April 13, 2018

When Did Women Start Wearing Underpants?

Did you ever stop to think when watching a costume drama set before the 19th century that those women in the elaborate gowns were wearing nothing over their nether regions?  Think Marie Antoinette or the six wives of King Henry VIII.  It's true. Women did not usually wear underpants until the early 1800's.

But there's a caveat.  Roman women wore a form of underpants - a loincloth or a garment called a subligaculum.  But after Rome fell in 476 AD, this practice disappeared. 
Roman woman wearing a subligaculum
(from Wiki Commons)
Prior to about 1800, women wore a long linen garment under their dresses called a shift, smock or chemise. And that's it - no panties, no knickers, no nothing. After 1800-1820, women began wearing a type of undergarment called a drawer.  This name came about because the undergarment had to be "drawn on".  Why the change?  Well, it was simply warmer in the cool, north European climate to have something covering your bottom.

The drawer had two separate legs which were joined at the waist.  That's right - drawers were open between the legs (and you thought Frederick's of Hollywood or Victoria's Secret invented open crotch panties!)  Why the open crotch?  It was a matter of hygiene and convenience.  Imagine trying to lower your drawers while struggling to scrunch up yards and yards of skirt while crouching over the chamber pot. 
Open drawers circa 1874
(From Wiki Commons)
By the 20th century, drawers were no longer open between the legs and the rest is history:  from above the knee panties in the 1920's to the briefs of 1940's and 50's all the way up to the thong of the 1990's and beyond.

So to answer our question "when did women start wearing underpants" we have to answer with "when in Rome do as the Romans do".


References and additional reading:

  • http://www.localhistories.org/womenund.html
  • http://www.fashion-era.com/drawers-pants-combinations-knickers-fashion.htm
  • http://mentalfloss.com/article/51840/7-things-historical-women-wore-under-their-skirts