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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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.

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Instead of Lighting Fireworks, People in This Chinese Village Celebrate by Flinging Molten Iron
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Fireworks are a cultural symbol in China, but they weren't always easy to obtain. In a village in Yu County, China, people use a 500-year-old trick to achieve the same effect as fireworks with cheaper pyrotechnics.

This video from Great Big Story highlights the Chinese art of Da Shuhua, or splattering molten iron against walls to produce a fireworks-like shower of sparks. It started in the village of Nuanquan in the 16th century as a way for poor residents to imitate the expensive fireworks shows enjoyed by rich people in different parts of the country. Blacksmiths noticed that molten iron burst into dazzling sparks whenever it hit the ground and thought to recreate this phenomenon on a much larger scale. The townspeople loved it and began donating their scrap metal to create even grander displays.

Today, Da Shuhua is more than just a cheap alternative to regular fireworks: It's a cherished tradition to the people of Nuanquan. The village remains the only place in China to witness the art as it was done centuries ago—the people who practice it even wear the same traditional cotton and sheepskin garments to protect their skin from the 2900°F drops of metal flying through the air. As Wang De, who's been doing Da Shuhua for 30 years, says in the video below, "If you wear firefighter suits, it just doesn't feel right."

[h/t Great Big Story]

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Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Curie: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock
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10 Radiant Facts About Marie Curie
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Curie: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Curie: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock

Born Maria Salomea Skłodowska in Poland in 1867, Marie Curie grew up to become one of the most noteworthy scientists of all time. Her long list of accolades is proof of her far-reaching influence, but not every stride she made in the fields of chemistry, physics, and medicine was recognized with an award. Here are some facts you might not know about the iconic researcher.

1. HER PARENTS WERE TEACHERS.

Maria Skłodowska was the fifth and youngest child of two Polish educators. Her parents placed a high value on learning and insisted all their children—even their daughters—receive a quality education at home and at school. Maria received extra science training from her father, and when she graduated from high school at age 15, she was first in her class.

2. SHE HAD TO SEEK OUT ALTERNATIVE EDUCATION FOR WOMEN.

After collecting her high school diploma, Maria had hoped to study at the University of Warsaw with her sister, Bronia. Because the school didn't accept women, the siblings instead enrolled at the Flying University, a Polish college that welcomed female students. It was still illegal for women to receive higher education at the time so the institution was constantly changing locations to avoid detection from authorities. In 1891 she moved to Paris to live with her sister, where she enrolled at the Sorbonne to continue her education.

3. SHE'S THE ONLY PERSON TO WIN NOBEL PRIZES IN TWO SEPARATE SCIENCES.

Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie, in 1902.
Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie, in 1902.
Agence France Presse, Getty Images

In 1903, Marie Curie made history when she won the Nobel Prize in physics with her husband, Pierre, and with physicist Henri Becquerel for their work on radioactivity, making her the first woman to receive the honor. The second Nobel Prize she took home in 1911 was even more historic. With that win in the chemistry category, she became the first person of any gender to win the award twice. She remains the only person to ever receive Nobel Prizes for two different sciences.

4. SHE ADDED TWO ELEMENTS TO THE PERIODIC TABLE.

The second Nobel Prize she received recognized her discovery and research of two elements: radium and polonium. The former element was named for the Latin word for "ray" and the latter was a nod to her home country, Poland.

5. NOBEL PRIZE-WINNING RUNS IN HER FAMILY.

Marie Curie's daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, and her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, circa 1940.
Marie Curie's daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, and her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, circa 1940.
Central Press, Hulton Archive // Getty Images

When Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre, won their Nobel Prize in 1903, their daughter Irène was only 6 years old. She would grow up to follow in her parents' footsteps by jointly winning the Nobel Prize for chemistry with her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, in 1935. They were recognized for their discovery of "artificial" radioactivity, a breakthrough made possible by Irène's parents years earlier. Marie and Pierre's other son-in-law, Henry Labouisse, who married their younger daughter, Ève Curie, accepted a Nobel Prize for Peace on behalf of UNICEF, of which he was the executive director, in 1965. This brought the family's total up to five.

6. SHE DID HER MOST IMPORTANT WORK IN A SHED.

The research that won Marie Curie her first Nobel Prize required hours of physical labor. In order to prove they had discovered new elements, she and her husband had to produce numerous examples of them by breaking down ore into its chemical components. Their regular labs weren't big enough to accommodate the process, so they moved their work into an old shed behind the school where Pierre worked. According to Curie, the space was a hothouse in the summer and drafty in the winter, with a glass roof that didn't fully protect them from the rain. After the famed German chemist Wilhelm Ostwald visited the Curies' shed to see the place where radium was discovered, he described it as being "a cross between a stable and a potato shed, and if I had not seen the worktable and items of chemical apparatus, I would have thought that I was been played a practical joke."

7. HER NOTEBOOKS ARE STILL RADIOACTIVE.

Marie Curie's journals
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

When Marie was performing her most important research on radiation in the early 20th century, she had no idea the effects it would have on her health. It wasn't unusual for her to walk around her lab with bottles of polonium and radium in her pockets. She even described storing the radioactive material out in the open in her autobiography. "One of our joys was to go into our workroom at night; we then perceived on all sides the feebly luminous silhouettes of the bottles of capsules containing our products[…] The glowing tubes looked like faint, fairy lights."

It's no surprise then that Marie Curie died of aplastic anemia, likely caused by prolonged exposure to radiation, in 1934. Even her notebooks are still radioactive a century later. Today they're stored in lead-lined boxes, and will likely remain radioactive for another 1500 years.

8. SHE OFFERED TO DONATE HER MEDALS TO THE WAR EFFORT.

Marie Curie had only been a double-Nobel Laureate for a few years when she considered parting ways with her medals. At the start of World War I, France put out a call for gold to fund the war effort, so Curie offered to have her two medals melted down. When bank officials refused to accept them, she settled for donating her prize money to purchase war bonds.

9. SHE DEVELOPED A PORTABLE X-RAY TO TREAT SOLDIERS.

Marie Curie circa 1930
Marie Curie, circa 1930.
Keystone, Getty Images

Her desire to help her adopted country fight the new war didn't end there. After making the donation, she developed an interest in x-rays—not a far jump from her previous work with radium—and it didn't take her long to realize that the emerging technology could be used to aid soldiers on the battlefield. Curie convinced the French government to name her Director of the Red Cross Radiology Service and persuaded her wealthy friends to fund her idea for a mobile x-ray machine. She learned to drive and operate the vehicle herself and treated wounded soldiers at the Battle of the Marne, ignoring protests from skeptical military doctors. Her invention was proven effective at saving lives, and ultimately 20 "petite Curies," as the x-ray machines were called, were built for the war.

10. SHE FOUNDED CENTERS FOR MEDICAL RESEARCH.

Following World War I, Marie Curie embarked on a different fundraising mission, this time with the goal of supporting her research centers in Paris and Warsaw. Curie's radium institutes were the site of important work, like the discovery of a new element, francium, by Marguerite Perey, and the development of artificial radioactivity by Irène and Frederic Joliot-Curie. The centers, now known as Institut Curie, are still used as spaces for vital cancer treatment research today.

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