A Short History of Underwear- Part 3 – 1830s – 1930s

A Short History of Underwear: Part 3 – 1830s – 1930s

At the dawn of the Industrial Age, men’s underwear was beginning to resemble what we would recognise today. Gone were the loincloths, codpieces, and knitted hose.  Mass manufacturing of clothing became more commonplace and the advent of the industrial sweatshop occurred. Men would spend some of their monthly pay checks on mass-produced clothing, including underwear.

(Women finally joined the party and, for the first time, wore knickers in the nineteenth century. Stay tuned for that story another day!)

The word “pants” also came into being at this time. A character in an Italian comedy play, named “Pantalone”, wore clothes that came to his ankles – and in England these long pants became known as “pantaloons”. This was shortened to “pants”. The word “drawers” evolved as underwear was “drawn” on. By the late 1800s, men’s drawers became known as “pants”.

Manufactured “underdrawers” were often made of flannel, a soft woven fabric at that time made of fine wool yarn. Cotton fabric was becoming more commonly used as well, particularly in the United States.  And in colder climes, woollen underwear was popular. Some men had adopted a three-piece knitted wool sleep suit, containing a helmet, crewneck sweater and long drawers with feet.

Between 1850–1900, a man’s preferred choice of underwear was the “long john” – an all-in-one piece that covered the body from shoulders to ankles. It was invented when a very popular Boston boxer named John L. Sullivan wore long wool drawers during competitions. Long johns were available as either an all-in-one suit, known as a Union Suit,  or a separate vest and drawers. By 1895, they were available to buy in the US for 10cents, and came in a natural wool colour, grey or red. They were either knee or ankle length, buttoned down the front, and had “drop seat” at the back (openings for toileting, etc).

The all-in-one long john was most popular until as late as 1930.

Men’s underwear became shorter by the time of World War 1. No longer referred to as drawers, now referred to as pants or underpants, the first cotton boxer shorts were issued to soldiers for wear during summer months on the Front.

Up until the 1920s, muslin came into use and men’s undies were made of muslin-based nainsook, a soft, natural fibre. The 1920’s however, saw the introduction of per-shrunk fabrics which made for much more comfortable and serviceable undies. The boxer brief was now becoming more popular, and it came to mid-thigh.

Next Week: Part 4: 1930’s to 2000