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Undergarments, also called underwear, are clothes worn next to the skin, usually under other clothes. Wearing and changing underwear permits outer garments to be worn repeatedly without needing to be cleaned.

In addition to keeping outer garments from soiling, undergarments are worn for a variety of reasons: warmth, comfort and hygiene being the most common. Undergarments are often used for modesty or erotic display; sometimes both of these motivations are simultaneously present.

Undergarments can also have religious significance, as in the special garment worn by followers of the LDS Church (Mormons).

Wearing underwear in public is considered an intermediate form between being socially acceptably dressed and being nude. Of course this does not apply for shirts und shorts that are suitable as underwear but also as outer clothes.

Underpants are in British English also called pants.

Two major types of men's underpants are the boxer short (large and loose) and briefs (small and tighter). The combination small and loose would be less suitable, because it would too easily expose the genitals. For performances such as a sexy dance briefs are often preferred.

For more details and variations, see the Present Day section below.

For urinating the penis is either passed through a fly, or the front side of the underpants is lowered (they are flexible enough to do that without lowering the whole underpants). Even if a fly is present, it is a matter of preference which method is chosen.

Table of contents

Ancient and Classical Period

The loincloth is the simplest form of underwear, and it was probably the first undergarment worn by human beings. A loincloth may take two major forms. The first consists of a long, triangular piece of fabric with strings or strips of cloth sewn to the corners. The strings are tied around the waist, and the cloth is brought up between the legs and tucked into or otherwise fastened to the resulting band. The alternate form is more skirt-like: a cloth is wrapped around the hips several times and then fastened with a girdle. In warmer climates, the loincloth may be the only clothing worn (making it effectively not an undergarment), but in colder temperatures, the loincloth often forms the basis of a person's clothing and is covered by other garments. In most ancient civilizations, this was the only undergarment available (King Tutankhamun was buried with 145 of them). The loincloth continues to be worn by people around the world (it is the traditional form of undergarment in many Asian societies, for example).

Women in ancient societies usually wore loincloths as well. However, Greek and Roman women often wore straps of cloth across the breasts to support and hide them, and many Roman women wore legless panty-like garments around the hips and crotch.

Middle Ages and Renaissance

In the Middle Ages, underwear became looser fitting, made of soft materials such as cotton. The loincloth was replaced by loose, trouser-like clothing called braies[?], which the wearer stepped into and then laced or tied around the waist and legs at about mid-calf. Wealthier men often wore chausses[?] as well, which only covered the legs. By the Renaissance, the chausses became form-fitting like modern hose[?], and the braies became shorter to accommodate longer styles of chausses. However, chausses and many braies designs were not intended to be covered up by other clothing, so they are not actually underwear in the strictest sense.

Braies were usually fitted with a flap in the front that buttoned or tied closed. This codpiece allowed men to urinate without having to remove the braies completely. Henry VIII of England began padding his own codpiece, which caused a spiraling trend of larger and larger codpieces that only ended by the end of the 16th Century.

The modern men's shirt[?] appeared during this era, but it was originally an undergarment. Renaissance noblemen also adopted the doublet[?], a vest-like garment tied together in the front and worn under other clothing.

Medieval women usually wore a close-fitting underdress[?] coupled with braies-like leg wrappings. Noblewomen sometimes wore a brief cotton or linen garment called a shift[?] underneath this underdress, but it did not become commonplace until later centuries.

Renaissance fashion dictated that a woman's skirts stay full and voluminous. Noblewomen began wearing the farthingale[?], an underskirt with hoops sewn into it. By the end of the 16th Century, the hoops grew to be almost twice as wide as the person beneath.

Chastity belts also appeared during this period, invented by Crusaders worried about the fidelity of their wives back home (at least according to legend). Modern researchers are still unsure how commonly used such devices actually were.

Enlightenment and Industrial Age

The inventions of water-powered spinning machines and the cotton gin in the 17th and 18th Century made cotton fabrics widely available. This allowed factories to mass-produce underwear, and for the first time, people began buying undergarments in stores rather than making them at home. The standard undergarment of this period for men, women, and children was the union suit[?], which provided coverage from the wrists to the ankles (this "second skin" style is more commonly known as long johns[?] today). The union suits of the era were usually made of knitted material and included a drop flap in the back to ease visits to the toilet.

In the 18th century, women began wearing stays[?], a type of undergarment that wraps around the torso from behind and ties closed in the front. These stays were often stiffened in the 1750s and 1760s, when they became known as the corset. Different colors became available (thought linings remained white). The corset remained popular with aristocratic women well into the 19th Century, when the design was modified to fit much more tightly. A tiny waist came to be seen as a symbol of beauty, and the corsets were laced with whalebone or steel to accomplish this. This caused great pain to most women, and some even suffered damage to internal organs and bones as a result. These later corsets did not wrap around the breasts as their predecessors had. Breasts were thrust outward by many corset designs, but were otherwise allowed to hang loose.

