A Brief (ha) History of Underwear

Go ahead, laugh: get all those giggles out of your system. Yes, this is the underwear post. As it turns out, though, underwear is anything but frivolous. There are actually a lot of important things underwear does, from the practical to the cultural, and – since we’re due another humanities post – this one will be a fairly thorough historical overview of how your very own modern underwear came to be, and how technology and cultural shifts shape what we wear. You may be surprised by just how much there is to learn! 

IMPORTANT CAUTION: This Big Fat Historical Survey will only cover European underoos, since those, in the main, are the ones that mutate into the majority of current fashion. Maybe someday, we’ll do a cross cultural analysis of underwear, which would be cool. 

What Underwear Does:

  • Protects outer clothes from the oils and sweat of your skin
  • Supports and shapes outer clothes
  • Extra layer for warmth or even cooling
  • Communicates

So, with all this in mind, let’s start (because this is where fashion of the time makes it easy) in the last years of the 1400s.

Meet the Chemise

Albrecht Dürer wearing about as many layers as possible, in fashionable disarray.
Self Portrait by Albrecht Dürer, 1498. Note the chemise, the white garment with the embroidered band right against his skin across his chest. Very nice. A fun detail is that, although everything appears to match, the lower arm portion of the sleeve seems to be detachable, in case you want to wear them with a different top.

By 1498, wearing your clothes like you rolled out of bed and just don’t care was in fashion, fortunately for us. This means that we can see plenty of the chemise, which was basically a really long undershirt. Dürer here is wearing his chemise practically on the outside, with his clothes wide open at the chest. You can also see a bit more chemise sleeve puffed through slits in the sleeve, too, especially at the elbow. While early chemises were very plain, by this point, people wanted you to see it, and they began to be embroidered at the neck, or gathered up and stitched, like the very tiny pleats you can see on the artist’s own chemise. The chemise was worn by everybody, since its main function, aside from looking fashionable, was to absorb sweat and oils and gunk from the skin before it could soil your actual clothes. The bottom hem of the chemise usually ended up tucked into the hose, or eventually breeches. Pants or slacks as we know it didn’t really exist.

The Reign of the Hose

Hose were the other universal underoos, and were basically separate leg sleeves, like whole-leg socks, and could therefore be mixed and matched. Hose were held up with ties to a belt under your clothes, or, for very short menswear, even sewn together into proto-pantyhose.

Dürer engraving showing a man in baggy giant stockings, and a woman with an elaborate hairdo.
The young farmer and his wife, Albrecht Dürer. Here’s how clothes worked for normal people, and not the ultra-wealthy.

Fashions at this point created an interesting problem: men could wear their tunics long or very short to nonexistent. Note that separate leg sleeves mean that there’s a need to invent coverings for sensitive bits if the hemline rises too far. That’s what a codpiece is for. Fairly rapidly, we end up with the classic poofy breeches, codpiece, and stockings combo of the menswear of the next two centuries. Fashion history aside, though, men and women just keep wearing stockings and the chemise for several more centuries, until the French Revolution.

Famous portrait of Juan de Pareja.
Portrait of Juan de Pareja, By Diego Velázquez. Oh, and the chemise develops a detachable collar, which eventually become the ruff, and then stock, and doesn’t really go away entirely until the advent of the washing machine and dryer, mid 20th Century. Ask your grandparents about laundry day and shirt collars.

18th Century Revolutions and a Side Note on Stays

So, eventually, women still wore separate stockings, attached at the belt or held up with garters, and men’s stockings were held on by the sheer pressure of the cuffs of their buttoned up breeches. The codpiece was long gone, and elaborately buttoned fall front flies ruled the day. Everybody still wore the chemise, though, and stockings were still in, until the French Revolution would switch men to pants, permanently. Seriously, that’s what happened. Stockings were expensive, so regular people tended to wear pants. During the French Revolution, it might well be risking your head (literally) to look too aristocratic, so French men started wearing pants. Everybody looked to France for fashion, and pants spread. Within a few decades, stockings for menswear would be completely dead, except for a few ceremonial vestiges.

