The Weird History of 6 Articles of Clothing

  • February 22, 2010
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The history of men’s underwear is pretty basic. Men went from loin cloths, to something similar to the boxers we have today, to one piece Union-suits, and finally to the boxers we have today. Pretty boring. Women’s underwear is much more interesting; especially since its history is much briefer. Do you see what we did there? Briefer? Because it’s shorter and also…oh, never mind.


For most of history women didn’t wear any panties. It seems stupid now, but look at that word. Panties. Looks kind of like pants doesn’t it? And at the end of the day aren’t panties just very, very tiny pants? Work with us here. For centuries, panties were considered too masculine for women to wear. So underneath their big dresses, all the great women in history up until about the mid-1800s were going commando. Makes you look at some portraits of Elizabeth I differently.


From about 1830 until the 1860s women wore small panties. However, the large hoopskirts that came into fashion before the Civil War caused a problem, especially outside. Any decently sized breeze could blow your skirt right up. Small just wasn’t going to cover it (get it?) anymore. Women started wearing pantaloons underneath their dresses. Eventually women would start wearing smaller skirts and even pants, returning underwear to the size and shape we know today.



While not its own article of clothing, so to speak, most men would agree that their fly is pretty essential. But how did they come about? Originally men wore tunics, very similar to what women wore. Eventually hose, basically tights for guys, came into fashion. However, they had a slit in between the legs. In order to preserve their modesty men used codpieces.


These flaps of fabric didn’t serve any purpose other than coverage so men started using them as pockets. Need a place to store that new tobacco that’s so in fashion? Codpiece. Want to sneak an extra turkey leg from the banquet? Codpiece. Over time they got larger and more outlandish. If they started out preserving a man’s modesty they ended by being slightly more subtle than a blinking neon sign pointing at a gentleman’s junk. Men had them studded with jewels or shaped to look like the thing they were supposed to be hiding. Over time actual pockets and the development of trousers made the codpiece obsolete.


In the 18th and 19th centuries trousers usually had a flap in the front that buttoned up both sides. Even the first jeans had button flies. The zipper is a relatively new addition to the crotch of trousers, though now it is the most popular style.



For most of human history women didn’t see the need for a separate piece of clothing specifically for the breasts. They just let everything hang out, or the garments they wore did double duty, flattening or enhancing as styles changed. Eventually the incredibly painful corset appeared and would dominate the world of women’s undergarments for centuries. As the years went by, and the style for corsets got smaller and tighter, women started to rebel against them. And wouldn’t you if your waist was squeezed so tight all your vital organs became one big blob? In the mid-1800s some visionaries invented bra-prototypes but none of them really caught on.


Vogue Magazine coined the term “brassiere” in 1907 but it wasn’t until 1913 that the bra really took off, so to speak. A woman named Mary Phelps Jacob was going to a dinner party and wanted to wear her new gown. It was light and gauzy, as was in style at the time. However, her thick, binding corset would not let the dress lay correctly. Exasperated, she ditched the corset, fashioned two handkerchiefs and some ribbon into a bra and went to the party that way. Her friends were in such awe they asked her to make them some as well.


The next year Jacob applied for a patent for her design. The timing was perfect. WWI was about to start and more women would be going to the factories and doing more manual labor in general. They couldn’t be confined by their corsets. The 1920s saw bras that flattened the chest but by the 1930s bras as we know them today, in different cup sizes that supported breasts, were the norm.

Written by Kathy Benjamin – Copyrighted © Image Sources

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