The corset was usually worn over a thin shirt-like garment of cotton or muslin called a shift[?]. In the latter half of the 19th Century, long drawers called pantalets[?] or pantaloons[?] often accompanied the shift to keep the legs out of sight as skirts styles got shorter.

The other major female undergarment of this period was the Crinoline petticoat[?]. This underskirt served a similar purpose to the farthingales of the Renaissance, only the petticoat[?] kept skirts full by means of stiff fabrics and numerous layers rather than hoops. It also differed in that it was fairly inexpensive, and therefore commoners and aristocrats alike could afford to wear it (though wealthy women could usually afford petticoats of finer material and of more elaborate design).

The bustle[?], a frame or pad worn over the buttocks to enhance their shape, had been used off and on by women for two centuries, but it reached the height of its popularity 1880, and went out of fashion for good in the 1890s.


By the early 20th Century, the mass-produced undergarment industry was booming, and competition forced producers to come up with all sorts of innovative and gimmicky designs to compete. The Hanes[?] company emerged from this boom and quickly established itself as a top manufacturer of union suits. Textile technology continued to improve, and the time to make a single union suit dropped from days to minutes.

Meanwhile, designers of women's undergarments relaxed the corset. The invention of new, flexible but supportive materials allowed them to remove the whalebone and steel while still providing support.


The increase in the number of underwear manufacturers necessitated the birth of undergarment advertising. The first underwear print advertisement in the United States ran in the Saturday Evening Post[?] in 1911 and featured oil paintings by J.C. Leyendecker[?] of the "Kenosha Klosed Krotch". Early underwear advertisements placed emphasis on durability and comfort; fashion was never a selling point.

By the end of the 1910s, Chalmers Knitting Company[?] split the union suit into upper and lower sections, effectively inventing the modern undershirt[?] and drawers[?]. Women wore lacier versions of this basic duo known as the camisole[?] and drawers.

In 1913, a New York socialite named Mary Phelps Jacob[?] changed women's fashion forever when she cobbled the first brassiere together by tying two handkerchiefs together with ribbon. Jacob's original intention was to cover the whalebone sticking out of her corset, which was visible through her sheer dress. Jacob began making brassieres for her family and friends, and word of mouth soon spread about the garment. By 1914, Jacob had a patent for her design and was marketing it throughout the United States. Although women had worn brassiere-like garments years past, Jacob's was the first to be successfully marketed and widely adopted.

By the end of the decade, Amelia Jenks Bloomer had invented the loosely fitting trouser-like bloomers[?] that bear her name. Bloomers gained popularity with the so-called Gibson girls[?] who enjoyed more athletic pursuits such as bicycling and tennis. This new female athleticism helped push the corset out of style, as well. The other major factor in the corset's demise was the fact that metal was in short supply in much of the world during World War I. Steel-laced corsets were dropped in favor of the brassiere.

Meanwhile, the soldiers of World War I were issued button-front shorts as underwear. The buttons attached to a separate piece of cloth, or yoke[?], sewn to the front of the garment, and tightness of fit was adjusted by means of ties on the sides. This design proved so popular that it began to supplant the union suit in popularity by the end of the war. Garments of rayon also became widely available in the post-war period.


In the 1920s, manufacturers shifted emphasis from durability to comfort. Union suit ads raved about "patented" new designs that reduced the number of buttons and increased accessibility. Most of these experimental designs had to do with new ways to hold closed the crotch flap common on most union suits and drawers. A new woven cotton fabric called nainsook[?] gained popularity in the 1920s for its durability. Retailers also began selling preshrunk[?] undergarments.

Women's bloomers became much shorter and stockings covered the legs instead. The shorter bloomers became looser and less supportive as the boyish flapper look came into fashion. By the end of the decade, they came to be known as step-ins[?], very much like modern panties[?] but with wider legs, worn for the increased flexibility they afforded.

As dancing became a favorite pastime of young flappers, the garter belt[?] was invented to keep stockings from falling. Nevertheless, the increased sexuality of the flapper also made underwear sexier than ever before. It was the flappers who ushered in the era of lingerie.

A Russian immigrant named Ida Rosenthal[?] further developed the brassiere in this decade when she introduced modern cup sizes in 1928 for her company, Maidenform[?].


Modern men's underwear was largely an invention of the 1930s. On January 19, 1935 Coopers Inc.[?] sold the world's first briefs in Chicago, Illinois. The company placed a Y-shaped front and overlapping fly on knitted drawers in both short and long styles. They dubbed the design the "Jockey[?]" since it offered a degree of support that had previously only been available from the jockstrap[?] (the company itself would later adopt the name Jockey, as well). Jockey briefs proved so popular that over 30,000 pairs were sold within three months of their introduction.

Meanwhile, other companies began selling buttonless drawers fitted with an elastic waistband, the first true boxer shorts[?] (named for their resemblance to the shorts worn by professional fighters). Scovil Manufacturing[?] also introduced the snap fastener[?] at this time, which became a popular addition to various kinds of undergarments.

