History of underwear

My sister wants to know about the history of women’s knickers.

so far, all the info that us thickoes have been able to glean on this subject is that mens undies seem to happen before womens and that Bloomers were invented on the advent of the bicycle!

So, anybody who knows about this? I think that my sister’s right that western women didn’t start wearing this article of underwear until the nineteenth century, while men were wearing them much earlier than that. (But Bloomers weren’t originally underwear, I think? – Oops, think I might have been thinking about knickerbockers, actually…)

In the meantime, I can point her to this wide-ranging costume history resource: The Costumers’ Manifesto

I also have a page of links on Dress and fashion in early modern Europe, but I don’t think it has anything directly on this particular topic.

NB: if you leave a comment with several hyperlinks, it will be sent into moderation; I’ll pick it up as soon as I can, but please don’t repost the comment if it doesn’t appear straight away.

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27 thoughts on “History of underwear”

  1. *blush* Thank you, big sis – somehow I just KNEW you would know something on this :D

    If anyone else has anything else, be ever so grateful ;)

  2. And I quote from Catherine Hall and Leonore Davidoff, Family Fortunes: Men and women of the English middle class 1780-1850 (1987, p.413 – I believe there’s a recent 2nd edition), funnily enough a chapter I read last night:

    This was accompanied by a general change in women’s clothing. They continue:

    It’s a fascinating book, and a fascinating chapter.

  3. [Sorry about the repost - HTML tag disaster :S]

    And I quote from Catherine Hall and Leonore Davidoff, Family Fortunes: Men and women of the English middle class 1780-1850 (1987, p.413 – I believe there’s a recent 2nd edition), funnily enough a chapter I read last night:

    “[C]hanges in women’s dress, while significant, were not as dramatic as for men and received less comment in local records. The thin, clinging material, vertical lines and loose limbs of the war period gave way in the 1820s to more confined and modest coverings. By mid century with the crinoline, ‘knickers’ or underclothes were introduced for the first time.”

    This was accompanied by a general change in women’s clothing. They continue:

    “The contrast between the straight lines, practical materials and business-like images of men’s clothes and the soft, flowing curved lines, the rich colours and textures, elaborate detail and constricting shape of women’s clothes was becoming a powerful part of gender segregation. The connection between beauty, taste and morality going back to Burke and drawn on by practical men by Loudon as well as by poets and novelists, centred on feminine form, appearance and behaviour. Ruggedness of features, a certain disdain for appearances, even brusqueness, were signs of manliness.”

    It’s a fascinating book, and a fascinating chapter.

  4. No link, but Daniel Roche’s book on fashion culture in 18th C France is essential. It explains the development of undergarments as a means of protecting clothing and keeping away filth produced by the body.

  5. Yes, I had always understood European underwear as a development of the production and availability of cheap cotton in the early 18th c/early industrial revolution. (This does, however, come out of Western Civ lectures, although the prof who delivered them is one I respect immensely, so I trust her on this.) Now, I don’t know what form exactly this underwear took, so it may not have been bloomers precisely. This professor linked the advent of easily washable cheap underwear with a decline in mortality (fewer fleas and lice and whatnot).

    If you look at the Tres Riches Heures de Duc de Berry (famous medieval calendar), and you find one of the winter months (I think it’s February), there’s a pic of a bunch of peasants sitting in their house in front of a fire, and it’s quite clear – as they sit their with their skirts etc. hiked up to enjoy the heat – that they are NOT wearing underwear.

  6. Odd, isn’t it, that dictionary definitions of “knickers” say that the word is used in reference to underwear for women and to outerwear for men? In both cases, I suppose, we’re talking about knee length pants banded just below or just above the knee.

  7. Oh, I forgot to mention that the most common recent use of the word that I’m familiar with is “Don’t get your knickers in a wad.” There, clearly the reference is to panties. I try not to.

  8. While you’re at it, Sharon, you could check out the origins of the phrase “go commando”. It’s been around for yars but has really come in to vogue the last yeaa or two. Is this really down to the navy unit? If so, I guess they really did like to live dangerously…

  9. Ram: my mum says “Don’t get your knickers in a twist!” roughly once a week, last time I checked. Hmm. Not as interesting as it seemed when I started typing!

  10. (Much giggling from the host. Jules, see what you’ve started.)

    Steve, you can go look that one up yourself.

    Ralph and Rob, I’ve heard Ralph’s version but Rob’s is much more familiar.

  11. Sorry Sis – I thought it would provide you historians with a bit of a light-hearted busman’s holiday :D

    Very useful info there – I’ll pass it back along the line :D

  12. Nothing to apologise for. I’ve been enjoying it. :)

    After all these years, you came in useful for something.

  13. PMSL profgrrrrl

    Another Damned Medievalist – I am blonde, you will have to elaborate – what else do we have in common?? lol

  14. sepoy: a ‘busman’s holiday’ is one which you spend doing your usual work occupation (but for no pay!). (It goes back to the days when large numbers of people went on holiday excursions by bus – or ‘charabanc’ – I suppose.)

    (And see also _Busman’s Honeymoon_ by Dorothy L Sayers. Great crime novel.)

    Ralph, if you think that’s shocking, you should see the French condom advert that someone once sent me in an email, but I can’t now find the link for. (BTW, do you really think there was anything innocent about the original question? Heh heh heh.)

  15. Thanks Sepoy for clearing that one up. If you ever watch the classic war movie ‘Carry On Up The Khyber’ you’ll see that this is apparently a long-held military tradition.

  16. Yes, I have been looking for the Khyber movie for a while. Hard to find here in the states. Thanks for giving me more impetus. cheers.

  17. So, I guess we have a timeframe on when underwear started to be worn but do we know who actually ‘invented’ it (if invented is the right word, perhaps ‘designed’ would be better?)

    Always happy to keep my big sis entertained :D

  18. Okay, thanks Rob. Although I’m struggling to understand who the “Directoire” is but I’ll try to read the whole thing at some point, instead of skimming over it, and see if that helps!

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