Underwear is a piece of clothing most of us don’t think too much about when we slip them on in the morning. But underwear has a long and interesting history that began over 7,000 years ago.
In the beginning, there were loincloths, and lots of them. Archaeologists have found the remains of breech cloths on bodies estimated to date from around 5,000 BCE. It’s believed these were common, and worn alone in warmer climates or worn underclothing in colder climates. These first underwear were worn by men and consisted of a strip of leather to cover their genitals.
By 2,000 BCE, the Egyptians were wearing loincloths made of linen. These were much lighter and airier than the leather cloths. While it’s unknown how common these loincloths were, we know pharaohs wore them and stockpiles of underwear for the afterlife have been found buried in the pyramids.
In ancient Greece, most people did not wear underwear, instead wearing a chiton, an oblong wool cloth pinned together with a pin called a fibulae. Greek slaves, on the other hand, wore loincloths and not much else.
Roman men wore shorts called subligaculums under their togas, while women during the period went sans undergarments.
Around the 13th century, braies became popular. These were baggy, linen drawers, that laced or tied at the legs and waist.
During the Renaissance, braies became thinner and shorter and the addition of the codpiece was added. Technically not underwear, as it was not worn under anything, the codpiece went on top of a front flap, and eventually became a fashion ornament.
Throughout the Victorian era, the fashion of codpieces began to fade and people reverted to knee length, loose shorts made from cotton, linen, or silk. These typically had a button flap in the front and were worn by both men and women.
In pre-civil war America, many men (and some women) wore union suits made from wool flannel. The forerunner for long underwear, union suits were one piece and buttoned up the front. They had a back flap called the access flap of drop seat and typically ended above the knee or went the whole way to the ankles.
Once the industrial revolution hit, for the first time ever, underwear became something purchased in a store instead of made at home. During the 1920’s, comfort started to play a factor in underwear production, instead of the garment solely focusing on durability.
By the 1930’s elastic was being added to underwear and in 1935, Coppers Inc., introduced the first pair of briefs, which featured an overlapping front pocket with no buttons.
In the 1950’s underwear was becoming fashionable, and instead of only white cotton, colors and prints were used, as well as different types of fabrics. This continued and by the 1970’s and ’80’s, underwear started to focus on sex appeal instead of simply function and comfort. By the 1990’s, the thong was quickly becoming one of the most popular styles of underwear and remains so today.