Underwear historians were shaken to their foundation garments in 2012 when what appeared to be a 15th century bra and underpants were discovered under the floorboards of an Austrian castle. Bras and underpants weren't thought to exist in that time and place—historians had believed women generally wore only chemises or shifts beneath their clothes. While the existence of that modern-looking lingerie is baffling, the undergarments we have more thorough historic records of are pretty baffling, too. Here is a brief history of some of the fantastic things women once wore under their skirts.
1. PANTALETS WITH OPEN CROTCH
Crotchless panties are not a new thing—they're just a salacious version of what many women used to wear. Whatever form of pantalets, pantalettes, drawers, or pantaloons a woman wore, they were usually open from the thigh up. This was for a variety of reasons. Bunching up all the yardage in even the humblest dress of centuries past to try and get a comfortable position over the chamber pot left no hands to pull (or “draw,” thus the term “drawers”) down underwear. Plus it was considered healthy and hygienic; a lady’s bits needed proper ventilation. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that buttons began to appear on the crotch of drawers.
Fashion has never been about practicality. Panniers (or side hoops) were a support structure a woman wore around her waist to make her dress spread out wide, while leaving the front and back flat. They were all the rage around Marie Antoinette’s era, as well as earlier in the 18th century. A very wealthy lady would be one too wide to walk through her own doors. The term likely comes from a similar French word, paniers, which refers to wicker baskets slung on either side of a donkey.
3. DIMITY POCKET
Before handbags came into fashion in the 19th century, there were dimity pockets. “All old ladies wore these pockets & carried their keys in them," wrote the granddaughter of Abigail Adams in a note describing the one belonging to her grandma. Plain ones were worn under the skirt, likely accessible through a discreet slit in the folds of the fabric. A little while later, women decided to cut out the middleman and began sewing the pocket directly into the skirt.
4. CAGE CRINOLINE
For a brief, beautiful time in the early 1800s, dresses became loose and sweetly simple (think Jane Austen). But freedom of movement and properly expanding lungs can’t stay fashionable forever. Regency style faded into Victorian, and once again a woman’s underpinnings required the infrastructure to rival a corbel arch bridge. The cage crinoline, rings of steel attached together with string, helped distribute the immense weight of the ever-expanding gowns around the wearer’s waist. They also allowed a woman to move her legs more freely without getting tangled in petticoats and underskirts.
5. THE BUSTLE
As the 19th century wore on, Scarlett O’Hara-style bell-shaped crinolines began to shrink. But the sexy hourglass silhouette was still something women wanted to show off. The corset kept the top half of the body appropriately squeezed, but how is a lady supposed to flaunt her lower half under all that fabric? The bustle, which came in many forms, kept her ornately draped bottom from dragging or wilting during the day.
6. MENSTRUAL BELTS
The evolution of menstruation technology is fascinating, and it is something women wore under their skirts. Well, at least after the 1800s. Before that, historians aren’t positive, because it wasn’t the sort of thing that got written down—but their best guess is that most women wore nothing. (If it comforts you, know that women menstruated less frequently back in the day, because they were pregnant more often and under-nourished.)
Before the joyous revolution of the 1970s, which brought us sticky adhesives to keep pads in place, more creativity was called for. The menstrual belt was a belt around the waist with dangling buckles, to which could be connected a strap, which held in place a pad the size of a phone book (technology was not as absorbent back in the day). Women ruled empires, walked across continents, and wrote classic novels while latched into those things.
According to the Museum of Menstruation, women’s underwear as we know it today (close-fitting briefs) generally didn’t exist until the 1930s. The first mention of “briefs” the museum could find was in the Sears Roebuck catalog of 1935, where special mention was made that they were “every day” briefs. This harkens back to the nuanced world of menstruation containment. Before women wore fitted underpants every day, they wore them only monthly, to keep pads in place. Some historians believe the menstrual brief may have been designed based on diapers, which in turn inspired the prototype of all modern women’s underwear.
This story originally ran in 2013.