about what this might mean that 12th-century Europeans wore their body shapers on the outside but by the 15th century, this was no longer acceptable. People still wanted to give their bodies, and their outer garments pleasing shapes, but they didn’t want their efforts to be visible to the outside world. So even though underwear served many purposes, and still does, it was the function of shape-giving that ultimately led to the advent of underwear as we know it today. (Garments that you wear under your clothes that are not supposed to be seen.)   

Now there have been endless books written about corsets, bum rolls, crinoline, farthingales, the list goes on. And that stuff is fun, and culturally meaningful. But, being the trailblazers were are, we’re going to take this episode in another direction.

Marissa: Yes. Toward men. And Penises. And their special penis-clothes. Here is some evidence that body image was just as important to men as it was to women. The 15th century was a critical time for men’s intimate apparel. This marks the rise of the codpiece. Codpieces, like many garments before it, began as a practical invention. We mentioned earlier that medieval men’s clothes began to be more form-sitting than they had been in ancient times. Nowhere is this more visible than the stocking or hose. Hose were what they are today- tight-fitting garments that wrap around the leg. But the hose worn by medieval men were made of slack knit material, not like the elastic hose we wear today. So the only way to wear them was as separate pieces, one for each leg. Since medieval men and women did not wear underpants, men’s genitals just hung free under their tunics. At the end of the 15th century, tunics became so short and tight that men devised a leather flap to protect their genitals and hide them from view. They were dubbed “cod pieces” because cod (literally “purse”) was slang for scrotum.

Black and white etchings of three different types of codpieces.

Three types of codpieces | Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA

This leather penis pouch quickly developed into ornamental codpieces. Padded codpieces (the forebears of today’s athletic cups) were devised to be worn under armor. Some men wore codpieces with compartments that functioned as pockets. These innovations sparked a codpiece arms race like you wouldn’t believe, especially in the English court. The men in Henry VIII’s entourage began sporting larger and more elaborate codpieces. They began to symbolize masculinity and virility. Some of these just looked like large bulges. But eventually, men in the Henrician court began to wear codpieces that were shaped like flaccid penises, and then, eventually like erect penises. So for a brief time, men were walking around the English court with padded, bedazzled prosthetic erections. Unsurprisingly, this fashion died shortly after Henry did. By the time Elizabeth I ascended to the throne in 1558 (11 years after her father’s death), elaborate codpieces were past their prime. As her persona of the Virgin Queen developed over the following decades, it became unseemly for men at court to emphasize their virility in such an obvious and material way.

Elizabeth: We already mentioned several functions of underwear in the episode so far- class distinction, cleanliness, shaping, warmth, etc. The rise (and fall) of the codpiece (pun intended LOLz) suggests that around this time, intimate apparel was beginning to fulfill another function entirely. The codpiece and other instances of tightening and form-altering serve as early examples of the erotic function of underwear. The best example of this now might be the corsets and frilly lingerie you find at Intimate apparel stores or sex shops. It seems obvious to us now that underwear has an erotic function– especially women’s underwear– because underwear has been sexualized and fetishized for centuries. But this was not always the case.

For most of human history, apparel was so simple (just draped fabric) that undressing for sexy time was easy and unceremonious. As clothing became more complex, undergarments  (when they were used) were simple and usually bottomless so sexual intercourse was easy to do when fully clothed. Most of them were having sex in the dark on pallets shared with the entire family. There was no reason to develop different kinds of attire for intimate encounters. Typical folks could not afford such a luxury anyway. And there was nothing particularly erotic about any kind of intimate apparel. Shifts or chemises were functional garments and they were flowy and made out of cheap material. Remember foundation garments (such as girdles) had been, up until the 15th century, worn on the outside. It is probably not a coincidence that foundation garments began to be worn on the insides of clothing around the same time that codpieces became erotic rather than functional attire. Unsurprisingly, given their proximity to genitalia, people were beginning to understand undergarments as inherently erotic.

Marissa: Also at the same time, the printing press began distributing what? Bibles, yes tons of bibles, but also by the 16th century, they were bringing erotica to the masses. Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, an erotic narrative poem, hit the presses in 1593 and went through more than 16 editions in the next 50 years. It’s true the 15th and 16th centuries were a bit slow on the erotica department but we will forgive them since it was plagued by religious revival, Puritanical fundamentalism and religious wars. But the 17th century more than made up for this. Erotic verse became particularly popular during the 1600s and these poems paid particular attention to women’s undergarments and the act of undressing. I have some examples for you:

17th century erotic verse- emphasis on undergarments:

The Poem of Amriolkais (From the Moallakat trans. By Sir WIlliam Jones)

“When she sleeps at noon, her bed is besprinkled with musk; she puts on her robe of undress, but leaves the apron to her maids.”

