When we think of our undies, it’s hard to imagine a time when choices were extremely limited for women or a time when none were worn at all. Before the age of the undergarment, there were, in fact, many advantage to ‘going commando’ such as:
- Reduced risk of developing yeast infections
- Reduced vaginal odor
- Keep genitals drier by allowing sweat to evaporate
- Reduce chafing
- Eliminate the tight underpants risk to the labia of irritation, injury, bleeding, or infections
- Protects against allergic reactions to dyes, fabrics, or chemicals
Pretty much all the challenges that conscious modern day underwear brands are designing solutions for - like the team at Huha! So why did women start wearing underwear in the first place? For warmth? Protection against scrapes and abrasions? More likely than not, it became part of the social and cultural zeitgeist of the period and re-defining a woman’s ‘standard of beauty,’ which as we all know shifts and changes constantly. 🙄
We wanted to understand the evolution of women’s underwear from ancient times to present day, so keep reading for the a brief history of underwear, the good, the bad and the painful.
A Brief History of Women’s Underwear: The Good, The Bad and The Downright Painful
The Ancients: Rome and Egypt
If we really want to explore the evolution of undies, it’s important to go back, waaayyy back in fact, to some of the earliest recorded societies, the ancients. In this case, Ancient Rome and Egypt, 753 BC to 476 AD. During this period, In Greece, women wore undergarments called a “tunica” and “strophium” (a bandeau style bra) made of linen, which emphasized the ‘ideal’ feminine figure of small chest and large hips.
In Ancient Egypt, lower class women seldom wore undergarments because of the heat. The most common garment for Ancient Egyptian women of any class was a kalasiris, a simple linen tunic that could be worn as underwear, as outerwear, or on its own, similar to a loincloth. Wealthy women who did wear undergarments wore figure-shaping garments similar to the Greeks and Romans “tunica” and “strophium” as previously mentioned.
Fast forward a few hundred years and the modern day version of the 'underpant' aka drawers, were first worn during the Renaissance for function but were also (and more probably) used as a chastity helper, at the time being described as "helping women keep clean and protecting them from the cold, they prevent the thighs being seen if they fall off a horse. These drawers also protect them against adventurous young men, because if they slip their hands under their skirts they can't touch their skin at all" - Saint-Laurent
Underpants were actually considered the most risqué of garments due to their direct contact with female genitals. In fact they were so 'risqué' that it was almost more immodest to wear them than not, which is why, until the mid-nineteenth century, they were primarily worn by prostitutes and by little girls.
Between the 16th to 18th centuries, the dreaded corset made its first real appearance in society. During the 1700s, the corset was long-waisted and in the shape of an inverted cone, which imposed an even more constricting shape (if that was even possible.) The wealthiest women even had corsets that pulled together their shoulder blades so closely that they would nearly touch!!!
In the 19th century, by 1841, underpants were variously known as drawers, knickers (derived from the original knickerbocker), smalls, britches, and step-ins. Nineteenth-century drawers were knee-length and designed so that each leg of the garment, so underpants actually were a 'pair' - hence why they are called that today!
Not only that, buy many designs of the era featured loose underpants with an open crotch? Why? Well, there was no way that you were going to be able to pull any panties down while wearing pantalettes, a petticoat, a chemises, a dress and so on (as was the fashion of the Victorian times.) So underwear that was open in the crotch made it easier for women to use the restroom (or to have a romp in the hay.)
Unfortunately, it was around this time that the chahut began - a rowdy dance for couples in the 1830s which evolved into the cancan by about 1850. This may have been one of the reasons little buttons started to be used as an option to hold drawers closed. However, many medical men advised against this practise of wearing closed drawers, the belief being women’s nether regions required constant fresh air to prevent dampness and all the dreaded manifestations of hysteria - well, their science was correct, their rationale? Not so much.
The Roaring Twenties - The Swinging Sixties
Moving into the 20th century, after WWI, the corset’s popularity began to decline (we wonder why???) and as hemlines rose, underwear became shorter and smaller to accommodate the new style of the era, which included androgynous silhouettes, bobbed haircuts and a devil may care attitude aka the flappers.
Moving along to post World war Two, it was around this time that the underwired bra rose in popularity. Why? Maybe because women had be out working in factories during this period and contributing in their way to the war effort, so obviously practical women, needed practical undergarments - for once.
However, the bottom half didn't fare as well in the 1940s. A connected knickerbocker and bra was the height of fashion during this period - not ideal for anyone completing hard labour, day in, day out. Outside the realm of erotica and burlesque, underwear was intended to be hidden. However, during the Wimbledon Tennis Championships in 1949, tennis player Gertrude Moran took to the court wearing a short tennis dress, designed by Teddy Tinling, that revealed a pair of ruffled lace-trimmed knickers which of course made headlines around the world. How scandalous?!?
Yet, not even a decade later and we enter the age of the 'Pin-up Girl.' The popular bikini brief was introduced which created an acceptance for women to be pictured in lingerie. These models showed off the latest underwear trends (seamed stocking, bustiers) and embraced the curvy female figure - the 1950s standard of beauty.
Burning Bars & Victoria's Secret
By the end of the 1960's social activism and equal rights are on the forefront and in the news. With the feminist movement women are literally letting go of everything that binds. The bra becomes a political message and not wearing one becomes a symbol of equality.
During this period, softer jersey and seamless undergarments become popular. The effect was to not look like you are wearing anything underneath. Flesh toned underwear became very popular as well as one piece bodysuits as an alternative to traditional underwear.
Up until this point, underwear was about practicality and durability. Sexy underwear was reserved for wedding nights, honeymoons, and anniversaries. That is until Roy Raymond came along and created Victoria's Secret. He came up with the idea after trying to buy lingerie for his wife from a department store in the mid 70s. There wasn't anything sexy on offer, just floral print oversized nightgowns and a disapproving saleswoman. So he took his $40,000 in savings, borrowed another $40,000 from his family, and opened the first Victoria’s Secret in a shopping mall in Palo Alto in 1977. By 1982, just five years after the first store opened, three more stores had popped up in the San Francisco Bay Area and then Raymond launched the infamous catalog.
The Nineties - The Naughties
In the 90s, the “Wonder bra” (while first introduced in the 1930s) became popularized with a push-up design intended to enhance sex appeal. This was also the decade of the thong! Although thongs and G-strings technically emerged in the 1980s, it wasn't until the the 1990s that they really started trending and we saw underwear become outerwear. Remember how it was in fashion to wear a thong visibly peeking out of low slung jeans? So classy, right?
Fast forward ten years and we see the revolutionary Spanx come on to the scene. A slimming underwear brand, was introduced and quickly became a modern day shapewear essential.
In recent years we have seen a shift towards more body positive, health focused and environmentally conscious underwear brands. When it comes to choosing underwear, the modern day women wants comfort, style and a pair of undies that isn't going to harm or irritate her vagina. Even though we still love silk and lacy lingerie that leaves us feeling super sexy in those special moments, we still want durable, comfortable and breathable underwear that will see us through the daily grind. Nowadays, it's important to choose underwear that has been design BY and FOR women, because let's face it, men don't know the first thing about what our bodies need.