7 Things Historical Women Wore Under Their Skirts

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Underwear historians were shaken to their foundation garments in 2012 when what appeared to be a 15th century bra and underpants were discovered under the floorboards of an Austrian castle. Bras and underpants weren't thought to exist in that time and place—historians had believed women generally wore only chemises or shifts beneath their clothes. While the existence of that modern-looking lingerie is baffling, the undergarments we have more thorough historic records of are pretty baffling, too. Here is a brief history of some of the fantastic things women once wore under their skirts.

1. PANTALETS WITH OPEN CROTCH

Crotchless panties are not a new thing—they're just a salacious version of what many women used to wear. Whatever form of pantalets, pantalettes, drawers, or pantaloons a woman wore, they were usually open from the thigh up. This was for a variety of reasons. Bunching up all the yardage in even the humblest dress of centuries past to try and get a comfortable position over the chamber pot left no hands to pull (or “draw,” thus the term “drawers”) down underwear. Plus it was considered healthy and hygienic; a lady’s bits needed proper ventilation. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that buttons began to appear on the crotch of drawers.

2. PANNIERS

A photo of a 1700s small pannier or side-hoop on display at the Germanic National Museum in Nuremberg
A 1700s small pannier or side-hoop on display at the Germanic National Museum in Nuremberg

Fashion has never been about practicality. Panniers (or side hoops) were a support structure a woman wore around her waist to make her dress spread out wide, while leaving the front and back flat. They were all the rage around Marie Antoinette’s era, as well as earlier in the 18th century. A very wealthy lady would be one too wide to walk through her own doors. The term likely comes from a similar French word, paniers, which refers to wicker baskets slung on either side of a donkey.

3. DIMITY POCKET

Before handbags came into fashion in the 19th century, there were dimity pockets. “All old ladies wore these pockets & carried their keys in them," wrote the granddaughter of Abigail Adams in a note describing the one belonging to her grandma. Plain ones were worn under the skirt, likely accessible through a discreet slit in the folds of the fabric. A little while later, women decided to cut out the middleman and began sewing the pocket directly into the skirt.

4. CAGE CRINOLINE

For a brief, beautiful time in the early 1800s, dresses became loose and sweetly simple (think Jane Austen). But freedom of movement and properly expanding lungs can’t stay fashionable forever. Regency style faded into Victorian, and once again a woman’s underpinnings required the infrastructure to rival a corbel arch bridge. The cage crinoline, rings of steel attached together with string, helped distribute the immense weight of the ever-expanding gowns around the wearer’s waist. They also allowed a woman to move her legs more freely without getting tangled in petticoats and underskirts.

5. THE BUSTLE

A black-and-white photo of an 1880s actress wearing a bustle
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As the 19th century wore on, Scarlett O’Hara-style bell-shaped crinolines began to shrink. But the sexy hourglass silhouette was still something women wanted to show off. The corset kept the top half of the body appropriately squeezed, but how is a lady supposed to flaunt her lower half under all that fabric? The bustle, which came in many forms, kept her ornately draped bottom from dragging or wilting during the day.

6. MENSTRUAL BELTS

An old package for a Tru-Fit sanitary belt
shipbrook, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The evolution of menstruation technology is fascinating, and it is something women wore under their skirts. Well, at least after the 1800s. Before that, historians aren’t positive, because it wasn’t the sort of thing that got written down—but their best guess is that most women wore nothing. (If it comforts you, know that women menstruated less frequently back in the day, because they were pregnant more often and under-nourished.)

Before the joyous revolution of the 1970s, which brought us sticky adhesives to keep pads in place, more creativity was called for. The menstrual belt was a belt around the waist with dangling buckles, to which could be connected a strap, which held in place a pad the size of a phone book (technology was not as absorbent back in the day). Women ruled empires, walked across continents, and wrote classic novels while latched into those things.

7. BRIEFS

A pair of colored women's briefs trimmed with lace
iStock

According to the Museum of Menstruation, women’s underwear as we know it today (close-fitting briefs) generally didn’t exist until the 1930s. The first mention of “briefs” the museum could find was in the Sears Roebuck catalog of 1935, where special mention was made that they were “every day” briefs. This harkens back to the nuanced world of menstruation containment. Before women wore fitted underpants every day, they wore them only monthly, to keep pads in place. Some historians believe the menstrual brief may have been designed based on diapers, which in turn inspired the prototype of all modern women’s underwear.

This story originally ran in 2013.

