By: Daisy Hemmen
From leather breechcloths worn by prehistoric men to loincloths depicted in ancient Egyptian art,1 “underwear” has existed in some form or another for about 7000 years2—give or take a few. The earliest eras of human civilization seemed to be in some sort of agreement about the issue of undergarments and developed similar solutions all on their own.
But why did they decide it was necessary? And how did those early pieces of fabric develop into the thongs, bamboo underwear, briefs, boxers, tighty whities, and panties we wear today? Let’s find out.
What Was the Original Purpose of Underwear?
Loincloths, the earliest form of “underwear,” can be traced much further back in history than the kinds of undergarments that resemble ours today. And although we think of these draped fabrics as the precursor to our present-day boxer briefs and panties, they served a much different purpose than ours do today.
The first forms of “underwear” likely had more limited roles in society. In very hot climates, like Ancient Egypt, loincloths served as both under and outer garments and often constituted an entire outfit.
Loincloths or simple dresses were worn for modesty when nudity wasn't socially acceptable.3 However, underwear was also expensive and likely wasn't worn by everyone—to an extent, full or partial nudity seemed to be an indicator of low social status in Roman and perhaps other early cultures.4
The purpose of underwear as we know and wear it today has evolved quite a lot from the early coverings like loincloths and buckskin. Before the nineteenth century, people certainly weren’t trying to find that perfect fit and understanding how to measure your hips. These early undergarments had two main functions in Europe and North America:5
- Cleanliness – Underwear protected expensive clothing from the urine, feces, blood, discharge, and other bodily fluids that would have soiled their clothes.
- Insulation – In colder temperatures, an extra layer of fabric around more sensitive areas served as insulation for their comfort and well-being.
Who Wore the First Underwear?
Undergarments are notoriously difficult to preserve and examine, especially when they’re made of linen and other fabrics prone to disintegration. Still, there are traces of early underwear-like garments across many early civilizations that help us answer the question, when was underwear invented?
But who wore it first? It’s hard to say, though these are some of the earliest records:
- Early Egyptians – If you’re wondering, when were panties invented? then you may be surprised to find just how early the first iteration really was. There are panty-like undergarments as early as 4,400 BC in Egypt,6 usually made from linen for standard panties or leather goatskin for menstruating women.
- Ancient Romans – There are archaeological findings of leather underwear worn by ancient Romans, and likely more underwear made of linen or cloth that hasn't survived into the historical record.
- Indigenous peoples of North America – Many wore breechcloths, panels of leather, buckskin, or bark fiber between their legs while allowing for freedom of movement.
- Chinese women – In the Han dynasty, women wore fitted tunics as upper body undergarments made of cotton or silk depending on their economic standing.7
Women's clothing has included something akin to a bra for just as long, with bands of cloth across the chest like the ancient Minoan apodesme8 or Roman strophium.9 And although women's types of underwear didn't look much like what we wear now until the 19th century, underlayers of clothing like shifts worn under dresses date back to the fall of Rome.
How Did We Evolve From Loincloths to Lingerie?
When you’re shopping for bras and cotton underwear online, it’s almost impossible to imagine how these small pieces of fabric developed out of a draped loincloth ensemble. But there are threads of evolution from the Medieval Ages to the Roaring Twenties to the world we know today.
In the era that bridged ancient times and our modern culture, medieval fashion brought many more types of underpants to the forefront:10
- Braies – A predecessor to our modern underwear bottoms, braies were like loose undershorts that were held up by a drawstring or belt. They were worn by men under their clothing, or as a full outfit in some hot or more casual circumstances. Women may or may not have worn braies under their skirts.
- Hose – Made of stretchy woven fabric, hose were worn by both men and women to cover their legs.
- Upper garments – Both men and women may have worn chemises or under tunics. These were loose-fitting garments that resembled a long linen t-shirt, falling below the waist for men and as far as the ankles for women.
Underwear in the Twentieth Century
As clothing evolved, men and women’s undergarments had to follow suit, leading us from the era of loose, bulky undershorts to the days of clean lines and form-fitting cuts:
- The 1920s – During the flapper era, fashionable clothing (especially for women) became much smaller and tighter than was previously acceptable. The loose, flowing, full-body underclothing of the earlier generations just wouldn't cut it anymore. Women's underwear became more fitted and sleek, as well as more stylish. Lingerie was now its own category of clothing with its own trends.11
- The 1950s – This period moved away from some of the intensely structured shapewear that had defined women's underwear since the corset trends of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The use of new materials like rayon and spandex meant that undergarment could be stretchy and comfortable in exciting new ways.
- The 1980s – Tighter and shorter clothing became a global fashion trend for all genders during the 80s, meaning men and women’s undergarments had to further adapt. This brought us innovations like push-up bras and thongs.
- The 1990s – It’s taken us all the way up until the ‘90s to finally answer the question, when was the boxer brief invented? While boxers came about in 1925 and briefs hit the scene about ten years later, the renowned combination known as the boxer brief didn’t make its debut until the early 1990s.2
All This History Leads Us to the Present: Unbelievably Comfortable Underwear
Despite everything that's changed in how we construct and wear our undies, the basics haven't. We want to be comfortable and move freely, whether that's in a loose loincloth, cozy loungewear or other bamboo clothing. That's why Boody undies prioritize comfort, featuring an antistatic and moisture-wicking design. Do you wear underwear with leggings? With Boody, you can!
And while we’ve come a long way from linen shifts, it’s still true that natural materials feel best on our skin. Boody uses organically-grown bamboo viscose because it's the height of affordable luxury. Finally, we want our underpants to fit our lifestyles. Our range of essentials includes not just basics, but also activewear, loungewear, and baby designs, for every part of your life.
About the Author: Daisy Hemmen is a San Diego State University Fowler College of Business alumni. Based in Encinitas, California, Daisy is a part of the marketing team at Boody North America. She is passionate about learning the ins and outs of living a happy and healthy lifestyle that benefits both people and the planet, and enjoys sharing her bountiful findings with the community.
- Mental Floss. A Brief History of Men’s Underwear. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/22897/boxers-briefs-or-loincloth-brief-history-mens-underwear
- CNN. Brief history of men’s underwear. https://www.cnn.com/2009/LIVING/homestyle/10/27/mf.men.underwear.history/
- History of Clothing. Loincloth - History and Facts about Loincloth. http://www.historyofclothing.com/clothing-history/loincloth/
- Forbes. Caesar Undressing: Ancient Romans Wore Leather Panties And Loincloths.https://www.forbes.com/sites/kristinakillgrove/2015/06/19/caesar-undressing-ancient-romans-wore-leather-panties-and-loincloths/
- Love to Know. Origins of Underwear. https://fashion-history.lovetoknow.com/clothing-types-styles/origins-underwear
- British School of Archaeology in Egypt. The Badarian Civilisation and Predynastic Remains Near Badari. http://ebooks.lib.ntu.edu.tw/1_file/etana//15271.pdf
- Newhanfu. Hanfu History of Ancient Chinese Underwear.https://www.newhanfu.com/3089.html
- Ancient Origins. When it Came to Ancient Undergarments Less Was Often More.https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-ancient-traditions/when-it-came-ancient-undergarments-less-was-often-more-004052
- Local Histories. A History of Women’s Underwear. https://localhistories.org/a-history-of-womens-underwear/
- Thought Co. Underwear in the Medieval Period.https://www.thoughtco.com/medieval-underwear-1788621
- Good Housekeeping. A Brief Evolution of Underwear. https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/beauty/fashion/tips/a24247/evolution-of-underwear/