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