A History of Women’s Underwear

By Tim Lambert

Early Women’s Underwear

Ancient Greek women wore a form of bra called an apodesme. 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 or mamilare.

After the fall of Rome, women did not usually wear panties until the 19th century. Their only underwear was a long linen garment called a shift, smock, or chemise, which they wore under their dress.

From the 16th century, women wore corsets made with whalebone. Women often wore corsets for 400 years until the 20th century when they were replaced by bras and girdles.

In the late 16th century, women began to wear a frame under their dress made of wire or whalebone called a farthingale. Slightly later some women wore a roll around their waist called a ‘bum-roll’ to hold out their dress.

From the end of the 16th century, women wore skirt-like garments called petticoats, which were sometimes embroidered. (A petticoat was originally a petty coat, a short coat worn by a man but women borrowed the term).

19th Century Women’s Underwear

The word drawers was invented because underwear was drawn on. The word knickers 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 is called panties, which is derived from pants. However, the word panties has never been common in the UK.

At the beginning of the 19th century, 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 latter part of the 19th century, it was usually girls rather than women who 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. In the 1860s some women began to wear colored petticoats and drawers although white remained very common.

In the 19th century, women’s underwear was sometimes called bloomers. Elizabeth Miller invented loose trousers to be worn by women. Amelia Bloomer promoted the idea from 1849 onward and they became known as bloomers. In time, long underwear became known as bloomers.

In the 19th century, women continued to wear corsets. However, it’s a myth that corsets were very uncomfortable.

20th Century Women’s Underwear

In the early 20th century the girdle (a garment that goes from the waist to the thighs) developed from the corset. But many women continued to wear corsets.

In the 19th century, women’s underwear was usually open between the legs but in the 20th century, closed knickers replaced them. In 1910 stockings and knickers were first made of rayon (at first rayon was called artificial silk). Nylon was invented by Wallace Carothers in 1935. The first nylon stockings were sold in 1939. Later panties were also made of nylon.

In the 19th century panties 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. Panties became briefer still in the 1970s. The thong was introduced in the USA in 1981. In the 1990s they became common. At the beginning of the 21st century boy shorts became popular.

Meanwhile in Britain during the Second World War, women sometimes used silk from old parachutes to make knickers. In 1949 an American tennis player named Gertrude Moran or Gussie Moran (1923-2013) caused a sensation when she appeared at Wimbledon wearing frilly panties. She was called Gorgeous Gussie and it was very daring in 1949!

Meanwhile, in 1913, Mary Phelps Jacob invented the modern bra. She used two handkerchiefs joined by ribbons. She patented her invention in 1914. Her garment was called a brassiere but in the late 1920s, the word was shortened to bra. Cup sizes were invented in 1932.

The strapless bra was invented in 1938 but they did not become common until the 1950s. Meanwhile, in 1942 Ida Rosenthal invented a bra strap that allowed the straps to be adjusted. Frederick Mellinger invented the padded bra in 1947. He introduced the push-up bra in 1948. The Wonderbra was invented in 1963 by Louise Poirier. The sports bra was invented in 1977.

In the USA in 1987, for the first time, an advert for bras on TV showed a live woman wearing a bra instead of a mannequin wearing one. (At one time it was not acceptable for TV ads to show women wearing bras).

Women have worn stockings for centuries but tights (pantyhose) were introduced by Allen Gant in 1959. Meanwhile, in the late 20th century women’s underwear became more basic, and corsets, girdles, and petticoats became less and less common.

Finally, our word lingerie is derived from the French word for linen, lin. Lingerie was things made from linen. The word bra comes from the word braciere. It was a piece of armour to protect a man’s arm. Later it came to mean a breastplate and, later still a woman’s corset. When Mary Phelps Jacob created the modern bra in 1913 it was called a brassiere but that was shortened to a bra.

A cartoon of women's Underwear

Last revised 2024