To His Mistress Going to Bed By John Donne

“Unpin that spangled breast-plate, which you wear, That th’ eyes of busy fools may be stopp’d there. Unlace yourself, for that harmonious chime Tells me from you that now it is bed-time.”

“To his Mistress Desirous to go to Bed” from John Cotgrave’s Wit’s Interpreter, 1655.

“Fairest, let me thy night-clothes air; Come, I’ll unlace thy stomacher. Make me thy maiden chamber-man, Or let me be thy warming-pan.”

“The Hasty Bridegroom” from Roxburgh Ballads, 1674-1681.

“That the Flowers of Virgins incloses: And I will not be too rough unto thee, For my Nature unto boldness is prone; Do no less than undress, and unlace all apace, For this Night I’ll make use with my own.”

This was a slow and uneven process but by the middle of the early modern period, the garments we’ve talked about so far were popularized, eroticized and brought underneath the clothes.

Undergarments were no longer rare, functional or practical. They were hidden, secret, naughty, and “unmentionable.”

Elizabeth: Undergarments began to be referred to as “unmentionables” in the 1700s. This was also the time when erotica really took off in the form of images. Prior to the 1700s, women were portrayed as either entirely nude (in a classical Greek sense) or entirely clothed (think every straight-laced, early modern portrait you’ve ever seen). But in the 1700s, artists began portraying women in their underclothes. Most 18th-century erotica shows men and women as partially dressed or in the process of stripping. In Thomas Rowlandson’s extensive compendium of erotica, for example, people are almost never nude. They are wearing intimate apparel: shifts, bloomers, girdles, stockings, garters, dressing gowns.

Marissa: To 18th-century this was even more shocking than nudity because nudity itself was not obscene or titillating. These people were much more comfortable with nudity than we are today. Erik Seeman told me a story from the archives that struck him. He came across an 18c trial where a deponent was discussing his inability to get an erection. He told his neighbor about it one day when they ran into each other and the neighbor said, “Oh yea? Let me see. Maybe I can help.” And the deponent somehow exhibited his penis and demonstrated his impotence to the guy… without any awkwardness or feelings of impropriety at all. The exchange was mentioned as a casual aside.

an etching of a young woman wearing stays

Corset a la ninon (early 19th c. stays) | Public Domain / WIkimedia Commons

So in this world, a partially-clothed body was infinitely more erotic than a nude body. The eroticization of undergarments coincided with their increased complexity. Women continued to wear shifts for the practical and hygienic reasons we mentioned early. But from the 16th to 18th centuries, women began wearing underpetticoats, hoops or panniers, and stockings on their bottom halves. The girdle of yore had improved into incredibly restrictive stays. Stays are boned girdles that are very long and conical. They are typically very stiff and laced up the back. Of course fashions varied considerably over time and space but for most early modern women, stays were standard. In England, stays were more common than in France where they were worn only by elites and on special occasions. Stays briefly fell out of fashion after the French revolution. It became stylish for women to go without structured support garments and for them to wear diaphanous French peasant dresses and shepherdess hats. But this trend lasted for only a decade or so.

Elizabeth: 18th century men wore a linen chemise (basically a shift for men) and sometimes drawers. Most men tucked their chemise in between their legs to act as make-shift underpants but by the 1700s, it was becoming more common for men to wear drawers under their breeches. Drawers were usually made of linen and looked a lot like breeches but tighter and thinner. These two-legged garments derived from trousers and later evolved into knickerbockers, and then into underpants as we know them today. Men also wore stockings which were usually cuffed over the ends of their breeches. Over this uniform of undergarments, they would wear all their overclothes.

Some scholars have argued that body linens- shifts and chemises that is– became linked to social respectability in this period. For centuries, Europeans had been wearing body linens for practical purposes but around 1700, body linens took on a new significance (note this similar pattern- a garment is used for practical purposes and then it slowly becomes a cultural symbol). Scholar Kathleen M. Brown describes this aspect of 18th-century life in her book Foul Bodies. She is writing about the 18th-century Atlantic world…so the European, African, and American peoples whose livelihoods and cultural worlds revolved around the Atlantic Ocean. This was a highly racialized context. Middle class and elite white people in European and American cities were growing wealthy, in part due to the unfree labor of enslaved Africans, and this wealth afforded them luxuries that ordinary folks could not have dreamed of 100 years earlier.

