A Brief History of Women’s Undies

A Brief History of Women’s Undies

Pantaloons, bloomers, drawers, knickers, panties, briefs: call them what you will. Women’s undies have a long and somewhat interesting story – though their use is a very new thing compared with men’s underwear…

Underwear for a woman’s nether regions was unheard of in centuries past, except for in ancient Rome: Roman women sometimes wore a garment called a subligaculum. This was either a kind of pair of shorts, or an item similar to a loincloth which wrapped around the lower body and could sometimes be tied at the hips with strings.

 Roman undies

After the Roman Empire fell, women did not again wear undies (for want of a better word) until the eighteenth century, wearing only a long linen shift or chemise under their dresses.

Women began wearing drawers during the French Revolution. Catherine de Medici first introduced them, so she could ride her horse with one leg folded across the horse in front of her and without displaying her nether regions to her army and the general public. These garments came to below the knee. Soon after, during the English Regency Era, women’s fashions changed dramatically, from heavy corseted dresses  to lighter Empire style dresses made of sheer fabrics such as muslin. This new fashion required the wearing of undergarments to offer warmth (as well as some modesty) as the heavier clothing of the past had done. Pantaloons were worn by women for this purpose: loose pants which almost reached the ankle.


Women’s drawers in the early nineteenth century were actually a pair of garments: one worn over each leg and attached to each other at the waist. This open crotch style was considered to be not only convenient for toileting, but hygienic; free airflow over the genital region was deemed to keep a woman fresh – despite rare underwear changes and few, if any, baths.

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Parisian can-can dancers soon put an end to open-crotch drawers: their high kicks and lifted skirts resulted in a scandalous and pornographic show every time the dance was performed. Even in permissive Paris of the time this was a bit much. So women stitched their drawers together and shortened them to at or just above the knee – thus knickers were born.

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Early drawers and knickers were invariably white and made from linen, but by the 1860s some women began to wear coloured drawers, sometimes decorated with lace or embellishments such as embroidery. These were also soon to be made from cotton, or wool for winter. In time, knickers were made to be loose, even more like the underwear men wore,  and were referred to as bloomers.


Stay tuned for the conclusion to this article next week…