Underwear historians the world over were shaken to their foundation garments last year when what appears to be a 15th century bra and underpants were discovered under the floorboards of an Austrian castle. Bras and underpants had no business existing in that place during that time. It is true that Western-style underwear was starting to evolve in that century—and before that clothes were mostly for not freezing to death and few people had time to fuss with dainties—but historically it was heavy duty stuff, stays, corsets, and thick full body chemises (nightgowns). The existence of that displaced lingerie is baffling. But the undergarments we have thorough historic records of are pretty baffling, too. Here is a brief history of some of the fantastic appurtenances women wore under their skirts.
1. Pantalets with Open Crotch
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Crotchless panties are not a new thing. They are only a salacious version of what had been the style of women’s underwear for centuries. 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 buttons began to appear on the crotch of drawers, giving ladies the option to close up shop if they wished.
Fashion has never been about practicality. Panniers (or side hoops, or hoop petticoat, or wide damn dress thingy) were all the rage around Marie Antoinette’s era, in the 18th century. It was a support structure a woman wore around her waist to make her dress spread out flat and wide. 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
Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Women have always felt a need to haul junk with them when they go places. By the 1800s, handbags were coming into fashion. Before that there were dimity pockets. “All old ladies wore these pockets & carried their keys in them," wrote the granddaughter of John Adams in a note describing the one belonging to her grandma. Plain ones like these were worn under the skirt, likely accessible through a discreet slit in the folds of the fabric. Shortly after women thought to cut out the middleman and began sewing the pocket directly into the skirt.
4. Cage Crinoline
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
For a brief, beautiful time in the early 1800s, there was a sort of Greek revival, and 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, help 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. This, paired again with the trusty corset, prepared women for the industrial age by encouraging them to sit very still on stools and not waste precious air talking.
5. The Bustle
Does this dress make my butt look big? No? Well I’ll have to do something about that. As the 19th century wore on, the Scarlett O’Hara 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 the junk in her trunk 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
I know. But buck up, you can handle this. The evolution of how women tended to that particular sanitation issue is a fascinating one, 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. I know. I know. If it comforts you, know that women menstruated less back in the day, because they were pregnant more often and under-nourished. Moving on.
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. 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.
Courtesy of Meta Efficient
According to the Museum of Menstruation, women’s underwear as we know it today (close fitting briefs), didn’t exist until the 1930s. Of course there was the pair in the Austrian floorboards, but it is safe to assume that, tucked away as they were, they did not influence 20th century fashions. The first mention of “briefs” (so brief! Barely pantaloons at all!) 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 was designed based on diapers, which in turn inspired the prototype of all modern women’s underwear.