Marissa: They were able to afford many shifts and many pairs of stockings, and many and more elaborate overclothes. They used these resources to build up their social status and their body linens were incredibly important to this process. They were able to achieve better hygiene standards by washing their shifts daily. It became a cultural contest of sorts; people were trying to make their shifts (which would show at their necks and wrists ) as white and refined as possible. This denoted wealth, cleanliness, and conscientiousness. Over the century, hygiene became a primary way for whites to differentiate themselves from black bodies. People of color, many of them enslaved or impoverished, could not afford these body linens, or to keep them impeccably clean. Whites were able to point to their hygiene and refinement as evidence of their superiority. People of color who socialized in white circles picked up on this association and entered the contest themselves, donning stark white shifts that were impeccably clean. Kathy Brown argues that people like Olaudah Equiano, a freed black man who influenced British abolition, used his body linens as a proxy for white skin. As he hobnobbed with wealthy and educated abolitionists in Britain, his laundered, bleached and starched body linens sent them the message that he was just like them.

Elizabeth: Eighteenth-century hygiene was also tied to sexual morality. Dirty linens meant they were sexually promiscuous. When someone was “clean” they were laundered, washed, but it could also mean they were free from disease. We still use the word in that context today. But in the 1700s, if someone’s linens were not clean and white, they were assumed to be sexually unclean as well. This conflation of sexuality and hygiene became so intense that the women who cleaned linens for a living, laundresses, were often likened to prostitutes. They were considered to be tainted by the filth that surrounded them.  

As hygiene and occupation became increasingly gendered, so too did underwear. Note it was still unthinkable for women to wear two-legged garments (a convention that appears to have begun in the earlier medieval period in Europe) so even though men were starting to wear underpants, women were not. This is so startling to me because if anyone could have benefited from underpants, it was women. Vaginas produce all kinds of fluids: menstrual blood, routine discharge, and lochia after childbirth. It had to have been incredibly inconvenient for women to manage their vaginal hygiene with no underpants to hold menstrual rags in place. In the eighteenth-century world where your worth was tied to the whiteness of your linen, women were at a distinct disadvantage.

Marissa: There is evidence that some women in the medieval and early modern world used a contraption of twisted cloth that hugged their hips and held menstrual rags in place. This would have resembled a primitive jock strap. Some scholars argue that in most places for most of human history, women bled free. This would have been more convenient for women who routinely wore long skirts. They would just bleed down their legs all day, the mess being hidden by their skirts. And then they would likely wipe themselves down at night. This was probably common practice for societies which had not yet adopted underclothes as part of their daily attire. It was also the norm for societies that practiced seclusion of menstruating women- either at home or in specially made spaces.

A black and white etching of a belt with menstrual towel

A menstrual towel contraption, ca. 1905, Ceintures Periodiques | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth: Once women started wearing shifts in the medieval period they, like men, tucked the linen in between their legs to absorb their blood. This technique was common until the end of the 19th century. After the clean linens craze of the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution kicked off in earnest and again most ordinary people were struggling financially and therefore hygienically. Cities ran on coal-fired power and workers crowded in small apartments with sub-par facilities. To make matters worse, there were few statutes regulating the wages and treatment of workers. Physicians and reformers argued that disease, poor hygiene and a lack of infrastructure was destroying people’s quality of life. Much of this reform was aimed at women. In 1899, a female physician in Germany named Hope Bridges Adams Lehman addressed the the practice of using one’s chemise as a menstrual rag: “It is completely disgusting to bleed into your chemise, and wearing that same chemise for four to eight days can cause infections.”

We know that some women used crude menstrual rags for centuries and in 1888, Southall’s introduced disposable sanitary pads. But still, most women were choosing to bleed into their chemise instead. Why? Because they weren’t wearing underwear. It was difficult for women to keep menstrual rags in place. To be sure some women had found solutions that worked for them but most women fell back on using their body linens.

Marissa: For a brief time in the 19th century, women had the chance to wear two-legged garments and address this logistical problem. Averill will cover this on her episode on pants so I won’t go into too much detail. In the 1850s, American women began wearing bloomers, or trousers (such as women had worn in the ancient world and Muslim women continued to wear). Women turned to bloomers to give them more options when menstruating. They also didn’t drag on the filthy streets like petticoats did and gave women better mobility. They were especially popular among women’s rights activists. This made the public outcry all the more vicious. In 1851 an editorial in the New York times read:

“We regret to see how obstinately our American women are bent on appropriating more than their fair share of Constitutional privileges… There is an obvious tendency to encroach upon masculine manners… which cannot be too severely rebuked or too speedily repressed.”

Most of the American public agreed. Bloomer-wearing women were accused of being sexually deviant or grotesquely masculine. [Once again your underclothes acting as evidence of your sexual behavior] This ridicule was too much for most women to bear in a time when sexual purity and femininity were prized assets. American women gave up their bloomers. But the fight for comfortable undergarments continued. The National Dress Reform Association was established in 1856 and its mission was to fight for comfortable undergarments for women. For them, this meant eliminating the corset and restricting the weight of a woman’s undergarments to 7 pounds.

