History of Women’s Underwear: From Painful to Practical – Tracing the Evolutionary History of Women’s Undergarments


Explore the fascinating evolution of women’s underwear from corsets to the comfortable and functional undergarments that we wear today. Learn about the different styles, materials, and societal influences that have shaped the history of women’s underwear and led to the evolution of underwear.

Women’s underwear has come a long way over the centuries. From the simple linen undergarments worn by women in ancient Greece to modern-day bras and panties, women’s underwear has evolved to reflect the changing social, cultural, and fashion trends of each era.

Fashion trends, social norms, and technological advancements have all influenced the evolution of women’s underwear. In this article, we will explore the history of women’s underwear, including the good, the bad, and the downright painful.

When did women start wearing underwear?

The history of women’s underwear can be traced back to ancient civilizations, such as Egypt, Greece, and Rome. In ancient Egypt, women wore a linen skirt held up by a belt, often paired with triangular underwear called a schenti. Similarly, the Greeks used a bra-like garment called the apodesme, while the Romans wore shorts or loincloths called subligaculum. Women in these civilizations also used a cloth or leather band called the strophium or mamilare to support their chests, revealing the rich history of women’s undergarments.

The history of women’s underwear includes a gap in time where undergarments were not commonly worn after the fall of the Roman Empire until the 19th century. Instead, women wore long linen garments like shifts, smocks, or chemises beneath their dresses. However, the 19th century brought the emergence of restrictive corsets, which eventually evolved into the more comfortable and functional underwear styles we know today. The evolution of women’s undergarments throughout history is a fascinating journey.

Women’s Underwear Over the Years — Timeline

As time passed, the styles and materials of women’s underwear evolved. In the Middle Ages, women wore a type of underwear called a chemise, which was a loose-fitting garment made of linen. The chemise was worn under a dress or a gown and was often the only layer of clothing worn under the outer garment.

Ancient History of Women’s Undergarments

Throughout history, women’s undergarments have evolved significantly, with new fabrics and styles emerging, but always closely intertwined with the development of society and changing attitudes towards modesty and femininity.

To truly delve into the history of undergarments, it is essential to journey back to the earliest recorded civilizations of ancient Rome and Egypt (753 BC to 476 AD). Greek women wore undergarments known as a “tunica” and “strophium” made of linen, which accentuated the deal feminine figure of a small chest and large hips. Lower-class women in Ancient Egypt did not commonly wear undergarments due to the heat, with the most prevalent garment for women of any class being the kalasiris, a basic linen tunic that could be worn as underwear, outerwear, or on its own, much like a loincloth. Wealthy women in Ancient Egypt who did wear undergarments followed the fashion of the Greeks and Romans, wearing figure-shaping garments akin to the “tunica” and “strophium” mentioned earlier.

The earliest undergarments were made of linen and worn under long robes. In ancient Greece, women wore a sleeveless linen undergarment called a chiton that draped over their bodies, with the extra fabric pulled over the shoulder and secured with a brooch. Similarly, ancient Roman women wore a long, sleeveless dress called a “stola”, made of wool and worn over a tunic. They also wore a subligaculum, similar to a loincloth, underneath the stola or tunic, providing warmth.

Over time, women’s undergarments continued to evolve, with new fabrics and styles emerging, and the concept of modesty and femininity evolving with societal changes.

Medieval Europe and the Middle Ages: The Emergence of Pantaloons

The history of women’s underwear is a fascinating subject. During the Middle Ages, women began wearing loose-fitting shifts made from materials like linen and wool. These were worn as both outerwear and underwear and were often decorated with embroidery or lace. Another undergarment worn during this time was the chemise or smock, which was worn to protect outer garments from sweat and body oils.

As fashion evolved, women started wearing pantaloons, loose-fitting trousers that covered the legs and waist, made from silk and wool. However, the most significant change was the introduction of corsets. Women wore corsets made from whalebone, metal, or wood to achieve an hourglass figure. These were laced tightly to create a slim waistline.

Despite the discomfort caused by corsets, they remained a popular fashion item for centuries. As the 20th century approached, women’s underwear evolved once again with the introduction of brassieres or “bras” and panties. Today, women have a wide range of options when it comes to undergarments, including comfortable and supportive designs that prioritize both fashion and function.


The Renaissance

The history of women’s underwear is a rich and evolving one. During the Renaissance period, women’s undergarments became more elaborate and decorative, and drawers were introduced. They were originally designed for functionality, but were also utilized as a tool to assist with chastity. Underpants were once considered scandalous due to their proximity to the female genital area. Prostitutes and young girls were the main wearers of corsets up until the middle of the 19th century.

