Why Was Underwear Invented (When, Where & How)?

Woman putting on underwear

When you think about it, underwear doesn’t make a lot of sense. You wear a whole extra layer of clothing under your clothing. This is such an odd idea, underwear took several weird turns through fashion history. What was the original purpose of underwear? Why was underwear invented in the first place…and what’s the deal with all the underwear styles out there?

Underwear and Ancient History

There’s really no evidence of underwear for more than 40,000 years of human history. Clothes were worn as clothes, outer garments for the world to see, without another layer underneath.

The idea of wearing this extra layer, the first concept of underwear, began in ancient Egypt just a few thousand years ago. This inner layer was not worn for protection or any particular practical reason but rather as a status symbol and a show of wealth.

Historians cite the loincloth as the first underwear, though actually loincloths were worn out in the open as everyday garments for thousands of years throughout Egypt and the Mediterranean. The loincloth could be worn under other clothing as an extra layer, but it was still more common for people to “go commando,” to put it in modern terms.

Middle Ages Undies

It was in the medieval era that braies became popular. These were loose-fitting, knee-length trousers. A front flap, known as a codpiece, was added to the braies to allow men easy access to their equipment so they could urinate. Rumor has it that Henry VIII wore a pad in his codpiece, which started a popular trend among men of the court. They also padded their codpieces. However, historians say that the King’s padded piece could have been for medical purposes and that the pad perhaps contained medicine to alleviate Syphilis symptoms. These braies ultimately became a type of underwear.

Women, meanwhile, wore a full-length garment that was really a somewhat loose-fitting shift dress. Among those who could afford it, the “underwear” was made with linen. In the 1300s, the corset came into fashion. Though not underwear in the sense we think of it today, the corset was worn as an undergarment that was adopted into women’s daily wear and remained in use for centuries.

Around the time of the Renaissance, the 1400s, women began wearing underpants. They were full-length pants that made it easier to ride horses and provided protection from the cold. These underpants, also known as “drawers,” were made with calico, cotton or flannel, most commonly.

It wasn’t until the 1890s that something new was added to women’s undergarments: bloomers. The knee-length, loose-fitting pants-like garment was worn, of course, with the standard corset, hose and perhaps a slip or petticoat.

Industrial Era Evolutions

It was in the Victorian Era in 1868 that the union suit was patented. Originally designed to be a women’s garment, it became popular as men’s underwear. The union suit had long sleeves and legs and provided full coverage. This was a lot like modern long johns, or long underwear.

But it wasn’t until 1935 that underwear took on a much more modern shape, so to speak. This is when Coopers Inc in Chicago created the first briefs. They were made with an elastic waistband and legs cut high, close to the groin. The Y-shaped fly was a major innovation. These original men’s underwear were the literal design that became known under the nickname “tighty whities.”

Boxer shorts appeared on the market in this decade as well. These still had the elastic waistband but had wider, looser, slightly longer legs.

Everything was changing in women’s underwear, too. The bra was created in the 1910s by Mary Phelps Jacob and corsets soon went the way of the dinosaur, worn now only for special outfits and occasions rather than as an everyday thing. Bloomers, meanwhile, started to get shorter and shorter until in the 1930s, they had become very high-cut short shorts worn under the clothing popularly known as French knickers or knicker. These have a much more familiar look that is much closer to underwear today.

In the 1960s, bikini underwear became popular when the bikini itself was introduced into fashion. These skimpy undies signified a huge change in women’s underwear fashion and represented the big changes that were happening to women at this time. The 1960s became known for the women’s movement that saw them achieve new freedoms for the first time, among other events.

Underwear Goes High Fashion

By the 1980s, men’s briefs and boxers were wardrobe staples. Men everywhere were wearing them as part of everyday clothing. But it took a high fashion designer to come up with the next big innovation in men’s underwear. Famed designer Giorgio Armani created a boxer brief design, combining the best elements of briefs and boxers to create a new design.

Hanes Men's Tagless Boxer with Exposed Waistband – Multipack, 5 Pack-Assorted 3, Large

That’s when the floodgates opened and new underwear designs rushed in. An explosion of different underwear styles now fills the market, with men’s underwear available in a huge array of designs in all different lengths and types of fit.

Women’s underwear design became more varied and lots more styles have been introduced in this more modern era of fashion as well. Thong underwear showed up in the 1990s. In the same decade, Dolce & Gabbana introduced brief-style boyshorts for women in a style more like the knickers from the 1930s.

ANZERMIX Women's Breathable Cotton Thong Panties Pack of 6 (6-Pack Dark Vintage, X-Large)

FAQs

Styles, cut, color, material…there’s a whole lot to know about underwear. For a clothing item that hasn’t even been around for a full century, underwear has really changed a lot and there’s a lot of different decisions to make about them. So if you’ve got questions, that’s only reasonable. Get the answers to the most frequently asked questions about underwear and it will get a little bit easier to nake all those difficult underwear decisions.

Can you return underwear to the store?

If you want to return underwear to the store you bought it from for any reason, it’s a bit of a coin flip on whether or not you’ll get all or any of your money back. Lingerie stores and intimate apparel stores, such as Victoria’s Secret, accepts underwear returns because they specialize in underwear. However, Victoria’s Secret shreds all these underwear so they take a loss on these items. [Source: Business Insider]

Other retailers have their own policies on returns, some of which apply to underwear and some of which do not. Some stores accept returns only on underwear that is still in the packaging. Others don’t accept underwear or undergarments of any type, including swimwear. To know for sure, you’ll have to check the store’s return policy to know whether or not you can receive a refund on returned underwear.

How do underwear sizes work?

