A BRIEF HISTORY OF WOMEN'S UNDERWEAR
By Tim Lambert
Early Women's Underwear
Ancient Greek women wore a form of bra called an apodesme. Both Roman men and women wore a loincloth or shorts called subligaculum. Women also wore a band of cloth or leather around their chest called a strophium or mamilare.
After the fall of Rome women did not usually wear knickers until the 19th century. Their only underwear was a long linen garment called a shift, smock or chemise, which they wore under their dress. From the 16th century women wore corsets made with whalebone. Also in the late 16th century women began to a wear frame made of wire or whalebone called a farthingale. Slightly later some women wore a roll around their waist called a 'bum-roll' to hold out their dress.
From the end of the 16th century women wore skirt like garments called petticoats, which were sometimes embroidered. (A petticoat was originally a petty coat, a short coat worn by a man but women borrowed the term).
19th Century Women's Underwear
The word drawers was invented because underwear was drawn on. Where does the word knickers come from? It comes from a novel called History of New York by Diedrich Knickerbocker, supposedly a Dutchman living in New York (it was actually written by Washington Irving). In Britain the illustrations for the book showed a Dutchman wearing long, loose fitting garments on his lower body. When men wore loose trousers for sport they were sometimes called knickerbockers. However womens underwear were soon called knickerbockers too. In the late 19th century the word was shortened to knickers.
In the USA women's underwear are called panties, which is obviously a diminutive of pants. However the word panties has never been common in the UK.
At the beginning of the 19th century women still wore a long nightie-like garment under their dress but it was now called a chemise not a shift. However after about 1800 they also wore drawers. Sometimes they came to below the knee or sometimes they were longer garments with frills at the bottom called pantalettes. However by the 1830s only girls not women wore pantalettes.
Today we still say a pair of knickers or panties. That is because in the early 19th century women's underwear consisted to two separate legs joined at the waist. They really were a 'pair'.
At first women's drawers were usually very plain but in the late 19th century they were decorated with lace and bands. In the winter women often wore woollen knickers and woollen vests.
In the 1860s some women began to wear coloured petticoats and drawers although white remained very common.
In the 19th century women's underwear were sometimes called bloomers. Elizabeth Miller invented loose trousers to be worn by women. Amelia Bloomer promoted the idea from 1849 and they became known as bloomers. In time long underwear became known as bloomers.
20th Century Women's Underwear
In the 19th century women's underwear was usually open between the legs but in the 20th century closed knickers replaced them. In 1910 stockings and knickers were first made of rayon (at first rayon was called artificial silk). Nylon was invented by Wallace Carothers in 1935. The first nylon stockings were sold in 1939. Later knickers were also made of nylon.
Meanwhile in 1913 Mary Crosby invented the modern bra. She used two handkerchiefs joined by ribbon. The word bra is derived from the French word brassiere, which was a type of corset. The word was adopted for the new garment and in the 1930s the word was shortened to bra. The wonderbra was invented in 1964 and was introduced to Britain in 1968.
In the 19th century knickers came down to the knee. In the 1920s they became shorter, down to the mid-calf. By the 1940s and 1950s many women wore briefs. The modern thong was designed in 1974.
Meanwhile in 1949 an American tennis player named Gertrude Moran or Gussie Moran (1923-) caused a sensation when she appeared at Wimbledon wearing frilly panties. She was called Gorgeous Gussie and it was very daring in 1949!
Women have worn stockings for centuries but tights (pantyhose) were invented in 1959 by Allen Gant.
Meanwhile in the late 20th century women's underwear became more basic and corsets and petticoats became less and less common.
Our word lingerie is derived from the French word for linen, lin. However in the 20th century lingerie came to mean attractive underwear.
A timeline of underwear
A history of clothes
A history of cosmetics
A history of women
Last revised 2012