It may surprise you to know that although the idea of wearing a layer of clothing beneath our outerwear now seems ubiquitous in most cultures, it hasn’t been with us forever.
The earliest form of underwear is probably the loincloth, examples of which have been found in Japanese and Hawaiian culture dating back around 7000 years. Numerous loincloths were also found to have been buried with the ancient Egyptian King Tutankhamun who reined over 3300 years ago. Loincloths were made from a variety of materials including wool and linen with imported silk being reserved for use only by the wealthiest members of society.
During the middle ages, in Western civilisation, outer garments called braies, which resembled trousers laced at the waist and calf were worn whilst working outside, but by the later middle-ages, these were worn exclusively as underwear, effectively replacing the loincloth. Braies were necessary as underwear, especially for wealthier men as they were also likely to wear chausses which were armour for the legs made from mail. The use of braies added a little comfort for the wearer. Braies also usually came with a codpiece which originally was a flap that was buttoned or tied closed at the front of the garment enabling the wearer, which would be a man don’t forget, to urinate without the need for completely removing his clothing.
Henry VIII started a trend of padding his codpiece and wearers would add more and more padding, making the codpiece bigger and bigger in order to emphasize the wearer’s manhood with this trend continuing well into the 1600s.
On the upper part of the body at this time, both men and women wore a type of undershirt called a chemise or smock. Women sometimes also wore a petticoat between her smock and her gown and it wasn’t uncommon for these to be visible, being decorated with intricate lace designs.
Women also started to wear corsets at this time too. They were stiffened with reeds, canes or whalebone and were straight-lined which had the effect of flattening the bust rather than accentuating it.
In the second half of the 18th-century cotton fabrics became more widely available thanks to industrialisation and the use of new machines like the cotton gin and spinning jenny. This, in turn, led to cotton garments being mass-produced allowing them to be made available in high street stores, whereas previously, they would have been made by hand at home.
By the 1820s fashion dictated that women should have a particular shape and so corsets evolved to accommodate this, often using whalebone or even steel to help make the waist smaller and therefore accentuate the bust. By the 1860s, women’s fashion required waists so small, that women often fainted due to the garment restricting their breathing.
Fashion also started to shift towards shorter skirt styles, but with longer pantalettes or pantaloons being used to cover the legs. Developed in France, pantalettes could be a single garment or two separate ones, one for each leg but in both types, the crotch was left open for hygiene reasons.
Later in the 1800s, the bustle became fashionable for women as it accentuated the bottom. It had been around for around 200 years already but started to get larger before dying out completely in the 1890s.
It is around this time that the forerunner of long johns started to become popular. Originally a single garment that covered the body from head to toe, it was known as a union suit and was worn by men, women and children alike. The union suit had an access flap at the back which allowed for easier visits to the toilet. These garments would remain popular well into the 1930s.
As the twentieth century dawned, manufacturing technology made it possible for steel and whalebone to be removed from corsets without them losing their shape. Fashion was a little more relaxed too and so an alternative to the corset, known as the liberty bodice became available. The liberty bodice was so comfortable compared with the previously restricting corsets that it became the standard item of underwear for women and girls.
Men’s underwear was also evolving, with garments resembling modern boxer shorts starting to make an appearance. As underwear became more important to the consumer, the first underwear advertisements started to appear, emphasizing comfort and durability rather than style or fashion.
As the nineteen-teens progressed, we saw the union suit split into two garments, the undershirt and drawers, and the first bra, or to give it its full name, brassiere, came onto the commercial market which was patented by its designer, Mary Phelps Jacob in 1914, and by the end of the decade, bloomers had also arrived. The freedom that these, when coupled with the brassiere, gave women meant that the corset’s days as a mass-market garment were now numbered.
Comfort was the new emphasis in the 1920s as hemlines started to rise and bloomers became shorter eventually leading to what were known as step-ins, the forerunner to modern-day panties. At the same time, women started to cover their bare legs with stockings which were held up by the newly invented garter belt by the end of the decade.
The first modern briefs for men came about in the 1930s with Coopers Inc selling the first ones in Chicago. The design would be recognisable today with its y-shaped fly and short legs. These ‘jockey’ briefs, so-called because they gave a similar level of support as jockstraps had sold over 30,000 pairs within three months of their release on 19 January 1935. After their release into UK stores three years later they sold at a rate of 3000 pairs per week.
Following the second world war, underwear, which had previously been designed not to be seen was starting to become a fashion item with bold colours and patterns replacing the previously plain white garments. New fabrics were also experimented with such as Dacron, nylon, and Spandex.
As the 1950s progressed, fashion was for emphasis of a woman’s bosom rather than her slim waist. Christian Dior gave us the bullet-pointed bra whilst at the same time Frederick’s of Hollywood gave us the original Wonderbra. 1959 saw the appearance of pantyhose, or tights as they are known in Great Britain, which were made seamless in 1965 as the mini skirt began to gain popularity.
With sex appeal becoming more important during the 1970s and 1980s, the g-string, now more commonly known as the thong made its first commercial appearance. A garment that had in previous decades only really been worn by exotic dancers became mainstream in Brazil and by the time the 1990s arrived, most of the Western world had been converted to what became the fastest-selling undergarment for women.
Sex appeal wasn’t a driver just for women either as designers such as Calvin Klein ran with the idea of using almost naked male models to drive sales for its boxer shorts.
Sex appeal, fashion and comfort are now the biggest drivers for underwear sales, with a report published in the Summer of 2018 estimating that the global market for men’s underwear will reach over $16 billion by 2025 with the global lingerie market expected to reach a staggering $59 billion by 2024. Based on these numbers, although some people may prefer to ‘go commando’, underwear is going to be around for a very long time to come.