Underwear: Chronology


Figure 1.--This ad appeared in the Sears catalog for 1932 (Fall and Winter, p. 271). Waist union suits, which had been introduced during the 1920s, had become very popular with mothers who wanted to buy underwear for their boys and girls that combined the features of a winter union suit with the extra features of an underwaist (a garment that had buttons for attaching skirts and short pants and that also had garter tabs so that supporters for long stockings could be attached). Waist suits were also made in summer styles, but here we have only the winter version.

The history of boys’ underwear in North America (both the United States and Canada) is essentially the same as that for adult men’s underwear until the latter part of the 19th century. Boys simply wore smaller versions of what their fathers wore—either two-piece undershirts and drawers or the all-in-one union suit. A major change came in about 1870 when boys, often as old as 18 or 19 years old, began wearing knee pants with long stockings. At this point modifications in boys’ underwear were introduced to accommodate the wearing of shorter trousers and over-the-knee stockings. The new devices invented to hold up the stockings are usually classified under the general heading of “waists” although these came in a variety of styles and underwent various modifications and developments over time. Waists were essentially garments to which hose supporters either could be or were already attached. Up until the 1920s, the waists worn to support stockings and button-on knee pants were usually additional garments worn over the standard adult men’s underwear in smaller children’s sizes. In the early 1920s the “waist union suit” for children was invented, which combined the functions of the adult-style underwear with those of the “waist” so that only one undergarment was necessary. Waist union suits became popular for children (both boys and girls) from about age 2 to age 13 or 14. They went out of style in the mid-1940s when boys ceased to wear long stockings with either shorts or knickers into their teen-age years and began to wear long trousers at earlier ages. Boys who didn’t wear waist union suits but continued to wear long stockings in the period from about 1920 to 1945 wore regular men’s style underwear with separate garter waists to hold up their stockings. In the mid-1930s cotton briefs with elastic waist bands were manufactured and gradually became the dominant style of underwear for boys—the so-called “Jockey” style briefs. The jockey briefs didn’t really catch on, however, until the late 1940s after World War II. These were usually worn with sleeveless undershirts and later with tee-shirts. Some boys by the late 1930s began to wear looser-fitting non-knitted shorts (often made of broadcloth) that had button fronts similar to those worn by American soldiers in the warmer seasons and climates, and it was not too long before “boxer” shorts began to replace the button-front shorts. These were loose-fitting shorts with an elastic waistband and no buttons, based on the shorts that professional boxers wore in the ring. Modern boys wear either knitted undershorts (briefs or boxer briefs in white or various colors) or boxer shorts (usually in various colors and patterns). Preferences between these options have varied since the late 1980s and lively debate still occurs as to whether boxers or briefs are the “cool” way to go in boys’ underwear.

Notes on Historic Underwear

Here is what we have compiled on underwear through time. We have compiled a basic synopsis on what is known on the early history and chronology of underwear. It summarizes most of what modern scholars know about the subject--at least as far as we are aware. We would be interested in any further insights readers may have. The most important contemporary evidence up through the Renaissance is paintings, mummies and burial artifacts, and very scattered brief personal references. The later is limited because people didn't write about their underclothing as such. It was not something people felt was important. That same attitude is pribably the case today. What we know is just incidental to the cultural history of early civilizations. We probably know more about Rome than the other ancient civilizations and even the Medieval era because so many Romans were literate and there are surviving personal communications.

Ancient Civilizations

HBC has some limited information about underweat in the ancient world. Much of the information concerns men rather than boys. We are thus less certain about the underwear, if any, worn by boys. Boys in warmer climates often wore very little clothing at all, let alone underwear. We have noted some very basic information. Underwear was worn in some ancient civilizations, but not all. A factor here was social class.