Elizabeth: Over the course of the 19th century, feminist reformers succeeded somewhat in in reducing the restrictiveness of women’s undergarments. Fewer women were wearing corsets and those who were wearing corsets chose shorter, softer versions of the stays of their mothers and grandmothers. With these changes came a slew of corset substitutes with silly names like the “symmetrical rotundity” , the “coreselet gorge”, and the “Flynt waist.” Sometime in the 1880s, the first modern brassiere was invented. It allowed for breast support/shaping without the crushing pressure of any kind of girdle.

In the UK, men and women sometimes wore drawers. For women they were called knickerbockers or knickers. Men’s drawers began to be referred to as pants. (These terms are still used today). But two-legged garments remained controversial and many women in the Western world continued to go without underpants.

Marissa: Nineteenth century men continued to use the chemise trick, or wear drawers. Their undergarments remained incredibly simple and functional compared to women’s (grumble). There was some crossover though between men’s and women’s underwear in the 19th century but mostly in America (upstate New York actually). Feminists in upstate New York began wearing the Union Suit. The Union suit, also known as long johns, began as women’s underwear, feminist alternatives to petticoats and corsets. But by the 1860s, men had co-opted the garment. The Union suit became the undergarment of choice for working-class men. In 1868, one was patented with an “access hatch” in the front so men could urinate without taking them off. This is an example of how gendered the garment industry was. As soon as men took a liking to a garment, they underwent rapid research and development so they would be as convenient and functional as possible. Not so for women.

A vintage ad with a young man wearing white Jockey briefs and tank

Jockey underwear ad, mid 20th c. | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth: After 1900, the underwear industry exploded. In 1909 the undergarment section of the Ladies Garment Workers Union was established. This signalled that underwear was being mass produced, cleverly marketed and consumed on a large scale. Women began to wear drawers regularly but they were made of linen and fell at the knee. The invention of rayon underpants in 1910 was a game changer. Known as “artificial silk”, rayon was softer, more durable and more elastic than linen. This new fabric allowed for the evolution of the brief. For women, rayon drawers allowed for a snugger, shorter fit. These were still giant by today’s standards- Women continued to wear brassieres and the 20th-century version of the shift, a slip. Panty hose, made of the newly developed nylon, replaced stockings and garters in the 1950s.

For men, rayon, and later nylon, led to the development of the y-front brief (colloquially referred to as tighty whiteys.) Briefs were inspired by jock-straps worn by sportsmen and by speedo-like bathing suits that men began wearing in the French Riviera in the 1920s. Boxer shorts were originally developed for professional boxers. They were redesigned as underwear in the 1920s when Jacob Golomb replaced the leather waistband with an elastic, rayon band and added a button fly. Men who found briefs too confining chose boxer shorts. Brief-lovers desired more support. In WWII, both types of underpants were issued to American servicemen.  

Marissa: Even though intimates have become near-universal, mass-produced garments, they still have symbolic associations that might be worth mentioning. Historical undergarments, such as corsets or garter belts serve erotic functions today that they may not have when they were every-day wear. At many weddings today, the groom ceremoniously removes the bride’s decorative garter with his teeth, a symbol of impending nuptial relations. The bra- which was touted as a symbol of women’s emancipating from the corset, has come to be regarded as a symbol of patriarchal confinement. Women today are wondering if bras really are necessary. Some understand going bra-less as a challenge to the idea that women’s breasts are obscene.  At the same time, shapers are more popular than they have been in decades: spanx, waist cinchers, compression garments. Are these items designed for women looking for support or are they designed for men who want women’s bodies to look a certain way? These are all complicated questions that we won’t answer here today but please, let us know your thoughts.

That’s all we have for you today. Please don’t forget to leave a five star review wherever you listen to your podcasts. 

Selected Sources:

Patricia A. Cunningham. Reforming Women’s Fashion, 1850-1920 : Politics, Health, and Art. Ashland: Kent State University Press, 2015.

C. Willett Cunnington. History of Underclothes. Dover Publications, 2013.

Sandra Lee Evenson. “Codpiece.” Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion, edited by Valerie Steele, vol. 1, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005, p. 276. World History In Context,

Elizabeth Ewing. Fashion in Underwear: From Babylon to Bikini Briefs. Dover Publications, 2010.

Amber J. Keyser. Underneath It All: A History of Women’s Underwear. Twenty-First Century Books, 2018.

S. C. Shapiro. ‘Sex, gender and fashion in medieval and early modern Britain’, Journal of Popular Culture (20) (1987), pp. 113–28.




Underwear, A History of Intimate Apparel


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