A Brief History of Underwear

Blandine West, The Unmentionables Marketing and Communications Intern

Underwear is something that we take for granted without even realising. Do you ever think about the fact that you have to put underwear on? I’m pretty sure for most of us the answer is no. It wasn’t until I was mid-interview with the CEO of The Unmentionables that I realized how much I take for granted knowing that there will always be underwear for me to wear. Undies were traditionally designed for more than just hygiene but also to influence a woman’s figure and to preserve her modesty. Now that we have such a variety available to us, do you not wonder what it is that our great ancestors used? I’m pretty sure they didn’t get to switch between a thong to avoid VPL (visible panty line) and granny pants during their time of the month, for a little more comfort.

My curiosity got the better of me and I decided to do some research. Here are some of the highlights from the history of underwear!

5,000 years ago is where the first sign of underwear was found, on the body of Ötzi the Iceman who sported a goatskin loincloth, triangular shaped that fastened at the hips.

1,500 years ago in the Bronze Age of Egypt, Pharaoh Tutankhamen was apparently entombed with 145 spare loincloths to use in his afterlife! Women of status at the time are said to have worn narrow tunics that extended from breast to ankle with shoulder straps. The Egyptians were pretty imaginative as it is claimed women fashioned tampons from bits of wood with lint wrapped around.

In Ancient Rome underwear was called subligaculum and was a unisex garment made of leather and sometimes linen available as shorts or a loincloth. In addition, some women wore a band of cloth or leather around their chests, what we would now call boob-tubes. Women also often wore pads and tampons made of wool, this became a popular solution throughout the following centuries.

Much to the surprise of costume historians, a medieval bra with shoulder straps similar to those worn now was found in a 15th century castle in Austria recently.

AP/ Universität Innsbruck: Spiegel 

AP/ Universität Innsbruck: Spiegel 

In the 16th century women were known to wear ankle-length linen slips and skirt-like garments called petticoats, while men are said to have tucked their shirts under their genitals.

The 18th century was the time corsets became popular when the idealised female form was for tiny waists and broad hips. Women were known to have physically damaged their bodies as a result, by tight-lacing and crushing their ribs.

19th century underwear would still come down well below the knee but was often partnered with hoop skirts supported by crinolines, steel cage-like structures worn with a corset.

The 20th century introduced women to close fitted briefs made of lightweight, breathable fabrics that eventually became the norm. In addition, the modern bra was invented in 1913 and consisted of two handkerchiefs joined by a ribbon.

Pandika, M., 2014. The History of Your Bra. OZY, 4 August.

Pandika, M., 2014. The History of Your Bra. OZY, 4 August.

In 1970 menstrual belts and aprons were, unfortunately, the norm. They consisted of loops of elastic with thick cotton pads to clip or pin on that were used by women during their menstrual cycles. Thankfully during World War 2 French nurses realised that disposable cellulose bandages used on wounded soldiers absorbed blood better than cotton and started using them instead. This contributed to the development of the first sticky adhesive menstrual pads in 1970 that we now use. Between this time, an American doctor, Earle Haas, also patented the first modern tampon, thanks Earle!

Since the 20th century there have been tremendous developments in the types of underwear available; from curve-hugging corselets and suspender clips, frilly knickers, thongs and bodysuits to the famous wonderbra. While these varieties are all part of our history, the retro look is still fashionable as stockings, brassieres, suspenders and corsets in the form of spanx are definitely still a thing!

Let's celebrate the variety that we now have, for these items don't only provide comfort, they are a symbol of dignity, something that no one should be denied. While we may enjoy an evening commando, let's keep that a personal choice. Help The Unmentionables make sure that every woman and girl in displaced communities has access to clean underwear and appropriate menstrual hygiene products, things that we too often take for granted!