Women's Underwear Through The Ages

Posted on September 05 2022

Join Bawbags for a trip exploring women's underwear through the ages. We'll take you all the way from Romans in the first century, wrapping themselves up in strips of cloth, to modern-day knickers and push-up bras. We've got a lot of time to cover, so let's get going!

In The Beginning… There Were Loincloths

To begin at the very start of women's underwear through the ages, we'll have to go back to the 1st century AD. At this point in time, clothes were limited and undergarments were traditionally worn alone in warmer places such as Rome.

The Romans would drape themselves in loose fabrics. Women would wear a type of bra called a 'strophium of Mamilare'. The strophium was a band of fabric that would be bound around the breasts to make up a sort of bra. It didn't offer much support but was enough to cover up and offer some modesty (not that the Romans were too concerned about that!).

The loincloth was worn by both men and women and was very much the same thing, only for your bottom half. A strip of fabric would be tied, almost like a large nappy, around your waist and legs, covering the privates.

16th Century – Watch Out Whales!

Jumping ahead to the 16th century, corsets were a hot new thing. Whalebone corsets were the standard at the time and featured exquisite boning beneath layers of fabric. 

Whalebone, as the name suggests, was made from actual whales. The bone came from the upper jaws of the whale and was made by boiling the bone for 12 hours until it became soft enough to cut and mould into the desired shapes. The bone hardened when it had cooled down and gently formed to the shape of the wearer's torso when against their skin.

Unfortunately, this method of creating clothing had a serious effect on the number of whales in the wild, and as of 1955, the International Whaling Commission banned the hunting of blue whales in the North Atlantic. The rest of the world followed suit in 1966, making whalebone corsets a thing of the past.

18th Century – Say Goodbye To Pants

In the 18th Century, women said goodbye to pants. Women would instead wear a long linen garment called a chemise under their dresses – similar to what we would consider a 'nightie' now.

The abandonment of underwear during this period has been cause for speculation. Some people believed it was unhygienic to wear underwear and that it was better if your privates could breathe. Others believed it was out of ease – if you already had six or seven layers of clothing, why add one more?

19th Century – Bloomin' Knickers

The 19th century was a big time for women's underwear. We were slowly beginning to make our way towards modern underwear styles, with things such as:

Pantaloons/Pantalettes – pantalettes were typically the version of pantaloons that women and young boys wore. Pantalettes were usually leggings or long drawers. They could be two separate garments for each leg or one piece and would attach with buttons or laces at the waist. And, though to modern readers this may sound strange, the crotch was left open for 'hygiene'.

Bloomers – bloomers were in at the start of the 19th century. They were sold as a new 'unrestrictive' garment for women and even became somewhat of a feminist phenomenon due to their breaking convention of how women 'should dress' as the century progressed. Though they began as a version of underwear, bloomers were much like very loose trousers and grew to become a fashionable thing to wear as ordinary clothes.

Knickers – the first sign of the word 'knickers' emerged in the late 19th century. Though they tended to be colourful drawers (a bit like early boxer shorts) or bloomers, they were the first hints towards what we consider women's underwear today.

20th Century – The Great Pantie Boom

The word 'pantie' came from the American word for trousers, 'pants'. It quickly became a term to refer to women's underwear during the 20th century, with modern boy-cut knickers becoming known as 'panties'.

In 1949 Gertrude "Gorgeous Gussie" Moran, a famous American tennis player, shocked Britain when she went to Wimbledon in 1949 wearing a short skirt and ruffled knickers. It was the first time many people had seen such an excessive garment, marking an important turning point in underwear history.

Since the 50s, underpants, or 'panties', have continued to become more experimental, with new styles such as the thong introduced in 1981 – a far cry from the pantaloons of the previous century!

The first ever padded bra was also introduced in the 20th century, quickly followed by the push-up bra. This marked a shift from the lace bras of the 20s to shapewear and a new beauty standard for women.

While formally, a wiry, thin figure was the 'in' look (like a 1920s flapper dancer), as shapewear became more prominent, curvier bodies that emphasised the breasts and waist were the things to strive for.

21st Century – Finally, Comfy Underwear For Women

If you've just read this blog and you're thinking: that all sounds horrible. You're right. Women have long been subjected to uncomfortable, often restrictive underwear to make their bodies look a certain way to comply with beauty standards.

Here at Bawbags, we want you to feel cosy in your pants, so we've got an excellent range of women's boxer shorts and bralettes to keep you feeling comfy, fresh and happy. Say no more to the confining undergarments of the past, and say hello to cooling, snug underwear.

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