Life After Loin Cloths: A Brief History of Ladies' Undies

Life After Loin Cloths:  A Brief History of Ladies Undies | La Vie en Orange

Imagine a blustery winter wind gust flying up your skirt directly into your crotchless underwear. Because there are literally no "crotched" undies for women that exist in the world!

Imagine owning a fainting couch because the corset you have to wear every day is cutting off your lung capacity, squishing your organs, and literally forcing you to be weak. At least it's a pretty couch?

What if, instead of squeezing into Spanx, your undies made your hips so wide you literally had to turn sideways to get in and out of rooms? Sitting wasn't really a thing back then...

Can we all just agree, that despite all the crap going on in the world, at least we live in the now. Because seriously. Don't all of those things sound like the least exciting way to spend any of your time?

The history of undies is longer, or shorter, or crotchless, depending on where and when. Have you ever thought about what life would be like in another era? This week, we get curious about what life was like before undies as we know them. And Upitees, especially. ;)

From L to U, or loincloths to Upitees. Which is almost A to Z. :)

Beginning at the end, think about how wonderful your Upitees are. How comfortable they are, and how you forget about them the moment you put them on.

Hold on to that feeling as long as you can, because this might be a little uncomfortable: back in Mesopotamia or ancient Egypt, you got a loin cloth.1 You know, for your loins.

Clothing doesn't even become bifurcated (possibly my favorite word; it means branched into two, like a pair of pants) until later, in China.2 Thank you, China, for inventing pants. And thank you, horse back riding, for inspiring such bifurcated majesty.2 Before that it was all tunics and togas. And loin cloths. And probably a lot of unnecessary chafing.

But the thing that most resembles our modern underpants starts appearing beneath actual gentlemen's garments starting around the 900s in Europe.1 Sorry, ladies. Underwear equality is still a ways away – you still only get a loose-fitting linen undershirt, known as a chemise.1 Pop over to the Met's archives to see some chemises dating from the 1800s. Come right back, though ;)

But what are undies good for anyway? And why did people even start wearing them in their modern form?

  • Because they keep your bits warm (super important before Central Heating). 3
  • Because they help your outfit be the right shape: think modern day Spanx or tshirt bras, but old timey double-wide hips, corsets, and the like.3
  • Because they help your clothes stay clean.3 You're protected from the outer elements and your clothes are protected from you.3 Because personal hygiene, and washing clothing hasn't always been so fashionable.3 You know, and you might not want your crabs, fleas, and lice, and anything that needs absorbing, like your period, all over your outer garments.3,4 (Let’s have a moment of gratitude for all the advances in hygiene that we get to enjoy in the 21st century developed world. Seriously.)
  • Because sexy time.3 Whether sneaking peeks is a purposeful part of your outfit or not, undies are great fodder for the imagination.3 Fun fact: ladies' nightwear wasn't anything more than utilitarian until after folks started practicing birth control in the 1880s.3 Wrap your head around that... :)
  • Because class distinction (though that may have been more visible in history than today).3 When the size and shape of your skirt (which your undergarments, like a hoop skirt made) indicated your wealth, for example, or, if you were a dude, how pretty your [under]shirt was when it popped out your collar during the Renaissance.3

By the 1500s, some European women were finally wearing under petticoats and drawers (except in England. The Brits weren't having any of it).1,3 But they were crotchless so ladies could relieve themselves more easily in the giant skirts of the period!1,4 And details that would later become corsets (like boning and underbodices stiffened with glue) were starting to appear, so the crotchless undies were doubly important because you would have had to completely undress to relieve yourself.1,4 Or bend over. Either way, not happening.

It's like everyday is your best friend's wedding, and you're the maid of honor helping her in the bathroom for your entire life.

But this is also super segregated by class: like if you were a peasant working out in the fields, you might rock your chemise on the outside.1 Or it might be the only thing you have to wear.4 And you wouldn't even have undies, crotchless or otherwise.4 (Except, of course, there is no otherwise.)

