History of Lingerie: What Kinds of Underwear Women Wore In Ancient Time and Medieval Age

Archaeological evidences suggest that women have been wearing lingerie since 3000 years.

The Early History of Women’s Underwear

Early on, the Crete, Egyptians and French women wore a garment under the bust that merely supported and enhanced the breasts rather than covering them. The Greek women named them apodesmos. The Romans re-designed them and called themstrophium or mamillare.  The difference between the Greek and Roman wear was that, the later had basically covered the breasts and helped in flattening the chest rather than enhancing it.  Scattered evidence through poetry and pictorial arts has shown that in that era, women with larger breasts were considered unattractive and those who wished for breast augmentations were also criticized. Hence, it was appropriate for Roman women to employ an undergarment that prevented social stigma.

Although a simple loincloth was probably the first types of an under-pant, it was nonetheless modified by various groups of people. The Roman’s loincloth was called a subligar. Athletes wore its modified version called a subligaculum. 

It is still doubtful whether the Egyptian women wore an under-pant on a daily basis because of the hot climate; instead they wore kalasiris which was essentially a simple dress without any underwear.

Back in India, during the Vedic era (1500- 500 BC) the loincloth was worn by the people falling under the poorer class while its longer foot-length counterpart was adorned by the rich ones.

The material of the underwear has changed as per the advancement in technology and level of affordability. Skipping on the era that employed leaves and plant fibres as the basic material to cover the essentials, among the first materials to be used in the making of underwear were leather, wool and linen.  The olden lingerie was both hand and needle woven.

With little availability of dyes, the colours were allocated according to the class and authorities in a society and depicted a social status especially among the Romans.

The Medieval History Of Women’s Underwear

The Middle Age saw many changes in the world of lingerie. Women became more self conscious and sought for more comfort and attention to their natural curves.

This era redesigned the preliminary forms of underwear to a more comfortable kirtle. A kirtle was a long gown worn under the outer dress. In the early Middle Age, kirtle had wide and loose sleeves which later were modified to more fitting around the wrists. Later on, the hanging sleeves regained fashion. A kirtle was shown off through multiple slits on the outer gown and sometimes was made longer than the outer tunic just for the display.

Later on, smocks or chemise as called by the French came into the scene. These were very long version of a shirt that reached ankle length with varying lengths of sleeves. Ladies wore this without wearing any panties underneath.

Historical evidence shows that corsets were present since the 12th century, however, back then they were less popular. The sixteenth century became the turning point for corset made out of whalebones.  The year 1545 brought the wire incorporated corsets called the farthingale. The corset covered the entire torso, supported firmly the back and the chest and gave definition to a woman’s body.  It worked both ways; some were designed to enhance the busts while others flattened them.  However, as these garments were uncomfortably tight they resulted into internal organ displacement that raised health concerns. Despite this shortcoming, corsets are still found in the wardrobe of modern day women, albeit, more comfortable.

About the same time, a bum roll was another inner wear that was worn around the waist to hold out the dress. This allowed the ladies to walk more freely without having layers of fabric being trapped between the legs.

Towards the end of the Medieval period, the lingerie had another variety: a petticoat. A petticoat was an under-skirt attached to the corset. It was made out of various materials such as linen, leather or wool and came in variety of colours. They were later modified further by addition of whalebones, wires or wooden borders to give it a cone shape.

In 2008, the archaeological study in Austria found a lingerie piece that had well defined cups stitched together with a shoulder support, which looked like the modern day bra, raised many questions regarding the knowledge of lingerie in that era.

Reflecting back on the Middle Age, there is no doubt that woman in that era set the scene for the modern day lingerie.

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