The Story of Underwear

Renaissance & Enlightenment

In our latest article, we inaugurated a brand-new blog series on the history of underwear starting from Ancient Times all the way to our historical present. If our latest piece was about the history of undergarments during Ancient Times and the Middle Ages, this blog post will take up the baton from where we left off and will guide us through Renaissance and the Enlightenment. We should also keep in mind the preliminary remarks we made before regarding the limits and the unavoidable partiality of every historiographic endeavor, like this one. What follows is not an exception in this regard: the story of underwear reproduces more or less the Eurocentric view of any ‘general’ history that obscures its own positionality and further consolidates exclusions by presenting itself as THE history.

The already limited historical references to the undergarments as a historiographic sub-subject of the history of fashion and the very specific format of any blog post make it almost impossible to present schematically any narrative other than the dominant one. Besides this Eurocentric historical gaze, we also underlined the highly gendered terms in which the story of underwear is written by projecting to the past a strict gender binary in pink and blue. A bit of historical context is in no way an adequate antidote to these shortcomings, but rather a reminder of the historical embeddedness of each garment which is a product, a practical piece of clothing and an aesthetic object that mirrors the culture of its historical emergence. So, let’s get into it, shall we?

Renaissance is the historical period that spans from the 15th to 16th century in European history. In other words, it is a transitional time from the Middles Ages to the Enlightenment that traditionally marks the beginning of modernity. One of the key characteristics of this period is the revival of the aesthetic ideals of Ancient Greek and Roman Antiquity initially in Italy and a rebirth -as the word itself denotes- of humanism and of intellectual inquiry in many fields, such as art, architecture, literature, science, philosophy, etc.

During Renaissance, braies or braccae -familiar to us from our latest article- have undergone a transformation as they had become shorter to match the longer and tighter hose covering the legs and which replaced in a way the chausses of the previous period. Once again, the strict distinction between outwear and underwear was not in place back then as many of this -usually particolored- garments were not intended to be under other clothes. These braccae were very practical since a codpiece allowed men to urinate without taking this piece of clothing completely off, while it was a kind of pocket for small objects! Yup, you heard right!

Men of royal descent were wearing long shorts with tight lacing around their waist and ankles adorned with ribbons, while women of the same status were wearing tight lace bodices in order to create the illusion of a flat chest with a thin waist. Bras were a thing of the time, but guess what? Still no undies for the ladies of the court! Drawers were also invented during this time for reasons other than hygienic or practical since these undergarments functioned also as a protection against sexual harassment securing the chastity of the women wearing them. Let’s not forget here the farthingale, a petticoat that created a cone-like figure from the waist down. And of course, corsets!

This was the beginning of a long period of suffering for women who had to fit into extremely impractical and unhealthy corsets and thus to body standards of proper femininity and female beauty. However, during this period, corsets were more straight-lined in order to flatten the bust rather than the small-waisted and curved ones of the Victorian era. Interestingly enough, it was during the Renaissance when the first gender-neutral undergarments made their appearance, that is shirts and long underpants. However, this was the exception to the rule of gender binarism since underpants were actually considered the most morally provoking piece of clothing due to their direct contact with female genitals. This also explains why women did not wear undergarments. Fun fact: the first garter was worn by a man, the famous Carlo Magno, as an accessory to his stockings.

The term Enlightenment refers to the period that follows historically Renaissance and covers -more or less- the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe. The age of the light -as the name itself suggests- is characterized by the transition from the feudal to the civil society where the new class of bourgeoisie demands its right to power. It is a period of the great revolutions -bring to mind the French Revolution of 1789 and the industrial revolution- that established the democratic polities in many emergent nation-states. Culturally, it marks the triumph of empiricism and rationality over the prejudices of religion.

When it comes to the undergarments of this era, things were much less civilized for women who were faced with strict policing of their bodies via the designs of corsets, guardinfantis, and crinolines. The ‘wasp’ figure as an ideal of beauty was achieved with extremely constrictive structures reinforced with whale bones, wood, or metal! On the other hand, the advent of the industrial revolution -with the invention of spinning jenny machines for example- revolutionized textile technology as well. Cotton fabrics came to prominence and the mass-production made it possible for the first time in human history for the masses to begin buying products in stores. As you can imagine, this was the beginning of the fashion industry since all types of clothing were available as products rather than produced at home.

In the early 19th century, pantalettes or pantaloons that were covering the leg as a type of leggings with an open crotch became popular initially in France. This was also the time of women’s stays which were laced behind creating this way an erect posture with a round bust. Another important development was the introduction of underpetticoats, hoops or panniers, and stockings that women began to wear for hygienic purposes.

On the other hand, men’s underwear was becoming more comfortable. Chemise and drawers were like a shirt and a pair of boxers. These two-legged drawers derived from trousers and later evolved into knickerbockers, and then into underpants as we know them today. Men also wore stockings which were usually cuffed over the ends of their breeches. The choice of fabric here marks the difference among classes since linen has transformed from a practical textile to one with increased symbolic value. This development is closely related to the rise of the transatlantic slave trade from which the new class of merchants had profited immensely. As such, this new class wanted to exhibit its financial status via clothing in order to consolidate this way a new status quo.