Like Drew Barrymore in Ever After when she's not impersonating a courtier. ;) Ish.

But these crotchless undies still weren't exactly what we think of as undies today. They were knee length or longer, with drawstrings at the waist (always) and legs (starting in Europe in the late 1700s; they thought, "Hmm. Maybe closing these at the knees will keep me warmer....")1 Because, you know, elastic didn't exist yet.

These royal undies, belonging to Swedish King Charles XIV sometime between 1763-1818 are probably super similar to what the ladies' undies would have looked like. You know, if you were royalty. Note the buttons and drawstring at the waist, and legs. And is that an open crotch?!?! :)

 Underpants that belonged to Swedish King Charles XIV during his French period, 1763-1818.

Let's just thank the heavens for elastic. It's the little things, right? ;)

By the 1700s, European fabrics were becoming more lightweight, and that's really when we start seeing more widespread adoption of the lady undies.4

Linen was the most common fabric for undergarments among the upper classes before 1660 when cotton came into general use (which, upon deeper thought, probably had something to do with cotton plantations in the Southern USA shipping goodies to Europe... Yikes.).3

Wool was probably common in Europe in the Middle Ages, but wasn't seen again for men until after 1800.3 Folks had learned that silk and linen were less likely than wool to provide homes for other living things.3 Remember those crabs, lice, and fleas? Eeee. By the 1800s, personal cleanliness was such that wearing wool was much more comfortable, but it was also a class distinction.3 Today, not so much, anymore. Our noses all thank us! :)

Until then, ladies' undies were mostly optional.1 People thought you fought the crotch rot with fresh air.4 And, you know, needing to fight the crotch rot was a thing.4

And because British women were super late adopters of undies (into the 1800s), the Brits made fun of the French, who were early adopters.3 The French made fun of the Brits for being late adopters, and fun was had by all.3 The ages-old British vs. French antagonism? I secretly suspect it had nothing to do with wars and territories; it was about underwear. Obviously. ;)

By the 1800s, in both Europe and Stateside, when personal hygiene was way more widespread, these crotchless, drawstring-at-the-waist-and-knees undies, modeled after men's undies, called drawers, were a part of pretty much everyone's morning routine.1,4 Check out some really fantastic museum photos of 1890s-ish knee length, crotchless undies here.

Still Crotchless

It’s the 1850s. Aaaand we’re still crotchless.1 Undies were all still handmade until this point.3 But as sewing machines were starting to be used in the second half of the 19th century, ladies undies become more decorative.3 And colorful! In 1860, chemical dyes were introduced, and now we start seeing colored undergarments for ladies.3 Huzzah! Magenta and solferino.3 So pretty!

Solferino and magenta, two early chemical dye colors | La Vie en Orange

And we even start seeing elastic being used around the knees!3 And crotches! (By the late 1800s.)3 And buttons at the hip, instead of drawstrings, so they're able to be a bit more fitted.1,4

And, as can be expected (maybe you've even felt this way about your Upitees): when ladies started wearing really fun, bright undergarments, they started wanting to show them off (ooh lala!).3 And then, they became even more decorated. Tons of embroidery.3 And it was completely shocking to the old fuddie duddies who had lived through the super prude Victorian era.3

The catalog image below dates from 1871 in Poland (thank you, Wikimedia Commons!), and while these undies are for kiddos, you can get a good idea of a) catalog shopping for your undies, and b) the crotchless look of the undies near the bottom. There's a visible gap near the top of the inseam of those drawers!