The Time Baby Ruth Sued Babe Ruth

Allsport/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Allsport/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1920, the Curtiss Candy Company introduced the Baby Ruth candy bar, causing a certain baseball player with a very similar name to take notice. Babe Ruth was having a monstrous year—his 54 home runs in the 1920 season were more than any other team in the American League. If you were going to misappropriate someone’s name for a candy bar, Ruth’s was a logical choice.

Sensing opportunity, the Great Bambino struck back by creating his own Babe Ruth Home Run Bar. Curtiss quickly sued Ruth’s company for trademark infringement. But what happened next was surprising: When the Sultan of Swat accused the company of using his name, Curtiss feigned shock. Its bar was named after “Baby” Ruth Cleveland, daughter of President Grover Cleveland.

For years, this has been the oft-repeated explanation, but the argument makes no sense. Cleveland had been out of office for more than two decades and dead for 12 years when the bar debuted. “Baby” Ruth herself had died of diphtheria in 1904, at just 12 years old. Although the country’s most famous baseball star would seem much more likely to have a namesake candy than a former president's departed child, the courts sided with Curtiss.

When Ruth learned of the verdict, he bellowed, “Well, I ain’t eatin’ your damned candy bar anymore!” Somehow, the Baby Ruth bar survived without his support.

What Is the Wilhelm Scream?

iStock
iStock

What do Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Toy Story, Reservoir Dogs, Titanic, Anchorman, 22 Jump Street, and more than 200 other films and TV shows have in common? Not much besides the one and only Wilhelm Scream.

The Wilhelm Scream is the holy grail of movie geek sound effects—a throwaway sound bite with inauspicious beginnings that was turned into the best movie in-joke ever when it was revived in the 1970s.

Just what is it? Chances are you’ve heard it before but never really noticed it. The Wilhelm Scream is a stock sound effect that has been used in both the biggest blockbusters and the lowest low-budget movies and television shows for over 60 years, and is usually heard when someone onscreen is shot or falls from a great height.

First used in the 1951 Gary Cooper western Distant Drums, the distinctive yelp began in a scene in which a group of soldiers wade through a swamp, and one of them lets out a piercing scream as an alligator drags him underwater.

As is the case with many movie sound effects, the scream was recorded later in a sound booth with the simple direction to make it sound like “a man getting bit by an alligator, and he screams.” Six screams were performed in one take, and the fifth scream on the recording became the iconic Wilhelm (the others were used for additional screams in other parts of the movie).

Following its debut in 1951, the effect became a regular part of the Warner Bros. sound library and was continually used by the studio’s filmmakers in their movies. Eventually, in the early 1970s, a group of budding sound designers at USC’s film school—including future Academy Award-winning sound designer Ben Burtt—recognized that the unique scream kept popping up in numerous films they were watching. They nicknamed it the “Wilhelm Scream” after a character in the first movie they all recognized it from, a 1963 western called The Charge at Feather River, in which a character named Private Wilhelm lets out the pained scream after being shot in the leg by an arrow.

As a joke, the students began slipping the effect into the student films they were working on at the time. After he graduated, Burtt was tapped by fellow USC alum George Lucas to do the sound design on a little film he was making called Star Wars. As a nod to his friends, Burtt put the original sound effect from the Warner Bros. library into the movie, most noticeably when a Stormtrooper is shot by Luke Skywalker and falls into a chasm on the Death Star. Burtt would go on to use the Wilhelm Scream in various scenes in every Star Wars and Indiana Jones movie, causing fans and filmmakers to take notice.

Directors like Peter Jackson and Quentin Tarantino, as well as countless other sound designers, sought out the sound and put it in their movies as a humorous nod to Burtt. They wanted to be in on the joke too, and the Wilhelm Scream began showing up everywhere, making it an unofficial badge of honor. It's become bigger than just a sound effect, and the name “Wilhelm Scream” has been used for everything from a band name, to a beer, to a song title, and more.

But whose voice does the scream itself belong to? Burtt himself did copious amounts of research, as the identity of the screamer was unknown for decades. He eventually found a Warner Bros. call sheet from Distant Drums that listed actors who were scheduled to record additional dialogue after the film was completed. One of the names, and the most likely candidate as the Wilhelm screamer, was an actor and musician named Sheb Wooley, who appeared in classics like High Noon, Giant, and the TV show Rawhide. You may also know him as the musician who sang the popular 1958 novelty song “Purple People Eater.”

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