humorpop culture

Unmentionables Throughout History: The Naked Truth About Underwear
by Marjorie Dorfman

Where did underwear come from? When did homo-sapiens begin to wear it and what was it like? These and other semi-nude questions will be addressed below. Read on, no matter what stage of attire you may find yourself in.

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 loincloth’s eventual swan song, but it’s 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 wearer’s 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 Sullivan’s 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 men’s 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 women’s 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 "men’s 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 woman’s waist to miniscule proportions. (Consider Scarlett O’Hara 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)!

Mary Phelps Jacob’s new under-garment greatly complimented the fashions of the day. On November 3, 1914, her new creation had a name, "the Backless Brassiere." Mrs. Phelps changed her name to Caresse Crosby, which she used for production of her new product. But she didn’t like the world of business and sold her patent to the Warner Brothers Corset Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut, for $1,500. (Was she in her cups or what?) Over the next thirty years, Warner’s made over 15 million dollars from her bra patent. In 1928, a Russian immigrant named Ida Rosenthal founded Maidenform. It was she who invented the idea of grouping women into cup size categories.

Stockings have been around since 1589, ever since Reverend William Lee invented the knitting machine. They were originally made from wool, silk and cotton and referred to as "hose," which came from the word "hosiery". Men generally wore these early stockings, and it wasn’t until the 20th century when women got on the stocking bandwagon. This phenomenon coincided with changes in the fashion industry that deemed it socially acceptable for women to show their legs. When nylon was invented in 1930, it became the new affordable alternative to silk.

In 1935 Julian Hill, working with a team led by Wallace Carothers, discovered nylon, but the process wasn’t patented until some two years later by DuPont. In 1939 this new synthetic fiber burst upon the scene at the World’s Fair in New York City. Its name derives from NY, the city’s abbreviated name. On May 15, 1940, the first nylon stockings appeared in New York stores and over 780,000 pairs were sold on that first day alone!

During that first year 64 million pairs were sold in the United States. (That’s a lot of legs!) Nylons soon became the generic name for all hosiery products containing nylon. During World War II all production of nylon went into the war effort and stockings became so scarce that women were known to have painted seams on the back of their legs so it would appear that they were wearing stockings!

The stockings of this early period were called "fully fashioned". That meant that they did not stretch and were fashioned to the shape of the leg. That was also the reason they came in so many sizes. They were knitted flat and then the two sides were joined by hand with a fine seam up the back. The comfort and strength of hosiery were greatly enhanced in the late 1950s with the invention of Lycra, which could stretch up to seven times its original length without breaking and could recover its shape.

With the advent of the mini-skirt in the 1960s, tights became the alternative to stockings and soon hosiery was manufactured in a tube instead of being knitted flat, which eliminated the seams. Today, with all the changes in technology, the choices are many when it comes to tights and stockings.

Last but certainly not least of our impromptu study of the history of unmentionables is the ubiquitous T-shirt. Its origins are somewhat in question, but one of the most popular stories dates the T-shirt to the days of Queen Victoria’s reign when sailors wore tank tops for shipboard duties. Before she came to inspect the royal fleet, officers ordered the men to sew sleeves on the tops to prevent the queen from seeing underarm hair. Another tale claims that the T-shirt started out as women’s underwear, the product of the Russell Manufacturing Company. Perhaps only The Shadow knows the real truth about its origins, but if he does, he isn’t telling.

In any case, the A-shirt that featured a deep neck and no sleeves was very popular in the 1930s and was produced in great quantities by Hanes and Sears Roebuck. It remained, however, an undergarment to be worn under a dress or work shirt. In the late 1930s, Sears introduced a T-shirt for sailors (the Gog T-shirt). The marines soon followed with a green camouflage shirt that could be under or outerwear. World War II brought the first printed T-shirts. According to the Smithsonian, the oldest printed T-shirt reads, "Dew-IT with Dewey" from his 1948 presidential campaign.

Today T-shirts continue to evolve as well as all other types of under garments. Even though that old song, "Anything Goes" dates back to the 1930s, its message couldn’t be any truer today. Who knows what’s to come in the shadowy world of unmentionables? There’s no predicting what awaits us all. Just when we think there’s nothing new under the sun, wham! At least we know it won’t be the corset or codpiece of old. That’s some kind of relief. Like I said, the "Shadow" might be able to predict the future, but it’s not likely he (or she) will ever tell any of us!

Did you know . . .

Copyright 2006