Islamic Middle East

We are not at all sure about underwear in the Islamic world. I have not found an auhoritative source about historical periods, and there may have been major differences among cultures. One Islamic sites indicates, "Generally speaking, it is not permissible for males to wear any sewn clothes and therefore it would be a breach of the rules of 'ihram' to wear underwear. However, if someone has a specific medical condition that necessitates wearing underwear, then it would be considered as permissible in lieu of necessity. If it is simply due to his concern of exposing one’s 'awrah', it is possible to guard against this possibility by wearing belts or pins to keep the two pieces of 'ihram' as tight and firm as possible so that they do not come off easily. If, however, someone wears sewn clothes such as underwear without any genuine excuse, then he has violated the conditions of 'ihram'. He must therefore offer a compensation by offering a sacrifice, feeding six persons, or fasting three days)." [Kutty] The Arabic terms here need to be explained. The Arabic term 'awrah' refers to those parts of the body which are Islamically prohibited to expose in front of another (either the opposite gender or the same gender). This varies some what from country to country and over time. In societies in which a women cover all of their bodies except for the face and hands in front of men who are permissible for her to marry, then that is her 'awrah. The man's 'awrah' is everything between his navel and knees. I am not yet sure what "ihram" means. I also do not understand the prohibition of sewn clothes. An unsourced internet posting appears to give a different view, stating, "In the Islamic world, the length of underpants is a religious, and perhaps also ethnic, issue. There are Traditions of the Prophet stating, as I remember, that underpants should come to below the knee but above the foot. And I think I have read somewhere that the Persians wore ankle length underpants and that this was considered womanish by Arabs and such." Hopefully Islamic readers will provide us some insights here.

Medieval Europe

We have only limited information on medieval underwear. As far as we can tell there were no distinctive styles for children. We have no information on early medieval underwear, but suspect that it was not common. We believe that if undewear was worn at all it took the form of a kind of loin cloth. Pull-on underpants appeared in the 13th century. Many common people at first did not wear underwear, but it is at this time that underwear became a more commonly worn garment. Men wore baggy drawers called 'braies'. They were normally made from linen as cotton was still a relatively expensive material, especially in Europe. There were at the time major differences in the clothing worn by different social classes. This was not the case for underwear. Individuals of all classes wore essentially the same style of underwear. The individual stepped into his braies. They were then laced or tied about the waist and legs, normally at mid-calf level. There are very few written descriptions or illustrations of Medieval underwear. One of the major sources of information are paintings showing agricultural workers who have taken off their outer clothes on hot days. Especially affluent men might also wear chausses. "Chausses" were leggings. It's the same root as the modern French word "chaussettes" (= stockings, socks). In the late middle ages underwear helped to shape outerwear. A number of specialized underwear grments appeared such as corsets, cod pieces, undershirts, and drawers. The "cod-piece" was initially a simple flap for modesty covering a functional opening. Gradully it became an ornamental addition to male dress. The ornamental aspect would not apply to younger boys, but older teenageers often wanted to show off their masculinity. Stockings were in part an undergarment by medieval period and early Renaissance (i.e., 15th century). The German Hosiery Museum is quite helpful here. There is an introductory section on this website showing how tights evolved. Medieval men essentially wore separate long stockings which came up over the hips and attached to shirts or doublets by means of "points" (laces). In some cases they appear to have had eyelets through which the laces passed. Some early paintings show the laces or "points" (the forerunners of suspenders for trousers and hose supporters for stockings). The dividing line between underwear and the exposed tops of long stockings (which had become like tights and functioned like trousers) is rather hazy and theoretical during this period, as fashionable young men and older boys in the 15th century deliberately exposed the outlines of their buttocks and groin (often to the disapproval of Church authorities who considered it scandously immodest). Curiously this seems an early parallel to modern teenagers exposing their underwear under lowcut jeans.

Renaissance Europe

A difficult period to describe is the Renaissance. This is because it occurred in different regions of Europe at different times. It began in northern Italy during the 13th century and gradually spread north. The Renaissance is a difficult period to describe as it occurred at different times in different regions. The renissance was limited to Christan Europe, primarily Western Christendom. The Reniassance was primarily about ideas and outlook. Other matters were affected, including fashion. This is not a frivolous point. Ideas are efemeral concepts. Clothing on the other hand are material objects which cn be tracked, in part through paingings. Fashion during the medieval era changed at a glacial pace. There were whole centuries with virtually no fashion developments. This change with the Renaisance when the pace of fashion change quickened. The medieval 'chausses' became more form fitting during the Reaissance and began to take more of the form of modern hose. This resulted changes in braises began to be made shorter as the chausses were made longer in the Renaisance. Both braies and chausses were made in more fashionable styles and were not always cobered or fully covered. Braies became morecomplicated and were commonly fitted with a front flap that might have button or tie closures. The late medieval cod piece also changed during the Renaissance. The Medieval codpiece was a practical garment. Medievel hose tended to be form fitting and open at the crotch. Thus the cod piece was needed for modesty sake. This became a problem when shortened doublets became fashionable. During the Renisance the simple utilitarian codpiece became a fashion item. They were padded, shaped, and decorated. Here King Henry VIII set a fashion trend. Curiously some men even used them as secure change purses. Two major men's garments appeared during the Renaissance. The modern man's shirt can be traced to the Renissance when it was worn as a kind of undershirt. One of the most important men's garments during the Renaissance was the doublet. This was an uprerclass garmentm=, in patt because it was expensive. The doublet was a kind of vest that opened at the font and was closed with ties. It was not precisely underwear, but was worn under other clothing.

