Where would we be without underwear? Well, probably in the same place we are now, but a lot less comfortable, that’s for sure. Since the dawn of time, humans have understood the value and usefulness of undergarments, and today we are going to take a “brief” look at ten key moments in the lingering history of lingerie as we explore the uncensored story of unmentionables.
10. The Loincloth
We begin at the beginning, as Lewis Carroll advised us, and start with the oldest, most basic form of underwear – the loincloth. It is a simple garment made out of one piece of fabric that covers the naughty bits in the front, sometimes in the back, and it is wrapped around itself or maybe held up with a belt if you’re feeling fancy.
The loincloth has been around for almost 7,000 years and remained humanity’s go-to choice of undergarments for millennia due to its practicality and simplicity. Sometimes it could get more sophisticated. Ancient Egyptian pharaohs, for example, had their own intricate and valuable version of the loincloth called a shendoh but, for the most part, people preferred to just wrap a piece of cloth or leather around their waist and get on with their day.
The oldest person that we know of who wore a loincloth is Otzi the Iceman, who was dressed in full kit when he died and it survived along with him, more or less. He had a loincloth made out of narrow strips of sheep hide stitched together which was fastened with a belt.
9. The Codpiece
The men of the Middle Ages moved away from loincloths and began wearing loose-fitting trousers known as braies. These were comfortable, cheap, and practical, but they were a bit of a palaver to put on since they were laced tight around the waist and shins. This made going to the bathroom a time-consuming affair, so enter the codpiece – a triangular flap that was attached to the pants and covered the fly, held in place by buttons or ties. Then, if anyone needed to heed the call of nature, they just had to undo the codpiece and leave the braies in their place.
Initially, codpieces were simply functional, but they became more intricate as time went on. The most famous codpiece-wearer in history is King Henry VIII, who proudly showed off his giant, fancy codpiece in his portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger. And, of course, back then whatever the king did, everyone else emulated, so enlarged, flashy codpieces became the new style in Europe.
The question still remains, though, why did Henry wear an expanded codpiece? Was it, as many think, simply an aggressive display of phallic virility, or was it to conceal the bandages and ointments used to treat his syphilis?
8. The Chemise
At the same time as the codpiece, the chemise was also in style. Worn by both men and women, the chemise was a simple garment, usually made out of white linen, worn under other clothing such as gowns, robes, and doublets to protect the fancier, more expensive clothes from sweat.
For most of its existence, the chemise was used as an undergarment, but then along came Marie Antoinette, who thought that, with a bit of added frills and laces, it could also work as a regular dress. She even posed for a portrait by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun in 1783 wearing only a chemise.
Marie Antoinette had long been criticized that she spent an exorbitant amount of money on clothes at a time when her people were starving. Perhaps she hoped that this portrait would make her look more like a woman of the people, but her idea backfired spectacularly. She was scorned for showing herself in public “wearing a chambermaid’s dust cloth,” and her critics accused her of mocking the dignity of the French throne. Not to mention that she was unlabeled unpatriotic for wearing English cotton, whereas the queen was expected to dress in French silks.
Despite the scandal, Marie Antoinette was a trendsetter, and in the decades that followed, many other women adopted this simple, yet provocative fashion style. The dress became known as “chemise à la reine,” or the “chemise of the queen.”
7. The Corset
And now we move on to the bane of women everywhere for hundreds of years – the corset. This infamous support garment was tightened in order to achieve the desirable hourglass figure – a teeny-tiny waist, with ample bosom and derriere.
The problem was that, oftentimes, the corset was pulled so tight that it was more an instrument of torture than a fashion accessory. Women who had to wear constricting corsets for hours on end felt discomfort, labored breathing, and even fainted on occasion. Meanwhile, doctors accused corsets of causing everything from respiratory diseases and deformity to the ribs to damage to internal organs, birth defects, and even miscarriages.
As to who is responsible for unleashing this painful undergarment on the world, that’s still up for debate, but it seems like the Greeks are to blame. The oldest depictions of corsets come from the Minoan civilization from over 3,000 years ago. Meanwhile, the oldest actual corset was made out of wool and linen and recovered from a tomb on the island of Crete. But the garment fell out of fashion for millennia, and it wasn’t until the 16th century that France re-popularized it, and from there it spread to the rest of Europe.
6. The Gin & Jenny
No other type of undergarment has become more ubiquitous in modern society than the basic pair of cotton underwear. However, this would not have been possible two hundred years ago. Cotton underwear was too time-consuming and expensive to produce in order to become the chosen unmentionables of the masses. But that changed with the coming of the Industrial Revolution and the invention of two machines that allowed cotton to be manufactured on a grand scale – the cotton gin and the spinning jenny.