Women of this decade brought the corset back, now called the girdle[?]. The garment lacked the whalebone and metal supports and usually came with a brassiere (now usually called a bra) and often garters attached.


During World War II, elastic waistbands and metal snaps gave way once again to button fasteners due to rubber and metal shortages. Undergarments were harder to find, as well, since soldiers abroad had priority to get them.

At war's end, Jockey and Hanes remained the industry leader, but Cluett, Peabody and Company[?] would make a name for itself when it introduced a preshrinking process called Sanforization[?], which came to be licensed by most major manufacturers.

Meanwhile, some women readopted the corset once again, now called the waspie[?] for the wasp-shaped waistline it gave the wearer. Many women began wearing the strapless bra, as well, which gained popularity for its ability to push the breasts up and enhance cleavage.

1950s and 1960s

In the 1950s, underwear manufacturers began marketing printed and colored garments. What had once been a simple, white piece of clothing not to be shown in public suddenly became a fashion statement[?]. The manufacturers also experimented with rayon and newer fabrics like dacron and nylon. By 1960, men's underwear was regularly printed in loud patterns or with images ranging from messages to cartoon characters.

Women's undergarments began to emphasize the breasts instead of the waist in the 1950s. The decade saw the introduction of the bullet bra[?], which featured pointed cups. Fredericks of Hollywood's[?] push-up bra[?] finally hit it big in this decade as well.

Panty hose[?], which combined panties and hose into one garment, made their first appearance in 1959, invented by Glen Raven Mills[?] of North Carolina. The company later introduced seamless panty hose in the 1965, spurred by the popularity of the miniskirt.

Present Day

Underwear as fashion matured in the 1970s and 1980s, and underwear advertisers forgot about comfort and durability, at least in advertising. Sex became the main selling point, bringing to fruition a trend that had been building since at least the flapper era (underwear is the last barrier before nudity, and thus it acts as a sort of gatekeeper to sex). Performers in the 1980s such as Madonna and Cyndi Lauper also got into the act, often wearing undergarments on top of other clothes. Later, in the 1990s, hip hop stars would popularize a similar style, known as the sag[?], which allowed loosely fitting blue jeans or shorts to droop low, exposing the underwear.

Although it was worn for decades by exotic dancers[?], the thong[?] first gained popularity in South America, particularly in Brazil, in the 1980s. It was originally a style of swimsuit made so that the back of the suit is so thin that it disappears into the buttocks. By the 1990s, the design had made its way to most of the Western World, and thong underwear[?] became popular. Today, thong underwear is one of the fastest selling styles available among women and is even gaining some popularity among men.

In the 1990s, retailers started selling boxer briefs[?], which take the longer shape of boxers but maintain the tightness of briefs. Though marketed as a new design, these are actually quite similar to the bottom half of the two-part union suits worn in the 1910s.

Today, there are many options in underwear available to men. These include:

  • boxer style (at or near true waist, leg sections extending to thighs)
    • woven boxers (traditional)
    • knit boxers (like traditional but with more fabric give)
    • boxer briefs (also knit; more form-fitting)
    • pouch boxer briefs (boxer briefs but with pouch for genitals rather than access flap)
    • athletic-style (skin-tight, usually with no access pouch or flap; like short tights; a variety also is bike shorts)
  • jockey shorts (knit fabric, with access pouch or flap; usually at or near true waist, leg bands at tops of thighs)
    • traditional jockey shorts (vertical flap)
    • diagonal flap jockey shorts
    • pouch jockey shorts
    • low-cut jockey shorts
  • bikini briefs (usually lower than true waist, often at hips, usually no access pouch or flap, legs bands at tops of thighs)
    • high-side bikini briefs
    • low-side bikini briefs
    • string bikini briefs (the front and rear sections meet in the crotch but not at the waistband, with no fabric on the side of the legs)
  • g-string types (with a front pouch for the genitals but no rear coverage)
    • thongs (with a strap securing the pouch at the bottom rear, passing up the crack between the buttocks to the waistband)
    • athletic supporters (with two straps securing the pouch at the bottom rear, passing around the bases of the buttocks up to the waistband at the sides)
    • strapless pouches (with a front pouch and waistband only, no securing straps)

There are also many types of long underwear, union suits, and other variations of men's underwear.

The modern sexualization of underwear has started one more curious trend: not wearing underwear at all. This practice is known in slang as freeballing (or freebuffing for females); going commando (a term popularized by the TV show Friends) is also used for both sexes [1] (http://www.wordspy.com/words/gocommando.asp). This trend only emphasizes how far underwear has come from its beginnings as a hygienic aide. When modern people bathe every day, underwear is not nearly as necessary, and with underwear as the final barrier to sex, not wearing it at all is a powerful turn-on for many people.

Compare: swimwear

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