The very first underwear known to mankind was the loincloth. Starting as outer wear, it worked its way inward, winning the hearts of first cave dwellers and then the ancient Egyptian and Roman cultures. Little is known about the loincloths eventual swan song, but its demise did make way for the newly respected and important pull-on underpant of the 13th century. Its purpose was two fold: it helped shape the wearers figure and it kept clean clothes from touching skin.
The evolution of underwear as we know it began with corsets (first worn by men), cod pieces, stockings, long johns, undershirts and drawers. At first, these items were only worn by the wealthiest of nobles. The masses were not privy to "lingerie" before the 18th century when linen was introduced to its manufacture. The effect was to dramatically increase the life expectancy of the poor peasant man and woman whose body was now more protected against bacterial disease and infection. A quest to beat "the common man" ensued, the aristocracy seeking richer, more unattainable materials for their lingerie and corsets.
The history of Long Johns dates back to 1879 and begins in a most unlikely place: a boxing ring in Boston, Massachusetts. Big John Sullivans claim to fame was that he "could lick anybody, anytime, anywhere!" Modest though he may not have been, Big John became well known not only for his bare-knuckled style of fighting but also for his fighting apparel. His trademark was long underwear, aka the "Union Suit," which he wore every time he entered the ring. He became well known for both his fighting and his outfit, but his wardrobe went beyond even him, becoming the "long johns" the world has come to know and love (?) so well.
The Codpiece deserves some honorable (or dishonorable) mention (or unmention) here. According to Lord Samuel Piper, this flat piece of material began its life as a "well-placed slit" in mens pants, which served the same purpose as the not-yet-invented zipper. The simple flap could be closed by buttoning, lacing or gluing and remained flat for a number of years.
One amusing story has passed down through the years, bearing shadows of the inimitable Mae West. Supposedly, while visiting England, the Duke Fabrizio of Bologna, dressing hastily, used the flap to contain his important parts while appearing before King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. The Queen, amused at the conspicuous bulge, remarked, "Is that thine codling or art thou glad to see me?" King Henry, quite distressed by the matter, assumed this bulge was the latest in courtly fashion, and not wanting to be outdone by the Duke, ordered his own codpieces to be padded so that he would "compare favorably."
Another type of underwear that deserves honorable "unmention" is the bloomer. Its name derives from a woman named Amelia Bloomer, who was an ardent bicyclist at the turn of the last century. The ladies fashions of that time were cumbersome and difficult to adapt to this new sport. Through articles she wrote and published in "The Lilly", a magazine that she conveniently owned and edited, Amelia became a crusader of sorts, or should we say, shorts. The quest for a bloomer was but one of her progressive ideas in a series of articles about womens rights and child labor laws, subjects which made her famous because they provoked nationwide controversy.
It cannot be said for sure exactly what final product Amelia concocted for her bicycle rides, but some say that the pant-style garment was blousy and ended at the ankles with a button closure. Others called them simply "mens pants." Still, whatever her game, history has obscured the name "bloomer" with other words such as pantaloons, drawers and knickers.
No history of unmentionables could be complete without the stories behind the corset and the brassiere, two mainstays of female civilization (Forgive pun.) Before the brassiere as we know it today, there was the painful corset stiffened with whalebones. In 1913, a New York socialite named Mary Phelps Jacob needed an undergarment that would not poke out under the sheer fabric of her evening gown. She came up with something that as of yet had no name, the result of two silken handkerchiefs folded strategically and some pink ribbon. This first alternative to the corset soon rendered the first patent on the modern brassiere. (It is not known if her cup ever did runneth over.)
This new undergarment toppled the reign of the unhealthy and painful corset, which had been designed to narrow an adult womans waist to miniscule proportions. (Consider Scarlett OHara and her famous 18 inch waist!). The tradition was hundreds of years old, dating back to Catherine de Medici, wife of Henry II of France. She enforced a royal ban on thick waists throughout her kingdom, and was the originator of a 350-year-old heritage of pain and torture. Whatever remained of loyalty to the corset after the introduction of the bra was dealt a lethal blow in 1917 when the US War Industries Board demanded women to stop buying corsets. This freed some 28,000 tons of metal for the war effort (not to mention millions of women from their daily torment)!