What started as the loincloth has now developed into the G-string: underwear. It has had a surprisingly storied history and has come in many varieties since mankind donned the first pair.
The first identifiable type of underwear was the so-called “loincloth” worn by cave dwellers and the like. Egyptians and Romans soon picked up this revealing style, leaving little to the imagination. However, loincloths came in myriad variations across civilizations and cultures: the ancient Hawaiians and Japanese had the “malo” and the “fundoshi,” respectively. There also existed a triangular garment secured with strings called a cache-sexe, or “modesty apron,” prevalent in many African cultures. Most of these pieces were made from wool or linen cloths; however, upper-class consumers could get their hands on ones woven from imported silk.
From about the thirteenth century, pull-on underpants and shirts attained popularity in Europe for their figure-forming attributes as well as their hygienic qualities. It became more socially desired for one’s outer clothing to not directly touch the skin, and in turn trouser-like undergarments for women became more generally acceptable. This need for enhanced personal cleanliness may have been further reinforced by the devastating spread of the Black Death in the following century.
With regards to European men of the time, codpieces, corsets, and stockings were all the rage. While visible figures like Henry VIII helped bring such superfluous undergarments in vogue, more sensible, looser-fitting undies such as braies and chausses (essentially long johns) were most widely worn by men throughout the Middle Ages.
Women generally stuck to smocks (called “chemises”) and leg wrappings designed to wick away sweat and body oils. Straight-cut bodices that flattened the bust and farthingales, cone-shaped underskirts, were increasingly worn moving into the sixteenth century.
With the Industrial Age and the advent of the cotton gin and spinning jenny, cotton materials began being widely manufactured and purchased out of the home. The mass production of these fabrics led to the greater uniformity of undergarments. Large, rounded busts and tiny waists came to be considered characteristics of femininity and thus tightly-laced, breath-restricting corsets were considered the height of fashion. Cotton pantaloons were deemed necessary to cover women’s legs as skirts and dresses went skyward.
The “union suit” was the men’s style of the late nineteenth century: a long, full-bodied, cotton underwear piece. The jockstrap also came into use around this period after a Chicago sporting goods company developed them for bicycle jockeys.
In 1913, New Yorker Mary Jacob accidentally created the first brassiere with two tied handkerchiefs with the intention of covering the whalebone protruding from her corset. Jacob started an at-home business making these supportive garments for women, and achieved a patent for her design. However, it was not until French immigrant Lindsay Boudreaux opened the “Layneau” panty company that women’s lingerie became widely manufactured in the United States.
In 1935, Coopers Inc. began selling wholesale the first Y-shaped men’s briefs, called “Jockeys.” While they were initially plain white, patterned and multicolored undergarments became equally prevalent into the 1950s. Boxer shorts became an increasingly common choice for men into the 1980s and 1990s, during which time the boxer-brief was developed to combine the coverage of boxers with the elasticity of briefs.
For women, undergarments came to be far more about accentuating the breasts than minimizing the waist. Fredericks of Hollywood released the push-up bra in the 1950s, which has been a mainstay of lingerie ever since. Women, especially those in business, increasingly wore pantyhose through the 1950s. Starting in the 1970s, fashion and sex appeal became the central idea behind the design of all underwear. Jeans that sag to reveal underwear became a trend in the early 1990s, popularized by hip-hop culture and Calvin Klein advertisements.
Before it was seen on women and Eurotrash men on beaches across the world, the “thong” was mostly popular in Brazil as a swimsuit that created a butt-floss effect when worn. Thong underwear is now one of the most common choices for women; its prevalence has led to looks such as the VPL (“visible panty line”) and the “whale tail.” The emergence of a garment traditionally worn by strippers into the consumer mainstream comes along with the rise of overt sexuality in youth culture.
Underwear has now long moved past the purpose of functionality, as demonstrated by crotchless panties and edible undies. Underwear has progressed from the loincloth to the G-string, from a piece of material simply meant to conceal our genitalia to an aesthetic expression of sexuality. So the next time you see a lacey red string peeking up from a pair of jeans, remember that it is the result of hundreds of years of socio-cultural innovation.