Underwear


Figure 1.--Here the Minnesota Kniting Company shows its range of winter underwear for children. We are not sure when this appeared, but would guess about 1930.

Underwear is not a topic that HBC has addressed yet. This is in part becuse we began HBC primarily as a site to collect and assess old photographs. As underwear is worn under clothes, it obviously did not show in the old photographs. HBC has since expanded far beyond our intitial concept. There are so many projects that HBC had underway, we are not able at this time to begin such a large new toic as underwear. We do have several existing topics that are related which we will link here. So many HBC readers have asked about underwear, however, that we thought we would create a page to collect the information and comments that we are receiving. We especially want to collect some basic information on old-time underwear as it was so different than than modern underwear. In addition it was used to hold up other garments like pants and stockings and thus important in understanding how children were dressed.

Chronology

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.

Garments

Today underwear means an under shirt and underpants and perhaps thermal underwear in cold weather. Underwar until the mid-20th century was more complicated, including garments that are relatively unknown to modern consumers. Garments like union suits, combination suits, and waist suits are unknown to modern children.This is an important part of HBC, because an understanding of many of these earlier underwear garments is important in understanding how many of the garments discussed on HBC were worn. This is because some garments attached to the underwear. The greater importance of underwear garments is in part because until after World War II mist American homes did not have central heating. With less well heated homes, dressing warmly was more important. Another trend in underwear garments is the shorter garments worn by boys and girls and the declining importance of long stickings. Thus the shorter boxers and nriefs became the standard underwear for boys.

Countries

The union suits and combination suits discussed here were worn by American children. A good deal of information is availavle on the underwear worn by Ameeican children, especially beginning in the 1880s because of the popular mail order catalogs. We know less about the undewear worn by foreign children. A French reader tells us that French children did not use the elaborate suspender waists to hold up their stockings. Rather underwear and blouses came with buttons. These could be use bth to keep up stockings and pants, a style known as the button-on style. Untill about 1955 these models of undervests (undershirts) were used for children of both gender. Blouses with waist buttons were made longer than is the case today. Our reader reports, "Personaly I don't remember wearing this sort of undervest, but I did wear blouses with romper bottoms and later short pants and I rember that my blouses came with waist buttons which were used to keep up my pants. For France, I will develop this topic on three ways: - Baby from 1900 till today; Toddlers " "; and = Older boys " " . I will comment with some extract of catalogue or magazine. All the boy of France were wearing the same underwear. One can classify in three sorts : - City boys; - Country boys; and - Boys with particular attentive mother, of which were rather knited. It was the case for me, but not for my brother and sister."

Seasonality

Underwear in the 19th and early 20th century was highly seasonal. Until the mid-20th century, homes were not very well heated. Thus underwear was a much more important garment than is the case today. Thus there were very destinctive styles of underwear for summer and winter. There is still winter (thermal) underwear available, but is now much less commonly worn. It is common only in the far north or for outdoor activities like winter camping. Children used to have to dress much more warmly than is the case today. Now children bundle up in warm clothing when going outdoors, but may dress like it is the summer indoors thanks to central heating. Quite a bit of information is available on HBC on cold weather garments.

Material

We note several materials being commonly used in underwear.

Nainsook

The term nainsook was a soft finished cotton fabric used for infants and children's underwear. Nainsook was usually white, but we have noted some garments with patterns like checks. An example of children's underwear made with nainsook are the combination suits offered in the 1923 Montgomery Ward catalog in the United States. I had thought it was of Chinese origins, but was Indian. In Hindi, the term "nainsukh" literally means "eye pleasure". It is one of the many clothing realted terms entering the English language through the British Raj. An example of children's underwear made with nainsook are the combination suits offered in the 1923 Montgomery Ward catalog in the United States. I had thought it was of Chinese origins, but was Indian. In Hindi, the term "nainsukh" literally means "eye pleasure". It is one of the many clothing realted terms entering the English language through the British Raj.

Wool

Wool is an important fabric that has been used in underwear, especially winter underwear. HBC has a page on wool and health.

Companies

HBC has begun to develop information on the companies manufacturing and marketing underwear. Here the situation is somewhat complicated by the fact that companies had a variety of brands and major retailers like Sears have marketed house or store brands. Several companies have specialized in underwear. Many countries have companies that have focused on underwear, both in their own country and foreign markets. Much of our infornation at this time comes from the United States. The principal companies in America are today Haines and Fruit of the Loom. Haines has been given considerable visibility as a result of television ads featuring basketball star Michael Jordan. There have been several other American companies we have noted in the early 20th century. We have less information on the 19th century. The advertisement here is from the Minnesota Kniting Company (figure 1). We do not yet have detailed information on foreign companies.

Vintage Garments

Vintage undewear is often the rarest type of vintage clothes, especilly before the 20th century. This is probably they were more soiled than other garments and had little sentimental value. Ironically the vintage underwear is particularly important because there is very little we can draw on from the public record. We note both underwear and support garments. We have only limited underwear items in our vintage clothing archive. Underwear were garments that were especially likely to be discarded. Underwear could be quite complicated in the late 19h and early 20th century. Images of actual vintage underwear adds to the informaton we have collected in the catalog section. We note what looks like an underwaist dating from the early 20th century. One readers has sent us an image of a nainsook suit which was worn by American children in the 1930s. We note short-leg long johns which look to date to the 1930s. We also note a German World War I paper-fabric Leibchen which was a kind of stocking supporter. We note a cloth Leibchen a few decades later in the 1940s or early 50s.





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Created: January 7, 2003
Last updated: 5:24 AM 5/19/2008