Children's underwear ca. 1871 from Polish magazine "Tygodnik Mód i Powieści" | Wikimedia Commons

By the 1880s, all garments were pretty much machine sewn and most garments were purchased ready-made.3 So ladies back then surely had an undies maker like La Vie en Orange in their life... ;)

And it's right after WWI that our favorite word, undies, starts being used.3 Flappers were part of a clothing revolution, with their boyish figures and shorter skirts that had never before been seen on ladies. And their undies had to change too, to help create the silhouette they were going for.4 They didn't want to call it lingerie anymore because it wasn't about emphasizing your curves, and it was a brave new world.3 It was about freedom, taboo, and playful mystery.3 And so, they were called "undies." Maybe that's why we like that word so much... ;)

And it's also when flappers start rocking out the women's undies that resemble what we think of as underwear today.1 With crotches!3

But, if we have the flappers to thank for the word "undies," we also have them to thank for the word "panties." Which really just means little pants.1

But, here's why you hate the word panties so much ;)

In between WWI and WWII is when the number of women's undergarments decreases (from bustles, paniers, hoop skirts, underskirts, petticoats, and all the other stuff ladies had been wearing in some form or another for centuries) to just short panties and a brassiere (and maybe pantyhose, garter belts, and girdles, okay, so maybe they didn’t simplify too much).3

But ladies were still doing a ton of maintenance on their undies: washing, ironing. buttoning. Sigh.3

Fashion models parading a number of styles of dresses and undergarments, 1930-1940 Group of women modelling different styles of undergarments and dresses, apparently for different body types. The platforms that some of them are standing on read: Type BH (Big Hip); Type SB (Sway Back); Type BA (Big? Abdomen); Type A (Average); Type SBW (Short Below Waist). Some of the dresses are trimmed with long tassels, which were very fashionable in the 1930s. The women are posed on and around a stage in a hall. | Wikimedia Commons

Image credit:  Sidney Riley Studios, public doman from Wikimedia Commons. "Fashion models parading a number of styles of dresses and undergarments, 1930-1940. Group of women modelling different styles of undergarments and dresses, apparently for different body types. The platforms that some of them are standing on read: Type BH (Big Hip); Type SB (Sway Back); Type BA (Big? Abdomen); Type A (Average); Type SBW (Short Below Waist). Some of the dresses are trimmed with long tassels, which were very fashionable in the 1930s."

Brassieres were way more common, though corsets were still worn too.1 By the 1950s, bras are everything.1

Important for the history of Upitees: tshirts as we know them were created in the 1940s for WWII soldiers.1

Elastic waistbands also become way more common during WWII.4 Unfortunately, it was related to famine and shrinking waistlines, but they also started being made out of drip dry materials so they were easier to care for.4 And then, women were finally able to start riding bicycles.4 And now you can't hold anyone back – the underwear revolution arrived!4

By the 1970s, synthetic fabrics help get rid of bras' seam lines and give a more natural appearance.1 Control top panty hose arrives...1 Thongs are invented in 1975.1

And basically, undies have continued to get smaller and smaller from the 1970s to today.4

Now, technology is helping to drive the evolution of underwear: fabric innovations like elastic and breathable cotton.4 Better heating and hygiene, widespread running water, electricity, washers and dryers.4 Less income inequality.4

And women demanding a break from the status quo is driving technology. Think about the rise of women's sports and how sports bras and other wicking technology helps keep you dry.4 Period panties that trap menstrual fluid, etc., etc., etc.

And your demands for better-fitting undies, that are comfier and more versatile for everyday life, and eco-friendlier too, led you here. To our corner of underwear history.

We're so glad you're here.



1 - Tortora, Phyllis and Eubank, Keith. Survey of Historic Costume. 3rd ed., Fairchild Publications, New York. 1998.

2 - Bower, Bruce. "First pants worn by horse riders 3,000 years ago." ScienceNews, Accessed 19 Sept. 2016. 

3 - Willet, C. and Cunnington, Phyllis. The History of Underclothes. Dover, Mineola, NY. 1951.

4 - Conger, Cristin. "A History of Panties." Stuff Mom Never Told You, Accessed 12 Sept. 2016.

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September 22, 2016


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