A History of Underwear

By Tim Lambert

Early Underwear

The ancient Egyptians sometimes wore loincloths. The Romans also wore underwear. Both Roman men and women wore a loincloth or shorts called subligaculum. Women also wore a band of cloth or leather around their chest called a strophium.

During the Middle Ages men wore linen shorts called braies but women did not normally wear knickers until the 19th century. Their only underwear was a long linen garment called a shift, which they wore under their dress. From the 16th century, women wore corsets made with whalebone.

19th Century Underwear

In the 19th century underwear became much more elaborate.

Where does the word does the word pants come from? It is derived from a character in an Italian comedy called Pantalone. He wore garments that came down to his ankles (when most men wore ones that came to the knee). In 18th century England, they were called pantaloons. In the 19th century, the word became shortened to pants. In Britain, pants came to mean long drawers that covered the whole leg. The garments worn over them became known as trousers.

The word drawers was invented because underwear was drawn on (in the same way we say ‘draw the curtains’). Where does the word knickers come from? It comes from a novel called History of New York by Diedrich Knickerbocker, supposedly a Dutchman living in New York (it was written by Washington Irving). In Britain, the illustrations for the book showed a Dutchman wearing long, loose-fitting garments on his lower body. When men wore loose trousers for a sport they were sometimes called knickerbockers. However, women’s underwear was soon called knickerbockers too. In the late 19th century the word was shortened to knickers. In the USA women’s underwear are called panties, which is a diminutive of pants.

At the beginning of the 1800s women still wore a long nightie-like garment under their dress but it was now called a chemise, not a shift. However, after about 1800 they also wore drawers. Sometimes they came to below the knee or sometimes they were longer garments with frills at the bottom called pantalettes. However, in the later 19th century only girls not women wore pantalettes.

Today we still say a pair of knickers or panties. That is because in the early 19th century women’s underwear consisted of two separate legs joined at the waist. They really were a ‘pair’.

At first women’s drawers were usually very plain but in the late 19th century they were decorated with lace and bands. In the Winter women often wore woolen knickers and woolen vests.

Victorian women’s underwear were sometimes called bloomers. Elizabeth Miller invented loose trousers to be worn by women. The idea was promoted by Amelia Bloomer in 1849 and they became known as bloomers. In time long underwear became known as bloomers.

By the late 19th century in Britain, men’s underwear were called pants. Men also wore vests. Some men wore combinations, of pants and vests in one garment.

20th Century Underwear

In the 19th century, women’s underwear was usually open between the legs but in the 20th century, closed knickers replaced them.

Meanwhile, in 1913, Mary Phelps Jacob invented the modern bra. She used two handkerchiefs joined by ribbon. Meanwhile, in 1913 Mary Phelps Jacob invented the modern bra. She used two handkerchiefs joined by ribbon.

A collection of bras

In the 19th century, knickers came down to well below the knee. In the 1920s they became shorter. They ended above the knee. By the 1940s and 1950s, many women wore briefs. In the 1970s knickers became briefer still. In the 1990s thongs became popular. Men’s underwear also became shorter. The word drawers went out of use and they became known as underpants or pants. Y-fronts went on sale in the USA in 1935. They went on sale in Britain in 1938. Boxer shorts were introduced in the 1940s.