All of a sudden, cotton clothing did not have to be made by hand, anymore. Although cotton was not a fiber native to Europe, it soon overtook in popularity other fabrics such as silk and wool. Meanwhile, in America, cotton became the backbone of the country’s economy, becoming its main export during the first half of the 19th century. Of course, the reason why this fiber was so profitable for America was because it was grown and collected using slave labor.
5. The Bloomers
We’ve already mentioned the corset, but there came a day during the mid-19th century when women said “Enough is enough” and decided that it was time to wear something practical and comfortable and damn everybody who had a problem with it. And that’s where the bloomers came in.
Inspired by Turkish trousers, bloomers were long, baggy pantaloons that were worn under dresses. They were named after women’s rights activist Amelia Bloomer who heavily campaigned in their favor, although she would have preferred to be remembered for other achievements such as launching The Lily, the first newspaper in America owned and edited by women.
Many were shocked by this new fashion development which was such a 180 from the previous styles, but it caught on regardless. As the decades passed, bloomers started getting shorter until they evolved into a form of baggy, comfortable underwear for women.
4. The Union Suit
Around the same time as bloomers came to be, women also tried out a new type of underwear which was far more comfortable and relaxing than anything else they had in their day. They even called this new type of underwear Emancipation Suits, although they would later become better known as Union Suits. If you’re still not sure what we’re talking about, they are the one-piece long underwear with the butt-flaps.
Initially, they were intended for women, but everyone thought they were such a good idea that they soon became unisex, worn by men, women, and children. Soon enough, though, they became strongly associated only with working-class men. However, they were a bit tricky to get into, so the long johns came along and supplanted them. Long johns served the same basic purposes, but they were two pieces, making it easier to get dressed in them. However, they did have a downside – no more butt-flaps.
3. The Jockstrap
Nowadays, the jockstrap can be an athlete’s best friend, but it wasn’t always designed for them. In fact, the jockstrap was invented in 1874, by a sporting goods company in Chicago and was initially known as the “jockey strap.” That’s because it was intended for bicycle jockeys who had to pedal for hours on end on hard cobblestone streets every day and needed something extra to protect their privates.
Other workmen soon saw the usefulness of the jockstrap, especially when a hard cup was added to it, and it became yet another form of underwear popular with the working class. Even doctors found it quite helpful for medical purposes and began recommending the jockstrap to men recovering from surgeries or injuries such as hernias. And yes, in case you were wondering, there is a female version, and it is known as a jillstrap.
2. The Bra
One evening in 1914, New York socialite Caresse Crosby was getting ready to go to a débutante ball. As was standard at the time, she first put on a whalebone corset before donning her gown. It was stiff and constricting, but hey, what can you do? By that point, Crosby had gotten used to the tightness of corsets, but she didn’t like that it was poking out from under her dress. Struck by a bolt of inspiration, she took off her corset and asked her maid to bring her two handkerchiefs, a pink ribbon, and a sewing kit. And with some MacGyver ingenuity, the modern bra was born.
Crosby was the talk of the town at that party. Most of the other women were shocked that she could move so freely while they all lumbered around stiffly. When other people asked to buy a bra for themselves, Crosby realized that she was onto something, so she patented the “backless brassiere” and started a business. Then World War I came along and made the bra even more popular. Women started taking up industrial and construction jobs, which you couldn’t really do in a corset. Plus, in 1917, the US War Industries Board straight up asked women to stop buying corsets so they could ration the metal for the war effort.
Contrary to a popular myth, the bra was not invented by a man and his name was certainly not Otto Titzling. That whole thing was made up by New Zealand humorist Wallace Reyburn in 1971, the same guy who made everyone think that Thomas Crapper invented the flush toilet. For whatever reason, people kept believing his satire and then perpetuated it as fact.
1. Going Commando
We’ve been talking about all the different undergarments that people have worn throughout history, but what if you do not want to wear anything under your outer clothes and you prefer to go commando?
Surely, it would be impossible to know who was the first person in history who decided to go free and easy and ditch the skivvies, but what about the actual saying? Why would not wearing any underwear be called “going commando” and did any commandos actually do this?
Yes to that second part, but the origins of the expression are a bit murkier. The most popular hypothesis claims that it became a slang term during the 1970s thanks to American soldiers returning from Vietnam. During the war, special forces spent a lot of time in hot, wet jungles, and wearing tight underwear left them vulnerable to the dreaded fungal infection known as “crotch rot” (don’t google that, by the way). So off came the underpants to improve ventilation.
Another origin story is even more unpleasant, believe it or not, and it says that commandos ditched their underwear when they had diarrhea and cut the seam of their fatigues running down their backside so they could “go” on the go.
Nobody can say with certainty if either of these is true, but most seem to agree that the expression permanently entered the public consciousness thanks to an episode of Friends from 1996.