Stays were support undergarments, generally worn by women, and they were one of the options to tie your hose to. Stays and eventually corsets and girdles weren’t always about pinching the waist, but also provided support for accessories like tie-on pockets, key rings, sewing kits, bustles, crinolines, panniers, and so on. Lest you assume that stays were strictly for the ladies, here’s a great cartoon that actually shows a bunch of men’s body-shaping underthings in 1819, for gentlemen who wanted to achieve a fashionably wasp-waisted silhouette with nice legs:

A fashionable gentleman fusses at his dressers to pull his stays harder.
Think that those Beau Brummell style fashion plates of the 1820s are unrealistic for any human figure to achieve? You’d be right. Mr. Darcy and company are almost certainly wearing a LOT of undergarments like calf pads and stays to cheat the system. Note the implication that being over-fashionable is somehow un-English: having an “D____n big John Bull Belly” being undesirable to the dandy in question.

Remember: no boxers, briefs, jockeys, whatever – he’s got his chemise stuffed into his breeches. Also, for centuries, there were only a few ways to fasten and shape clothes to stay on and fit the body: laces, ties, pins (yikes), or buttons. Velcro, snaps, zippers, elastic, and truly stretchy fabrics – all of which we use to do the same – were firmly 19th or 20th Century innovations. This is a major factor in why young children wore dresses, until the boys were old enough to handle the complications of breeches. To illustrate, here’s toddler Franklin Delano Roosevelt in an adorable sundress and hat, looking pensive on a donkey.

Donkey and toddler FDR in a cute sun dress and hat. The future president is wearing the sun dress, not the burro.
Pretty sweet setup. I think it’s a double-sided wicker chair pack saddle thing, and looks wildly unsafe. This kid will grow up to be president during the Great Depression and WWII.

Enough about menswear, though. Because of their lower hemlines, women’s stockings never had to change beyond tie-able thin socks until very recently. Similarly to the situation with gentlemen, actual panties as we know it didn’t exist because that’s what the chemise was for. By modern standards, absolutely everyone went commando because hemlines were low enough to conceal everything. (Under normal circumstances. Kind of puts Fragonard’s famous painting The Swing or can-can dancers in a very different light, huh?) As for keeping legs warm in the wide skirts of the 19th century, there were pantalettes. Imagine ankle or knee length frilly cotton or wool (itchy!) leg sleeves that tied on to the stays or to a belt. In this picture, the pantalettes are the frilly cuffs you see around the ankles, below the skirt:

Pantalettes seen under the hem on two small girls.
Words cannot express how hard it is to find quality images of actual pantalettes. Portraits were for important, rich people, and girls young enough to be wearing visible pantalettes weren’t important enough generally for their own portraits. Or, I could get pictures of women in pantalettes, but not normal ones, because they had some kind of job that required specialty underwear, like circus performer, dancer, or coal mine pit brow worker. Not kidding. I also don’t really trust fashion plates of the time, and so many of those images of perfect lacy pantalettes were for boys, anyway.

Bodily Functions Interlude!

On the subject of going commando, and pantalettes as separate leg sleeves, this means that the problem of “how did they go to the bathroom” basically is resolved by the fact that nobody’s underthings worked like the modern versions. Here’s a (perfectly safe for school and work) video. You’re welcome! As for the dudes, it’s just an awful lot of buttons, for breeches, or otherwise normal pants. When it comes to monthly bodily functions for the ladies, imagine basically cloth or rags buttoned, tied, or pinned to a belt. This is why safety pins (also a 19th Century invention) are a big deal, folks. You live in a world that has achieved comfortable, convenient, safe fasteners for your clothes.

Corsetry, Swimwear, and Materials Science

So, you may have noticed that even by the late 19th Century, we don’t really have the advent of actual underoos as we know them. Between holding up stockings, pantalettes, and crinolines, corsetry is actually the foundation of a very complicated suspension system. That’s why women wore girdles, even way past the time that wasp-waisted silhouettes were in fashion.

A very 1920s corsetry ad from Barcley custom corsets. It's all about holding up the stockings.
Roughly a dozen more buckles and adjustable clasps than I’d want to deal with at least twice a day. There’s stockings, but they don’t hold themselves up. This is probably the most 1920s thing you’ll see this week, too. Note that we’ve still basically got the chemise, under the girdle. The basic pattern – chemise, stockings, stays – still hasn’t changed, despite the differences in fashion in over 400 years.

