26 Fascinating Milestones In Underwear History
Underwear history’s humble beginnings go back nearly 9000 years with a piece of leather considered to be the first gitch. Like everything since then, underwear has come a long way. These days, underwear has many purposes: from keeping our parts from flailing about when we exercise, to keeping us warm in winter, and reducing the effort and cost of washing clothes. It is ingrained in societies all around the world in religious ceremonies and cultural traditions, and is often used to make us look or feel sexy.
Braies generally hung to the knees or mid-calf, resembling what are today called shorts. They were made of leather, wool, or, in later years, cotton or linen. They were adopted by the Romans as Braccae. They often had draw strings around the waist, and around the calves or knees. Like loincloth, men didn’t typically wear clothing over braies, so they weren’t technically underwear, but they served the same purposes.
Chausses and Codpieces1300
During the Renaissance, braies became shorter to accommodate early leggings called chausses that extended up towards the waist. The codpiece was essentially a front flap on the braies that allowed men to urinate more easily. Codpieces evolved to include separate clothing items that were meant to cover the groin and were tied to the chausses and doublet (medieval shirt).
Codpiece as a Fashion Accessory1500
It’s worth noting that King Henry VIII of England popularized padding codpieces. Historians are divided if he did this to make himself more appealing and portray fertility, or because he stuffed medicine in his codpiece to treat his syphilis.
The corset was made popular in Europe by Catherine de’ Medici, an Italian noblewoman who was Queen of France. She enforced a ban on thick waists at court attendance during the 1550s. For nearly 350 years, women’s primary means of support was the corset, with laces and stays made of whalebone or metal. The purpose of the corset was typically to shape women’s bodies to such extremes where ribs were broken, and “fainting rooms” were a thing for unfortunate women wearing overly tight corsets.
Breeches and Britches1600
Eventually braies, chausses, and codpieces gave way to simple trousers with buttoned flaps on the front. They came in various lengths and styles, and were sometimes worn simply as trousers. Breeches would more or less be the standard form of gitch until the industrial revolution.
Cotton Gin & Spinning Jenny1750
The spinning jenny, cotton gin, and mass production meant that for the first time in human history people could buy basic, relatively well made cotton underwear at an affordable price instead of making it themselves.
Patented in 1874 to protect bike riders (or bike ‘jockeys’ in this context) riding down Boston’s cobblestone streets from banging their man-bits around too much. The company that patented the jockstrap was renamed to the Bike Company and is today the market leader in jockstrap sales.
The original onesie and the precursor to the ‘long johns’. The union suit was a full body under garment that covered everything from the ankles to the wrists. Adorably, the union suit had a buttoned flap covering the rear for easy access when visiting a toilet, which was called the ‘access hatch’.
Named after heavyweight boxer John Sullivan who fought in the ring in similar clothes, long johns were just the bottom half of a union suit. They are typically warn in colder countries and are often made out of wool or cotton. Initially they were used in England as lounge wear or sleep wear (as they are being used again today), but in the mid 20th century, they were worn mostly by working men.
Technology and the latest manufacturing meant a union suit could be made in minutes instead of days. Hanes becomes the leading producer of union suits.
The first underwear advertisement appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. It was an oil painting that highlighted the durability and comfort, not style or fashion.
A New York socialite named Mary Phelps Jacob created the first modern brassiere by tying two handkerchiefs together with ribbon. Although women had worn brassiere-like garments in years past, Jacob’s was the first to be successfully marketed and widely adopted.
Maidenform, a company operated by Ida Rosenthal, a Russian immigrant, developed the brassiere and introduced modern cup sizes for bras.
Cooper Inc sold the world’s first brief in Chicago. Within 3 months, they went on to sell 30 000 briefs, starting a major clothing trend. Cooper Inc renamed the company to Jockey as the briefs closely resembled jockey straps. The briefs were popular as they didn’t have any buttons and had a Y-shaped fly.
Companies also began selling buttonless drawers fitted with an elastic waistband. These were the first true boxer shorts, which were named for their resemblance to the shorts worn by professional fighters. Scovil Manufacturing introduced the snap fastener at this time, which became a popular addition to various kinds of undergarments.
During World War II, elastic waistbands and metal snaps gave way once again to button fasteners due to rubber and metal shortages. Undergarments were harder to find as well, since soldiers abroad had priority to obtain them. By the end of the war, Jockey and Hanes remained the industry leaders in the US.
Strapless Bra, Corset Con’t1948
Meanwhile, some women adopted the corset once again, now called the “waspie” for the wasp-shaped waistline it gave the wearer. Many women began wearing the strapless bra as well, which gained popularity for its ability to push the breasts up and enhance cleavage.
More Colors And Materials1950
Underwear went from hidden white garments to colored fashion items in their own right. Rayon, nylon, spandex and other materials became normal.
Pantyhose, which combined panties and hose into one garment, made their first appearance in 1959, invented by Glen Raven Mills (at the behest of his wife) of North Carolina. The company later introduced seamless pantyhose in 1965, spurred by the popularity of the miniskirt. By the end of the decade, the girdle had fallen out of favor as women chose sexier and lighter alternatives.
Wonderbra, Pushup Bra1960
The 60s was the decade that saw focus shift from woman’s bottoms to tops. Pointed cups, Wonderbra, and the original push-up bra became popular. Bikini underwear, named after the south pacific Bikini Atoll, also became popular as did various colors and styles of women’s panties.
Marketed as “Candypants, the original 100% edible underwear.” At first the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office denied the application for a patent on the basis that the idea of candy and pants were incompatible, but later granted the application and within weeks hundreds of thousands of pairs were shipped.
Underwear ads became more focused on sex appeal than traditional benefits of undies. Calvin Klein started showing underwear ads featuring sexy male models in the early 1980s and went on to fuel a multi-billion dollar company.
Even though the g-string had been around for decades, primarily used by exotic dancers, it finally started to become popular, initially in Brazil before spreading and becoming the inspiration behind the modern thong.
Pioneered by designer John Varvatos during his 1990–1995 stint at Calvin Klein as head of menswear design, boxer briefs were made famous by a series of 1992 print ads featuring Mark “Marky Mark” Wahlberg. They have been called “one of the greatest apparel revolutions of the century”. Of their creation Varvatos said in 2010, “We just cut off a pair of long johns and thought, this could be cool…”. The boxer brief ads are largely credited for launching Mark Wahlberg’s music and film career.
While several companies found ways to economically create fabric from bamboo around this time, the first modern bamboo fabric patent was awarded in 2003. Since then, bamboo fabric has exploded in growth and has become increasingly common in all apparel segments, including bamboo underwear.