A short history of women's undergarments

The Egyptians, one of the oldest known civilizations, did not preoccupy themselves with underwear. In fact, they hardly wore any garments at all. Even the pharaohs and queens, rejected the concept of a double layer of clothing. Female servants (or slaves) were simply wearing what we may today call a "string". Obviously, the warm climate played a role in this preference. During the same period, from 3000 BC to 0 in the more northern climates, civilizations were either embryonic if non existent, textiles were not yet popular, animal skins constituted then the raw material for garment fabrication. Amongst the people of the Mediterranean, until 50 BC, garments were more a social class statement rather than from a sense of decency, thus underwear for women was considered inappropriate.

After the demise of the Western Roman Empire, around 500 AD, Europe redefined itself and undergarments were not a priority. During the Dark Ages, religious leaders insisted upon covering the body from head to toe. Sexual attributes were repressed and concealed from public view. Until the end of the 19th century, it was customary to take a bath wearing the undergarment to avoid any temptations. Despite strict social rules imposed by Christianity, at that time the concept of underwear did not provide much protection for intimacy. This extract from "Histoire Imprévues des dessous féminins" sums it up quite well: 'From the 12th to the 19th centuries (…) as he (man ) was sealed in a closed system, she was floating naked in an open system, vulnerable to wind, indiscretion, a sudden fall, a wrong move or an imprudent action even if voluntary'.(1)

With the sophistication of wardrobes in the Middle Ages, especially for the upper class, the need to keep the exuberant garment protected from odors, sweat or other unfriendly fluids made the use of an undergarment practical. The added benefit of protecting the skin from irritation from wool fabric or even metal threat was not to be neglected.(2)

For the general population, undergarments throughout the Renaissance period, starting in the mid 16th century, was simply a robe worn under the dress.

For women, pants were totally forbidden as outer clothing; this privilege was reserved only for men. Joan of Arc, in 1431, was condemned not for her military activities against the English army but for wearing men’s clothes. The Inquisition claimed that a heretic could not be burned at the stake for a first offense. Conveniently, she allegedly persisted in wearing men’s clothes even in prison where she refused to dress as a women (who provided her with clothes remains a mystery) becoming de facto a relapsed heretic. She was then sentenced to the flames in all legality. This belief was transposed to the hidden wear as well. The French already took the lead in fashion when, after the Revolution, women slowly started wearing long-legged underpants, a welcome change for women who suddenly gained more freedom of movement. Sill the vast majority of women wore the chemise under their clothing for most of the 19th century. A good idea sometimes takes a long time to spread.

With centuries passing by, undergarments kept their initial function. In the 18th century, fabrics were more refine, silk and lace in underwear were synonymous with success. With the 19th century, the imperialist era, underwear became far less spectacular. The main evolution from the Victorian era to the French imperialist period (1800-1840) and to the first part of the 20th century was essentially a question of fitting. From ample loose robes or pants to tight molded designs, the role of underwear was limited to that of a practical item and consisted of a prison for the body until after World War II when women took charge of the fashion world. Underwear would cease to be known as "unmentionables".

Note 1:Translation from Histoire Imprévues des dessous féminins, Ed. Herscher, Paris 1986.
Note 2: Alison Carterm - Underwear, The Fashion History Ed. Drama book publishers, 1992.

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