CLOSE
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
arrow
Pop Culture
The Cult of Prince Philip
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images

For seven decades, Prince Philip has been one of the more colorful figures in Britain's Royal Family, prone to jarring remarks and quips about women, the deaf, and overweight children.

"You're too fat to be an astronaut," he once told a boy sharing his dream of space travel.

British media who delighted in quoting him are still lamenting the 96-year-old's recent retirement from public duties. But the people of the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu are likely to be optimistic he'll now have the time to join them: They worship him as a god and have based a religion on him.

Followers of the Prince Philip Movement, which started in the 1960s, believe that the prince was born to fulfill an ancient prophecy: that the son of an ancient mountain spirit would one day take the form of a pale-skinned man, travel abroad, marry a powerful lady, and eventually return to the island. When villagers saw the prince’s portrait, they felt the spirit in it, and when he visited Vanuatu in 1974, they were convinced.

Chief Jack Naiva, a respected warrior in the culture, greeted the royal yacht and caught sight of Philip on board. "I saw him standing on the deck in his white uniform," Naiva once said. "I knew then that he was the true messiah."

True believers assign large world movements to the machinations of Philip. They once claimed his powers had enabled a black man to become president of the United States and that his "magic" had assisted in helping locate Osama bin Laden. The community has corresponded with Buckingham Palace and even sent Philip a nal-nal, a traditional club for killing pigs, as a token of its appreciation. In return, he sent a portrait in which he’s holding the gift.

Sikor Natuan, the son of the local chief, holds two official portraits of Britain's Prince Philip in front of the chief's hut in the remote village of Yaohnanen on Tanna in Vanuatu.
TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images

The picture is now part of a shrine set up in Yaohnanen in Vanuatu that includes other photos and a Union flag. In May 2017, shortly after the Prince announced his retirement, a cyclone threatened the island—and its shrine. But according to Matthew Baylis, an author who has lived with the tribe, the natives didn't see this so much as a cause for concern as they did a harbinger of the prince's arrival so he can bask in their worship.

To date, Prince Philip has not announced any plans to relocate.

A version of this story ran in a 2012 issue of Mental Floss magazine.

arrow
History
The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios