What Is The History Of Underwear?

woman wearing a matching black triangle bralette and underwear next to a mirror

This morning I was bleary-eyed and getting dressed when I had these half-asleep thoughts: What is the history of underwear? When was underwear invented and who first decided their nether regions deserved an extra bit of protection? What was the first style of underwear—bikini underwear or hipster panties? Who invented thongs and why?

Yes, I know this is a strange direction for my brain to take first thing in the morning, but I do write for an underwear blog, after all!

For the rest of the day, I couldn’t get those questions out of my head. I obviously had to do a deep dive on it as I was winding down. And it’s actually pretty fascinating, and like a lot of fashion, reflects the values and cultural practices of the time! So without further ado, I present to you: the history of underwear timeline from the first pair to your last wear!


the Acropolis of Greece lit up by the sun against a blue sky

When was underwear invented? We’re not 100% sure, but the very first evidence of underwear appears on Sumerian terra cottas from around 3000 BC. They depict two women: one in a loincloth and one in briefs. However, this was rather rare for the time period because women going commando was much more common.  

In ancient Greece, the history of mens underwear begins. Both men and women wore chitons, or floor- or knee-length fabric draped over one shoulder that mostly covered the genitals. Plus, the women of Crete were the ones who invented bras, or at least breast coverings!

However, in ancient Rome, they wore loincloths or togas to cover themselves. And people of higher status would wear multiple layers of cloth to symbolize their wealth and power. Southern European societies relied on cotton or linen, but hemp was the most popular fiber in ancient northern Europe. That means they were rocking hemp underwear long before we came along!

the sphinx statue in Luxor against red desert rock

Meanwhile, in ancient Egypt, people began wearing waist-strings, which were essentially just belts. Eventually though they began covering their genitals with extra fabric hanging from the waist-bands for a bit more coverage.

Interestingly, for a lot of ancient societies, early underwear wasn’t about protecting your most sensitive bits. Instead, they were a status symbol. And most of them were basically transparent, so you could see everything anyway.

However, going into the 2nd-5th centuries, women in particular started wearing larger, more substantial styles of underwear. For example, Roman women started wearing tighter briefs that resemble today’s bikini-style undies. And Saxons in Britain began wearing short trousers that look a lot like long mens boxers under their tunics!


 a colorful stained glass window light up in an old stone building

The Middle Ages, or from about 476 AD-the 15th century, brought some pretty big changes to the world of underwear in the West. Increased trade and exposure to the East brought the idea of women wearing trousers under their tunics and dresses.

During this time, both men and women started wearing tight clothes and their underwear began to fit the style. Instead of drapey undergarments, they began wearing tighter, lighter underwear for actual protection. For example, aristocratic women wore two dresses: one outer one made of colorful and more durable materials, and one underdress made of lightweight material like linen to protect the skin from the heavy outer dress material.

However, as the Church became more and more important in society, people’s views and use of underwear changed. The idea that bodies were sinful became popular and suddenly underwear was taboo and a source of shame. Underwear lost its importance during this era and it was more common to see people add outer layers, rather than wear undergarments specifically designed to cover the genital area.

old stone building with an open gate and a wooden bridge leading into it

The Saxons in Britain did things a bit differently, though. While both men and women used to wear trousers with a slit in them, during the Middle Ages, men began wearing shorter and shorter styles of drawers and removed the slit completely. After the year 1340, these drawers only went to mid-thigh or shorter and became much tighter…who knew my ancestors were rocking some Middle Age hoochie-daddy shorts?

Women in Britain also wore smocks, AKA ankle-length dresses made of linen, silk, or hemp fabric. And because they were usually skin color, they were one of the first erotic pieces of underwear, in a Middle Age nude-illusion moment, if you will. In 1306, Saxon women also started wearing stockings.


a renaissance period building in pale yellow against a cloudy sky

“It’s in with the new and out with the old!” - Sharpay Evans (Or probably people in the Renaissance Period about underwear). 

During the Renaissance period (around 14th-17th centuries), underwear underwent a renaissance of its own. Rather than just a layer of clothing for warmth, underwear became something you could use to create a silhouette. And they were usually heavily perfumed to cover up the stench from the time period’s less-than-stellar hygiene practices (I know, ew). However, undies were still about showing your wealth rather than protective or erotic purposes.

European women during this time specifically wore a lot, and I mean A LOT, of undergarments. For example, in France, high-class women would wear stockings, a garter, a chemise (silk smock), corset, and hooped petticoat! The hooped petticoat was actually called a farthingale, which sat underneath their skirt for added volume. Some people even believe that farthingale were also protection against unwanted touches!

a white corset being laced up by a pair of hands

This was also when corsets became more common, mostly amongst women of social status. However, men also wore a version of a corset, called a placard. It went from the bust to below the waist to create a straighter silhouette.

