Women wore their first pair of underwear later than men, here is how it happened

Men and women started wearing underpants a century apart. Though it seems unfair, here is the timeline of how it happened.

Men didn't wear underpants until the Middle Ages, what about women?
© Photo by: Adam Jeffery/CNBC
Men didn't wear underpants until the Middle Ages, what about women?

Underwear is such an integral part of our wardrobe, it’s hard to believe that it didn’t exist until relatively recently. And of course, women weren’t the first ones to wear them.

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When did men start wearing underwear?

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Throughout the Middle Ages, European gentlemen wore trouser-like garments called ‘braies’. Sometimes, they were underwear items with trousers worn on top, and in other cases, they were used as trousers without any other under-pieces. Braies were loose-fitting and reached about knee-length or mid-calf. They were tied at the waist.

But in the Late Medieval – Early Modern era, braies became shorter and were turned into undergarments. They were popular among European males in the Early Modern period too and usually had a front flap called ‘codpiece’ used for easier toilet access, like a modern zipper. The flap could be buttoned or laced closed. It was a very important part of male underwear in the 16th-17th century in Europe.

When did women start wearing underwear?

The first recording of women wearing anything that could be considered knickers came much later, towards the end of the 18th century. Though they didn't appear anything like this undergarment.

As fashion developed into the 19th century,underwear made some progress too, with woollen knickers becoming popular. Drawers, as they were then known, came in use. They could be decorated with lace and bands as women showed more interest in the look of their 'private pieces' and how it made them feel.

Knickers were usually worn below the knee until the 1920s when they became shorter.

During the Second World War, inventive women made sure they were still accessible by making them from old parachutes.

Photo by Patrick Riviere/Getty Images

Although women liked to jazz their undergarments up, knickers were still a very private item that generally wouldn’t be seen out in public. That changed in 1949 when American tennis player Gertrude Moran famously shocked a watching Wimbledon crowd by flashing her frilly underpants under her already-short playing skirt. This gained her the nicknames, Gussie Moran and Gorgeous Gussie.

During the 1970s knickers became even smaller until the 1990s saw the invention of the thong. However, later on, at the beginning of the 21st-century boys' style boxer shorts became a popular choice for women as well.

Women’s underwear was once seen as immodest

At some point in history, when women still had to wear big skirts and dresses, underpants were considered the most risqué of garments due to their direct contact with female genitals. In fact, they were so 'risqué' that it was almost more immodest to wear them than not, which is why, until the mid-nineteenth century, they were primarily worn by prostitutes and by little girls.

Sources used:

- Need Undies: 'Woman’s underwear through the years'

- National Clothing: 'Underwear in Europe in the Early Modern period: braies and pantaloons'

Women button on the left, men on the right: The reason why finally explained Women button on the left, men on the right: The reason why finally explained