It was over the 20th Century that things really started to change. Innovations in materials science, actually, gradually made new and exciting clothing possible. You could have stockings that held themselves up, for example. Or elastic bands rather than ties that made actual underwear like you’re used to feasible. Stretchy fabrics meant that you could buy off-the-rack clothes that fit like a glove. For a while, this was so new and exciting that the trope that “in the future we’ll all wear skintight body suits” took hold. Ultimately, though, in the far-off and futuristic year 2019, we only wear skintight and futuristic underwear. Oh, and undershirts on the outside, since that’s what the t-shirt eventually derives from: the chemise. It happened fast, mostly because there was another category of clothes that needed to be fairly form-fitting, reasonably warm, and easily washed and absorbent. Swimwear! (Technically also weird, specialty underwear like the union suit, as well, which eventually became two-piece long underwear as soon as we had elastic to hold it up. Union suits, being one piece, had that hilarious buttoned buttflap.)

If you look at swimwear from 100 years ago, it really does look suspiciously like modern underwear.

Tug of war in knit wool swimshorts and shirts.
Tug-of-war on the beach, Southport, Queensland, Australia. 1917! Forget all those stuffy ideas you have about Victorian swimsuits. People did have fun back then. The women are wearing their hair up in scarves.

By the 1930s, short shorts had never been shorter, barely visible under a shirt:

A team of Aussie lifeguards, from about 1930.
St. Kilda Surf Life Saving Team, 1930. Manly, New South Wales, Australia. (No, really. It’s the name of the beach.) The weird side-window on the shirts was in fashion, too. I don’t know what’s with that, but I’ve seen it several times in 1930s swim shirts. I’ve also never seen a lack of swim shirts on men, at this time either. Apparently men couldn’t go topless swimming, but swim trunks could be super tiny.

The reason swim trunks existed was because now public beaches were a thing. Before the 1800s bathing craze, it was easy to decide what to wear when you went for a swim: nothing (or you just didn’t swim). But, if the beach was mixed-sex and public, swimwear had to be invented.

The techniques, at least, already existed, and could be rapidly adapted for new underwear. As for the advent of modern clothes, if you’re really lucky, you can find people in really old photos, wearing something that wouldn’t make anyone look twice on the street today. Especially in informal situations, like students or street scenes, or factory workers, or farm hands. People’s “best clothes” tend to be fashionable, which is instantly dated. The trick is also to catch people so that they aren’t so aware there’s a photographer: body language changes over time, substantially. Here’s an article on a famous case of a “time-travelling hipster” from 1940, but I found several more, too:

Dancers at a juke joint, 1939.
The woman in the white sweater, scarf, and riding boots and breeches. If she was standing in line with you at the grocery, you wouldn’t even notice anything was off. 1939. Also, note the guy in a short sleeved shirt on over long sleeves. The cut of the trousers are a giveaway, though.
Woman in a yellow baseball cap, with short sleeves and overalls, 1944.
Lathe operator in an aircraft factory, 1944. When you work with heavy machinery, practical clothes are the only way to go. Also, this is a woman: men couldn’t wear hair that long in the 1940s.
Guy in wrap around glasses and a ribbed t-shirt at a drill press.
Fashionable hipster, or 1940s factory worker? Nice ribbed t-shirt, and those wrap-around glasses, as safety glasses, here. 1944.
Man in a tan rolled up shirt with a hat and normal sized pants.
This guy? He’s a 1941 sugarcane cutter, in Puerto Rico. It helps that he doesn’t have his belt halfway up to his armpits, or a hilariously tiny necktie, as was the style at the time.
Japanese-Americans used as farm labor, 1942. It looks really hot too.
Eeeeeevery last one of these perfectly normally-dressed people in jeans and various sensible hats are all Japanese-Americans working on a farm since being locked up at Tule Lake Relocation Center in California. Circa 1942.

Basically it’s easier in the 1930s and 1940s, because you’ve got most modern materials, making more recent clothing styles possible; there’s cameras and film allowing for faster shutter speeds, and less deliberate more candid photography; the Great Depression and WWII forced people to cut back on insta-dated fashion choices like lots of makeup, elaborate hair treatments, and new clothes. Go, explore archival photos of regular people doing hard work and find some time-travellers of your own, in old photos!

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