The History of Underwear

The History of Underwear

February 06, 2016

Underwear is considered to be “mandatory” in our prudish western society. Practically everyone wears them, and those few who prefer to go ‘commando’ most likely wear underwear most of the time too. It’s a simple enough concept: underwear serves a very simple and necessary purpose. However, you may be surprised (and a little grossed out) to know that underwear as we know it today is actually a pretty modern invention. While the thought of “ancient underwear” evokes images of loincloths and toga-wraps, the fact is that these were functional outerwear bottoms. Our poor, poor ancestors had no idea what their junk was missing.

Your underoos have a pretty interesting history—one that explains why they go by several names such as drawers, briefs, boxers, knickers, panties, Long Johns, and tighty whities. Underwear as we know them are small, compact, and cover only the area we feel the need to cover. Most importantly, they are comfortable. However, this wasn’t always so. In the not-so-distant past, undergarments took on many different forms from what we use today. Some of these varieties throughout history are stranger than others. “Chausses,” for example, were two leg pieces, but didn’t even cover the crotch!

These types of “half-pants” were not the old-timey version of ass-less chaps, but rather designed so that you could wrap a diaper-like piece of cloth around your waist underneath. As became more common in the 17th and 18th century, one would tuck or tie their ‘longshirt’ between their undercarriage, like a sort of gross, adult onesie. At this point, underwear (if you could call it that) wasn’t worn for aesthetic value, as they are today. Instead, they were more hygienic, or used as a protective garment due to the discomfort of the clothing of the time. Keep in mind that until the Industrial Revolution, all undergarments were made by hand, so honestly, they couldn’t possibly have been that comfortable to wear. When the Industrial Revolution hit however, the cotton gin made clothing much easier to manufacture.

In truth, it wasn’t until the 19th century that we really began any halfway decent attempts at what a time-traveler would actually consider easy or comfortable to wear. Before this, clothing simply didn’t allow for it. Around World War II, the common undergarment was the “union suit,” a garment that was both shirt and pants combined. This was the norm for quite a while. These were issued to American soldiers during World War II. A fun fact in the history of underwear is that the term “Long Johns” is derived from John L. Sullivan, a boxer in the 1880’s who would wear these army-issued undergarments during matches. Even at this point, underwear was quite uncomfortable. Imagine wearing a full body suit under your clothes. Yikes.

What about women’s side of this history? While men only had to worry about wearing one undergarment, women wore two. At waist level, women throughout history wore “shifts.” A shift, or chemise, is basically a short gown or smock worn under a woman’s dress. Separately, women would wear a body piece to provide back and bosom support.

Historically  women didn’t wear underwear, originally known as "knickers," until the 19th century, making the famous painting “The Swing” much more naughty than you would initially think! 

The 20th century gave way to the elastic band found in the waistline of underpants, and was at the same time integrated into the necks of tee shirts. The founder of Everlast, a boxing equipment company, decided that the leather band that made up the waist of a boxer’s shorts was inferior to an elastic band, and integrated this band into his product, hence the name “boxer shorts.” Up until this point, however, underwear still wasn’t as small and compact as it is today. Most undies went down to the knee. While they were still tweaked for support and comfort, this is still very different from what we wear.

The question you may be dying to have answered is where “tighty whities” come in. Originally, the closest thing to the famous tighty whities was a men’s bathing suit. In 1934, Arthur Kneibler, an executive and designer at a Wisconsin hosiery company, received a postcard depicting a Frenchman wearing a bikini-style bathing suit. From there, he decided he could design a pair of underwear much like this.

Around this time, underwear was really starting to take off, as not just something ugly that you wore underneath your clothes, but something that could look good, and flattering. The ‘70s and ‘80s gave way to the idea of designer underwear, as labels like Calvin Klein began to design underwear that we could be proud to flaunt. From then on, the public view of underwear was never the same. It became something stylish. Beautiful-bodied men and women would model underwear and make them look sexy.

From boxer shorts and tighty whities, the next big step was the boxer briefs. These bad boys didn’t make their spotlight until the ‘90s. They are the favored undergarment of men today, and modern fabric technology has made them more comfortable than ever. If you’re going to do some time-traveling, do your junk a favor and follow your mother’s advice: make sure to bring a clean pair of underwear.  

By Dia Ascenzi

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