The history of men’s underwear revolves around undershirts during this time. It was actually very fashionable to have slashes in your overcoat to reveal your undershirt and show your wealth. Plus, these undershirts usually had some pretty crazy neck ruffling, which also illustrated your status. The shirt was shaped to emphasize the wide shoulders and chest.


wrinkled pale yellow silk

Underwear during the Enlightenment period began to relax a bit. Rather than heavy, boldly colored underwear, people started wearing lighter silk pieces in softer colors. And people switched from wool to cotton because it harbored less lice (shudder).

During this period, women’s underwear became more of an erotic thing! Women began to show off their petticoats as a fashion statement. They’d wear thinner skirts and lighter hoops and would even pull their skirt trains up to reveal them. For a saucier decolletage, women would show off the lacy tops of their chemises (smocks).

a man’s bottom half wearing black trunks underwear with balled up fists at his side

In terms of the history of mens underwear, this was a time of silky trunks underwear and over-the-top undershirts. Think: ruffles, elaborate sleeves, and amazing embroidery. This included their special nightshirts. Imagine wearing a ruffled shirt to bed—I couldn’t! And in a nod to better hygiene, their undies usually had a detachable and washable lining. Hooray for less skid marks!

For both women and men, bathing became much more popular during the end of Enlightenment. Being clean was a symbol of gentility. This was reflected in clothing, as well—Suddenly, people needed more than one pair of underwear. And people without status also began wearing underwear, so it was a good time to get into the undies business.


 a light colored house from the Victorian Era

During the Victorian Era, more people started wearing underwear regularly. However, this meant that it was no longer a status symbol and thus people weren’t as motivated to show it off anymore. And women’s style also reflected not only their status, but also their morality. Women started dressing more modestly, so they might show the border of their petticoat (scandalous!), but certainly not any more than that.

Plus, with the more modest style, women began wearing bigger underwear. They typically wore drawers, as pantaloons were deemed “immoral.” However, they would still use corsets and stays to create a very small waist. One horrifying fact? Some women even had to wear them at night because they were no longer able to sit upright without them.

In 1851, women’s underwear history changed forever thanks to early feminist Amelia Bloomer. She created women’s underwear styles like bloomers. They were very loose, lightweight pants worn under a shorter skirt. Many women used them when playing sports.

Men could still find both short and long mens underwear types made out of cotton or heavy silk. And men’s corsets were still popular until around the 1850s when they quickly went out of style. The biggest change in the history of mens underwear was the introduction of elastic waistbands in 1844. I personally would rather go commando than wear underwear without an elastic waistband but that’s just me!


two soldiers with full gear on in the gunners of tanks

In the early 1900s, practical underwear was all the rage, especially for men. With a world war looming in Europe, a lot of things simplified, including the materials used to make undies. Plus, with the invention of viscose and acetate, it was possible to quickly create cheap pairs of undies.

Many women ditched their superfluous undergarments like chemises, corsets, and petticoats. Drawers made from cotton and lawn became a lot more popular. This was partially because of the leagues of women entering the workforce for the first time, contributing to the war effort.


red haired woman wearing an all black and red spandex outfit

One of the biggest changes in the history of underwear came in the 1960s with the introduction of spandex and lycra.

Women’s underwear became a lot smaller and tighter because the stretchy materials made it more comfortable and easy to move in. Plus, in the 1970s and 1980s, exercise became more popular which required more supportive underwear. Men’s underwear also became smaller. Undershirts were replaced with regular tee shirts as we know them. And they were acceptable to wear on their own.

In 1974, Rudi Gerreich invented thong underwear, reflecting the more freedom around expressing your sexuality. And thongs were popular with men and women at the time! And in 1990, John Varvatos invented the boxer briefs, which revolutionized the history of mens underwear.

Since the 1990s, not much has changed for men or women’s underwear. However, with the body positive movement, many more brands are making size inclusive undies. And brands are starting to invest in more sustainable fabrics like organic cotton and hemp to help protect the planet with their undies. I’d say those are some pretty big improvements!


two women's butts from behind wearing thong underwear

Whew—that was a lot! Let’s do a speed round of underwear history trivia:

  1. The first evidence of underwear is from the year:
    1. 1500 BC
    2. 1987
    3. 3000 BC
    4. 210 AD
  2. When did corsets become common?
    1. Enlightenment
    2. Renaissance Period
    3. Victorian Era
    4. Ancient times
  3. Some women had to wear ____ at night during the Victroian Era:
    1. Back braces
    2. Robes
    3. Nightcaps
    4. Stays
  4. Why did women start wearing more practical underwear in the early 1900s?
    1. They entered the workforce.
    2. Frilly underwear was seen as immoral.
    3. It was trendy to wear minimalist clothing.
    4. None of the above.
  5. Who invented the thong in 1974?
    1. Stewart Petit
    2. Rudi Gerreich
    3. Henry Schue
    4. Bob Plassey



  1. C
  2. B
  3. D
  4. A
  5. B

How many did you get right? Let me know in the comments below!

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