History in the details: Underwear

History in the details: Underwear

A brief history by costume and picture expert Jayne Shrimpton

Jayne Shrimpton, Professional dress historian and picture specialist

Jayne Shrimpton

Professional dress historian and picture specialist


Undergarments have long been worn for modesty, warmth, comfort and hygiene. Biblical references to the fig leaf and ‘girded loins’ indicate early types of covering for the genitals, probably initially sourced from the natural world, later fashioned from woven cloth. Paintings demonstrate that medieval men wore either drawers formed like a simple loincloth of fabric passing through the legs and tied about the hips with a lace, or looser girdled Saxon ‘braies’ of varying lengths, sometimes indistinguishable from outer breeches. In general, fine linens were worn by the wealthy, coarser linens or leather drawers by the masses. Tudor trunk hose were underlined with linen and during the 1600s and 1700s most men wore washable linen breeches linings, tied at waist and knee, with or without separate flannel or linen drawers.

From the early-1800s cool cotton materials were used and Regency and early-Victorian male undergarments comprised a shirt and loose cotton or calico (stout cotton) drawers. Much discussion ensued as to which fabrics were best worn next to the skin and creamy-coloured woollen flannel was prescribed for warmth. By the late-1800s, men wore long, close-fitting, woven or machine-knitted drawers and vest – or one-piece ‘combinations’, still favoured by older wearers between the wars. Yet briefer styles were more fashionable and young men adopted slender knee-length drawers or ‘trunks’, these growing shorter in the 1920s/1930s.

Historically women’s main undergarment was the long shift: although girls wore drawers or pantaloons, there is little evidence of adult female drawers until the 19th century. During the early-1800s and 1810s, some ladies layered ‘flesh-coloured pantaloons’ beneath diaphanous neoclassical gowns and eventually narrow calf-length drawers evolved comprising two separate overlapping legs (without a gusset) attached to an adjustable waistband. Their use may have advanced during the severe winter of 1840. In 1841 The Handbook of the Toilet proclaimed: ‘…drawers are of incalculable advantage to women, preventing many of the disorders and indispositions to which British females are subject. The drawers may be made of flannel, calico or cotton, and should reach as far down the leg as possible without their being seen.’ Late-Victorian dress reformers recommended women’s wool, flannel or cellular cloth combinations, although high fashion favoured more alluring lingerie, the most luxurious sets hand-made in coloured silk, with embroidery and black lace. From the early-1900s, the growth of sports prompted a preference for modest closed drawers or ‘knickers’ and these grew briefer, rising above the knee during the 1920s. Improved artificial rayon fabric enabled ordinary women to wear glamorous silk-like knickers or ‘panties’/‘pants’ by the 1930s, both camiknickers combining slip and knickers, or separate bra and French knickers in vogue.

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This painting of Saint Roch, c1480, attributed to Carlo Crivelli, provides a rare glimpse of a medieval linen male loincloth tied in front with a lace
This painting of Saint Roch, c1480, attributed to Carlo Crivelli, provides a rare glimpse of a medieval linen male loincloth tied in front with a lace
This advert from 1914 shows the enduring popularity of functional Victorian combinations combining vest and drawers and the new closed Directoire ‘knickers’ (after ‘knickerbockers’)
This advert from 1914 shows the enduring popularity of functional Victorian combinations combining vest and drawers and the new closed Directoire ‘knickers’ (after ‘knickerbockers’)
Short camiknickers combining slip and knickers were fashionable 1920s-1940s. This advert for camiknickers made at home from synthetic fabrics dates to c1940
Short camiknickers combining slip and knickers were fashionable 1920s-1940s. This advert for camiknickers made at home from synthetic fabrics dates to c1940

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