Corsets emerged as a popular undergarment during the Renaissance period, designed to cinch the waist and create an hourglass figure. They were made of stiff materials such as whalebone or metal, often decorated with intricate embroidery or lace. The corset of the 1700s had a distinct shape that resembled an inverted cone, which resulted in an even more constrictive figure. The affluent women of that era went to the extent of acquiring corsets that drew their shoulder blades so close together that they nearly made contact. The long-waisted design of the corset contributed to this enhanced silhouette.

The terminology used to refer to women’s undergarments has also evolved over time. The term “drawers” came into use because the underwear was drawn on, while “knickers” originated from Diedrich Knickerbocker’s novel “History of New York.” Later, the term was shortened to refer to women’s undergarments.

In the late 16th century, petticoats became fashionable, which were skirt-like garments sometimes decorated with embroidery. As time progressed, women’s undergarments included a long nightgown-like chemise and drawers. Pantalettes also became popular after 1800, which were longer garments with frills at the bottom that sometimes went below the knee.

Uncovering the Secrets of French Drawers

During the 19th century, specifically in 1841, undergarments known as underpants were referred to by various names such as drawers, knickers (derived from knickerbocker), smalls, britches, and step-ins. The drawers worn in the 19th century were knee-length and designed in such a way that each leg of the garment was separate, making underpants a ‘pair’, which explains the current name.

Moreover, the fashion of that era had many designs of loose underpants that had an open crotch. This was due to the impracticality of pulling down panties while wearing several layers of clothing such as pantalettes, petticoats, chemises, and dresses, which was the trend during Victorian times. Underwear with an open crotch made it easier for women to use the restroom or even engage in intimate activities.

Unfortunately, during this time, the “chahut” began, a rowdy dance for couples in the 1830s, which later evolved into the cancan by about 1850. This may have been one of the reasons why little buttons started to be used as an option to hold drawers closed. However, many medical practitioners advised against this practice of wearing closed drawers, believing that women’s genitalia required constant fresh air to prevent dampness and all the negative effects of hysteria. While their scientific reasoning was correct, their rationale was flawed.

The Victorian Era: The Rise of Bloomers and the Era of Corsets

The history of women’s underwear and undergarments is a reflection of changing societal expectations and attitudes toward women’s bodies and clothing. From the stiff corsets of the 16th century to the loose-fitting bloomers of the 19th century, women’s undergarments have played a significant role in shaping and defining feminine beauty standards.

During the Victorian era, which spanned from 1837 to 1901, women’s fashion underwent a significant transformation, with the introduction of bloomers and the continued popularity of corsets. American women’s rights advocate Amelia Bloomer introduced bloomers in 1851, which consisted of loose-fitting pants worn under a knee-length skirt. However, the introduction of bloomers caused a great deal of controversy in Victorian society, with many critics seeing the garment as a threat to traditional gender roles.

Despite the backlash, bloomers continued to be worn by some women throughout the Victorian era. However, the garment underwent several changes to make it more socially acceptable, such as making the pants longer and wearing them under a shorter skirt, which made it look more like a traditional dress.

While bloomers were seen as a radical departure from traditional women’s clothing, corsets remained a popular garment throughout the Victorian era. Corsets were worn to create an hourglass figure and to support the back, but they were often laced very tightly, causing health problems such as difficulty breathing and organ damage.

The health risks associated with wearing corsets were well known, and many doctors and reformers spoke out against the practice. However, the desire for a fashionable silhouette often outweighed concerns about health. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that corsets fell out of fashion and were replaced by more comfortable undergarments. 

The history of women’s underwear and undergarments reflects changing societal expectations and attitudes toward women’s bodies and clothing, highlighting the importance of fashion in shaping cultural norms and values.


The 20th Century: The Evolution of Panties and The Rise of Brassieres

In the early 1900s, women began to reject the uncomfortable and restrictive corset and demanded more comfortable undergarments. This led to the invention of the brassiere, or bra, in 1914, which was designed to support the breasts without compressing them. The first bras were made of silk, cotton, or rayon and had adjustable straps and hooks.

Stockings were also a staple of women’s underwear in the early 20th century, and they were made from rayon in 1910. Nylon was invented in 1935, and the first nylon stockings went on sale in 1939. During World War II, silk from used parachutes was used to make knickers in the UK.

The invention of elastic materials in the 1930s made bras and panties more comfortable and versatile, and they became a staple of women’s underwear. The designs evolved from simple, functional designs to more intricate, decorative styles. In the 1920s, the tap pant emerged as a short, loose-fitting style that was worn under flapper dresses. In the 1930s, panties became more fitted and streamlined, and by the 1950s, the bikini style had emerged.