17th century

A reader writes, "I am a costume disigner from Holland, and I am busy with a film about Rembrand 1640. Do you have information about underwear and childrens clothes from that time?" Unfortunately we have no information at this time. A reader writes, "I know a bit about Dutch costuming at the time of Rembrandt--from looking at some of the paintings of the period. But I would draw a total blank on the underwear. In fact we know very little about underwear, especially boy's underwear, before the 18th century. I'm afraid I'm not much help in this case. What I know is probably no more than what your enquirer already knows about Dutch clothing in the late Renaissance." HBC suspects that the Renaissance trends discussed above were probably a good description of the 17th century, but we cannot yet confirm this.

18th century


The 19th Century

The history of boys’ underwear in North America (both the United States and Canada) is essentially the same as that for adult men’s underwear until the latter part of the 19th century. Boys simply wore smaller versions of what their fathers wore—either two-piece undershirts and drawers or the all-in-one union suit. A major change came in about 1870 when boys, often as old as 18 or 19 years old, began wearing knee pants with long stockings. At this point modifications in boys’ underwear were introduced to accommodate the wearing of shorter trousers and over-the-knee stockings. The new devices invented to hold up the stockings are usually classified under the general heading of “waists” although these came in a variety of styles and underwent various modifications and developments over time. In North America before the Civil War (1861-65), the standard underwear for men and boys was two-piece—undershirts and long drawers, either ankle or knee-length. The fabric was usually wool flannel but could also be cotton. With the industrial revolution and the arrival of the water-powered spinning machines and the cotton gin, knitted cotton fabrics could be mass-produced and widely purchased rather than made at home.

The 20th Century

Waists were essentially garments to which hose supporters either could be or were already attached. Up until the 1920s, the waists worn to support stockings and button-on knee pants were usually additional garments worn over the standard adult men’s underwear in smaller children’s sizes. In the early 1920s the “waist union suit” for children was invented, which combined the functions of the adult-style underwear with those of the “waist” so that only one undergarment was necessary. Waist union suits became popular for children (both boys and girls) from about age 2 to age 13 or 14. They went out of style in the mid-1940s when boys ceased to wear long stockings with either shorts or knickers into their teen-age years and began to wear long trousers at earlier ages. Boys who didn’t wear waist union suits but continued to wear long stockings in the period from about 1920 to 1945 wore regular men’s style underwear with separate garter waists to hold up their stockings. In the mid-1930s cotton briefs with elastic waist bands were manufactured and gradually became the dominant style of underwear for boys—the so-called “Jockey” style briefs. The jockey briefs didn’t really catch on, however, until the late 1940s after World War II. These were usually worn with sleeveless undershirts and later with tee-shirts. Some boys by the late 1930s began to wear looser-fitting non-knitted shorts (often made of broadcloth) that had button fronts similar to those worn by American soldiers in the warmer seasons and climates, and it was not too long before “boxer” shorts began to replace the button-front shorts. These were loose-fitting shorts with an elastic waistband and no buttons, based on the shorts that professional boxers wore in the ring. Modern boys wear either knitted undershorts (briefs or boxer briefs in white or various colors) or boxer shorts (usually in various colors and patterns). Preferences between these options have varied since the late 1980s and lively debate still occurs as to whether boxers or briefs are the “cool” way to go in boys’ underwear.

Sources

Kutty, Sheikh Ahmad Kutty. Senior lecturer and Islamic scholar at the Islamic Institute of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Islam On-Line Website: Hajj & 'Umrah, undated, site accessed April 4, 2005.






HBC




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Created: 6:45 AM 10/15/2004
Last updated: 9:55 PM 4/2/2005