Underwear sizes are determined by two measurements: waist and hips. The waist measurement is at your natural waistline, though you probably won’t wear underwear this high up. The natural waistline is under the robs and above the hips, usually right around the belly button area. Measure by wrapping the tape measure completely around your waist. The hip measurement should be taken at the widest point of the hips.

Take these two measurements together and use them against underwear size charts to determine your correct size. [Source: True and Co]

Do underwear shrink in the washing machine?

Do you know how to properly clean your underwear? Lots of things can happen in the washing machine. Cotton underwear, for instance, can shrink if you wash it in hot water or dry it on high heat in the dryer. In fact, you can even attempt to shink cotton undies on purpose if they’re too big. [Source: Our Everyday Life]

Lace, silk and satin underwear can also shrink in the washing machine or dryer. If you’re worried that your undies may shrink, hand-wash them in cold water or wash them in cold water in the washing machine and use no heat or low heat in the dryer. [Source: Hello Giggles]

How should you fold underwear?

There are many different ways to fold underwear so they can be stored neatly. Learn one or two of them and you can stop simply shoving your underwear in a drawer and picking through it to find the pair you want every morning.

One method is to lay the underwear out flat. They should be face up and the waistband should be pointed away from you. Smooth out any folds or wrinkles. Now, fold the left side up toward the middle, then over and over again, roughly folding in thirds. Next, take the bottom and fold it in half, going up to the waistband. This will create a nice square that can be neatly tucked into a drawer. This method will work for all types of underwear. [Source: Wikihow]

If you don’t want to stack underwear in a drawer and want to try a different storage method, you can roll your undies. Start out by folding underwear in thirds using the previous method. Instead of making a last fold, take hold of the waistband and roll it down while keeping the folds instead. This will create a nice, neat tube that can be stored in a drawer upright. This method takes up little space and keeps all your underwear accessible and visible all at once.

Can underwear cause chafing, blisters or a rash?

Underwear are meant to provide a little protection and cover up a pretty sensitive area. So can underwear actually do you more harm than good by causing blisters, a rash, chafing, maybe other problems?

Sometimes, yes. Fabrics that don’t absorb moisture and clothing that doesn’t provide enough coverage between thighs can lead to chafing and irritation. [Source: Healthline]

Wearing underwear that provides enough coverage, as well as using baby powder, can help prevent chafing. [Source: Real Men Real Style]

Should you wear underwear to bed?

So what’s the verdict on whether or not it’s okay to wear underwear to bed? That question actually has a few different answers. For men, it doesn’t matter. Men can choose to wear underwear, or not, as it pleases them. There are no health benefits or health disadvantages one way or the others. Studies haven’t even found a link between wearing underwear to bed and male fertility, so there’s no concrete evidence it will even affect sperm count either way. [Source: Livescience]

For women, however, the answer is a bit more complex. Many women can choose to wear underwear if they want and for every woman, it’s perfectly okay to wear undies during the menstrual cycle if they’d like to have a little more leak protection.

Women who experience vulvitis or vaginitis, as well as women who are prone to vaginal yeast infections or vaginal itch and irritation, should avoid wearing underwear. Not wearing underwear allows more airflow to get to the body, which can keep the vagina healthier.

How should underwear fit?

Okay, so are you wearing the wrong size underwear? How the heck is it actually supposed to fit, anyway?

If you’re a woman, there are some signs to look out for that indicate that your underwear doesn’t fit properly. One, are they baggy anywhere? The crotch especially should fit naturally and comfortably, with no bagginess or excess fabric.

How about your backside? If your undies don’t give your rear any support and hang or fit loosely instead, you’re definitely wearing the wrong size.

Do they make you itchy? Underwear that’s too tight can cause feelings of itchiness. You may also notice redness when you take them off or painful seams that dig into your skin when you move a certain way. Look for seamless underwear if this is a chronic problem in underwear of all sizes.

For men, underwear should fit around the waist. You don’t want it to be too tight or too loose. But beyond that, the fit is really up to personal preference. Some men like tighter undies, while others enjoy loose boxers. As long as you’ve got a good fit in the waist and hips, you’ve got the right underwear.

Did they wear underwear in medieval times?

In medieval times and even through the Renaissance, underwear was actually a body-covering garment. For the men, underwear was most common long or short pants made in a lightweight fabric or a simple loincloth that covered only the private bits. Women wore long dresses, hardly perfect underwear. Underpants for women, which were long and loose trousers, came later.

How can you avoid visible panty lines?

The last thing you want when you have on a lovely outfit, like maybe a sexy sheer dress, is a panty line. There are several ways to avoid this fashion faux pas.

To smooth away visible panty lines, try adding a slip or a pair of pantyhose. You can also try shapewear, like Spanx.

If panty lines are a problem, try different undies. Hipster and boyshorts styles that offer more coverage are very effective at eliminating panty lines. You can also choose underwear that offers a whole lot less coverage such as thongs.

Some experts say you can just make your clothing a little busier to sort of hide the look of panty lines. Busy prints, for example, can break up the smooth lines of clothing and effectively hide underwear lines. [Source: Cosmopolitan]

Some underwear brands, like Parade, specialize in making soft, smooth underwear that are designed to prevent panty lines.

Sources:

  • BBC – The revealing history of underwear
  • Bustle – 7 Signs Your Underwear Fits Wrong
  • CNN – Brief history of men’s underwear
  • Elle – The Evolution of Lingerie
  • Love to Know – History of Panties
  • Love to Know – Origins of Underwear
  • Real Men Real Style – Saving The Jewels: The History Of Men’s Underwear
  • WikiHow – How to Choose Comfortable Underwear
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