Unfortunately, the same practicality didn’t extend to the bottom half of women’s undergarments in the 1940s. The height of fashion during this period was a connected knickerbocker and bra, which was not ideal for anyone engaging in hard labor day in and day out. Underwear was typically intended to be hidden, outside the realm of erotica and burlesque.

Fast forward to the post-World War II era, and we see the rise of the underwired bra. It’s not hard to see why it became so popular, as women were taking on more roles outside of the home, including factory work to support the war effort. Practicality became a priority, and women needed undergarments that could keep up with their busy and demanding lifestyles.

In the 1960s, the introduction of the miniskirt led to the invention of pantyhose, which combined stockings and panties into one garment. This allowed women to wear shorter skirts without having to worry about the line of their stockings showing.

With the rise of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, bras became a symbol of women’s liberation and the rejection of traditional gender roles. Women’s panties, or knickers, have also undergone significant changes throughout history. In the past, panties were considered a luxury item and were often made of expensive materials such as silk or lace. Today, panties come in a variety of styles, including briefs, thongs, and boy shorts, and are made of comfortable and breathable materials like cotton and microfiber.

Panties and the Liberation of Women and The Influence of Fashion

The history of women’s underwear can be traced back to ancient times when women wore simple loin clothes to cover their private parts. However, over the centuries, the styles and materials used in women’s underwear have evolved dramatically, reflecting changing fashion trends and social norms of each era.

In the 1920s, the “flapper” style of clothing became popular, and women started to wear short dresses that required shorter and looser undergarments. Underwear during this time consisted of “step-in” panties that were similar to modern-day shorts. This style provided greater freedom of movement and comfort for women.

During World War II, there were fabric shortages that affected women’s underwear. Undergarments during this time were often made from synthetic materials such as rayon or nylon. In the 1950s, the hourglass figure was back in fashion, and women wore bullet bras and girdles to achieve the desired shape. These undergarments were designed to enhance and support the bust and waist, creating a more feminine silhouette.

In 1964, Louise Poirier invented the Wonderbra, which became a symbol of liberation and empowerment for women. The feminist movement of the 1960s also influenced the design of women’s underwear, with the introduction of the “bikini” – a type of underwear designed to be worn with a bikini swimsuit. It was made from a combination of cotton and nylon and was often adorned with lace or embroidery.

In 1913, Mary Phelps Jacob created the modern bra by fastening two handkerchiefs together with ribbons. The following year, she patented her invention and called it the brassiere. Cup sizes were added in 1932, and the strapless bra was introduced in 1938. Ida Rosenthal’s adjustable bra strap invention in 1942 led to further advancements in bra design. In 1947, Frederick Mellinger invented the padded bra and introduced the push-up bra a year later. 

In 1977, Lisa Lindahl and Polly Smith, a theatre costume designer, invented the first exercise bra, which was initially known as a “jockbra”. They received assistance from Hinda Schreiber, who was Smith’s assistant. This marked the creation of the sports bra.

Stockings had been a common undergarment for women for centuries, but Allen Gant introduced tights or pantyhose in 1959. In the latter part of the 20th century, women’s undergarments became simpler, with corsets, girdles, and petticoats becoming less prevalent. The term “lingerie” originated from the French word for linen.

The Modern Era of Women’s Underwear

Today, women’s underwear comes in a variety of styles and materials to cater to different preferences and needs. From comfortable cotton briefs to sexy lingerie, there is something for every occasion. Modern advancements in technology and materials have made underwear more comfortable and durable than ever before.

Today, there are countless styles of panties available, from thongs and bikinis to boyshorts and high-waisted briefs. The materials used to make panties have also evolved, with synthetic fabrics such as nylon and spandex becoming more common. Additionally, sustainable and eco-friendly materials such as organic cotton and bamboo are becoming increasingly popular.

Today, women’s underwear comes in a variety of styles and materials, from lacy bras to comfortable cotton briefs. Advances in technology have led to the development of moisture-wicking and antimicrobial fabrics, which help keep women dry and fresh. Additionally, the body positivity movement has led to a greater acceptance of all body types, and there is a wider range of sizes and styles available to women than ever before.

Overall, the history of women’s underwear reflects societal attitudes towards femininity and the female body. From restrictive corsets to comfortable and functional styles, it has evolved alongside women’s rights. Today, it empowers women of all shapes and sizes with a range of styles and fabrics. Advances in technology and body positivity have led to greater comfort and acceptance.

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