Monday, February 27, 2012

Underneath it all

Adam and Eve

I have a confession to make. In my youth I wore bloomers. You can all stop howling with laughter right now. Before you ridicule me, let me explain. Bloomers were part of the uniform we were required to wear at the Anglican all-girls school I attended in Jamaica where I grew up. Wearing bloomers under our skirts was enough of an embarrassment without having to reveal our nasty little secret on the school’s annual sports day when our skirts came off to the snickers of the boys from another Anglican school who were much more entertained by our bizarre attire than our athletic prowess.
According to Wikipedia, bloomers were originally designed in the early 1850s by a lady called Elizabeth Smith Miller of Peterboro, New York who was, not surprisingly, an early pioneer of the vulcanized rubber girdle. Ouch, can’t say I’m loving this lady. However, in fairness to her, the reason for the invention of the fashion atrocity called bloomers was to preserve decency without hindrance to physical activity. I suppose that’s what my school had in mind.
 My school bloomers weren’t as long as the lace-edged, cotton example at right or some that were even longer than those. They were an ugly leaf green that served to put me off wearing green for the rest of my life. But I won’t linger on this pet peeve of mine as there’s loads about underwear to share and it’s all very interesting.
There are those who may claim Adam and Eve were the first to cover themselves for decency’s sake, but as far as we know, the loincloth was the first undergarment worn by human beings. The remains of a simple leather loincloth dating back 7,000 years have been found by archaeologists. The ancient malo of Hawaii, which passed between the legs and then wrapped around the waist, was similar in style, as are some of the Japanese fundoshi. There was another style of loincloth called a cache-sexe. This was a triangle of cloth with strings or loops, which fastened the triangle between the legs and over the genitals. King Tutankhamun of Egypt (1341-1323 BC) was buried with linen loincloths such as these.
The loincloths I mentioned were worn by men. Since my intention today is to talk about women’s underwear, let me not stray too far from the subject.  We know that in 100 AD, Roman women wore a kind of loincloth called a subligaculum for athletic activities. Roman women wore nothing under their chitons, but they did also wear strophiae (breastcloths of leather or cloth) when participating in sports. Here is a mosaic from the Piazza Armerina in Sicily showing a woman wearing a breastcloth and subligaculum.
After the fall of Rome, it wasn’t until the early 19th century when women started wearing any form of underwear remotely resembling panties. I don’t know about you, but I find that surprising. The only form of women’s underwear, until the 16th century when stays, petticoats and farthingales arrived on the fashion scene, was a linen garment resembling a nightgown called a shift, later called a smock or chemise. So, when did drawers, the predecessor of today’s panties, enter the picture? From all accounts, they emerged at the start of the 1800s. Called drawers because they were drawn on, they sometimes came below the knee. Pantalettes, the longer style of drawers with frills, was only worn by girls after the 1830s.
We can’t talk about the evolution of underwear without at least a fleeting mention of corsets. When I look at the corset and its descendent the Longline bra, I can’t help thinking how many centuries it has been since we women have had the desire to re-shape our bodies for fashion’s sake. In mid-March, I’ll have more about that, so make sure to come back and visit. 

Spanish Farthingale 1545

Elizabethan Farthingale 1590s
Rope, bent rope and whalebone were used as stiffeners.

1. In what year was the Wonderbra designed?
2. In what year was the thong designed?



  1. I've heard of farthingales, but I never knew what they were. Can't imagine how uncomfortable they must have been, particularly the sleeve ones. How did those women sit? Interesting post. Will check back to see what else you got in your next one.

  2. We've tortured ourselves since the beginning of time, but I'm taking the leaves over the bloomers. Ha ha.

  3. Have to agree with you, writingfeemail. It's the leaves any time.

  4. Fun post! I may not be enchanted with today's fashions, but I'm really glad I didn't live in a time of corsets and farthingales. Glad you posted pictures. I wasn't sure what they were.

  5. This was a throwback for me; I was a fashion designer in my other life (before retirement). I actually had a line of men's boxer shorts on the market. Your research was right on the spot... Good info.

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  7. this actually answered some questions i had about the 1600s and underwear. thanks for posting.

  8. Glad you found it useful, Jennifer. Thanks for visiting.

  9. I was sure I had commented here JP but maybe I had problems that day with my Wordpress ID. Either way, I love the post. My elder sister had to wear black silk bloomers for P.E. at our very strict Grammar school when she was twelve. Thankfully, by the time I arrived, the school was enlightened enough to allow girls to wear shorts.We still had to wear pinafores for the first year of our secondary school life though - mind you, all our teachers wore black gowns and the odd mortar board! I am not that ancient either.:-)

  10. Hi Deborah, great to hear from you, as always. So, your sister had to go through the torture of bloomers too, uh? We also had to wear them for P.E. Thankfully we were spared pinafores.

    Don't know why so many people are having a problem leaving comments. Think something is wrong, but haven't a clue what. Yet another technology mystery to unravel.