The story of underwear:

Ancient Times & Middle Ages

Many things we take for granted like they have always been there or this way. Take for undergarments example! Yup, such a coincidence! Most of us wear underwear without giving it a second thought. Many of us might even believe that the shape, the color, and the fabrics of which undergarments are made have always been -more or less- the same throughout the years. Well, my friends, underwear has a history and a very interesting one, if you care enough to take a closer look at what lies behind, or I may say, under their mere utility! Remember our past blog article on (jock)straps where we traced the history of this unique piece of underwear since the late 19th century all the way to its present status as a cultural icon in the queer community. Who would have imagined that our all-time favorite jockstrap was initially tailored to the practical needs of bicycle postmen and delivery men? Lay back and let us guide you to the past of undergarments! But before we go any further, allow us some preliminary comments, or caveats if you will.

Across this article, one will find a series of archival photos, most of them advertisements or artistic depictions of underwear that share at least two characteristics: firstly, all of them are part of either European or North-American history, and secondly, all of them are highly gendered in terms of a gender binary. Having said that, two comments are in order respectively. What follows is in no way an exhaustive genealogy of these pieces of clothing we have come to call underwear, but rather a very limited one both in its geographical and chronological span. In addition, as you might know, Ecce Homo as a queer slow-fashion and body-positive underwear brand is committed to a non-binary or gender-less fashion and we have gone to great lengths to deconstruct this strict gender binary at the heart of hetero-patriarchy and to lend visibility to as many as possible body types engaging in an intersectional queer-feminist approach. But, the history of underwear is the history of gender itself, so sometimes we are obliged to speak in gendered terms if we want to be historically accurate.

Before we take a look at garments from Ancient Times and the Middle Ages, here are some preliminary observations that might give us some perspective:

Not only is the history of undergarments an important part of the history of fashion, but also underwear -as we speak- is a financially considerable part of the fashion industry that gives us a lot of information regarding the status of the latter. According to a recent market analysis that is partial yet quite indicative of the whole picture, ‘underwear makes up 4% of womenswear products currently retailing online across the US and UK markets combined. While this may seem small, on a global scale, lingerie is expected to reach $78.66bn in 2027, making that 4% worth owning.’

Underwear is also a very clear mirror of the cultural meanings of masculinity and femininity at a specific point in history. Undergarments via the meticulous design of marketing campaigns create powerful images of how men and women should look like or what types of gendered bodies they should desire. This is no small thing as all of us -to various degrees- are conditioned by these luring representations. Just bring to mind Victoria’s Secret angels where the choice of models and the symbol of an angel are far from accidental. According to this logic, a Victoria’s Secret piece of underwear is what a woman would like to wear to feel sexy and what a man would like to see a woman in to be attracted to her. Thus, underwear mirrors the dominant beauty ideals that are highly gendered and sexualized.

Underwear has been a marked product in terms of gender. This fact might seem only natural given the practical needs that an undergarment is meant to satisfy, needs that have to do with anatomy or biological sex. Yet, as we have touched upon many times over the course of this blog, there is no pure biological sex unmediated by the cultural meanings of the social gender. This way, undergarments are a stylistic means to perform a certain gendered and sexual self and thus when looking at an undergarment, we look at the same time at a series of normative ideals regarding gender.

Looking back at these old archival ads or artistic depictions of underwear, the first thing one notices is the sheer lack of diversity and inclusivity. The vast majority of the models are white, cis-gender, able-bodied, etc. One might even argue that the history of underwear is the history of societies in terms of who counts as a customer and by extension as a citizen. The exclusions the fashion industry leaves untouched are further reproduced in the visual field by making some bodies, and not others, visible in the public sphere. On top of that, these exclusionary representations have always been carefully curated for the eyes of a male audience, even in the case of womenswear. In this sense, the history of underwear is exactly that, the his-tory of the male gaze at women’s bodies, a disciplining of the female body and the proper femininity according to male standards.

And last but not least, fashion goes around in a circle! Digging up undergarments’ past is something each fashion designer does on a regular basis as past designs are a huge source of inspiration. These ‘references’, as we call them, are really powerful as they resonate with the present and capitalize on a common fashion history we are familiar with thanks to periods and historical dramas.  

Ancient times

According to archeologists, underwear seems to have started as an outer garment way back in 5000 BC, as cave paintings testify, at least in areas where the climate was warm enough. Loincloth was a small piece of fabric wrapped around the waist and through the leg that these artsy cavewomen and cavemen wore for protection from the cold and in these cases, it served as an undergarment covered by other garments. Ancient Egyptians and Pharaohs also wore leather loincloths as outer garments and the quality of the fabric and the length of these loincloths were a symbol of power and status, as mummies teach us. It seems that the modern-day bra has been a Roman invention where below-the-breast tight bands had a push-up effect as a sign of cultural superiority, but interestingly enough, we have no idea whether women in ancient Greece wore any undergarments. There is some speculation that only slaves wore loincloths and that citizens did not wear undergarments beneath their chitons. Beyond Europe, the ancient Hawaiian malo was a form of loincloth, as are several styles of the Japanese fundoshi. However, loincloths are not a thing of the past since they continue to be worn by people around the world, especially in Asia.

Middle Ages

Well, it appears that women went commando until the 19th century as they wore no fabric covering their intimate parts. However, a series of multi-pieced structures served as undergarments, such as corsets, bodices, etc. Chemises were the most common sleepwear but still no undies during sleep! Not the most hygienic period in our history! But in some cases, women wore a shift which was a long linen garment under their dress. Also, another exception to the ‘no undies’ rule was a type of primordial pad worn when women had their period for practical reasons. Of course, most of these undergarments were affordable only to the aristocratic class. On the contrary, medieval men wore a type of underwear, called braccae, reminiscent of boxer shorts and briefs as these undergarments were looser and tied around the waist and legs at about mid-calf. Wealthier men often wore chausses, a type of leggings extended well above the knee, also used for metal leg armor.