The whims of ladies’ underwear have varied according to the culture, practicalities and fashion of their time. More about avoiding draughty drawers than inspiring eroticism, these close-contact items of clothing, throughout their clandestine history, have nonetheless caused men to quiver and stand to attention.
In warmer climes, the ancient Egyptian civilisation favoured simple loincloths that presumably allowed good air circulation and fast access. Likewise, the Etruscan and Roman women would wear a similar pelmet arrangement or shorts called a subligaculum.
This would consist of a cloth belt arrangement around the waist with a piece of cloth stretched between the legs to cover the genitals, with the more fashion conscious opting for material draping the buttocks and side-ties.
Roman ladies with cash to splash would have had the luxury of silk next to the skin and would thus have avoided any problems with overheating or chafing. The less well-heeled tolerated the bulkier and scratchier linen or wool options.
Along with the Rennaissance came men wearing underwear as outerwear, and the fashion of hose and large codpieces. These solid crotch ornaments served as a hatch through which urination, and sundry other activities, were made possible without removing clothing.
Henry VIII was renowned for his super-sized codpiece. This may have housed something personal and bulky, but the object in question was likely a cankerous willy with bandages soused in various unctions. Other less syphilitic individuals stored coins and keepsakes in their codpiece, close to their heart.
For the ladies, it did mean that the chaps were “at liberty” without too much trouble. At the same time, the ladies had nothing of substance to interrupt progress, with a simple shift and petticoat underneath the dress. The bodice would do little more than squeeze the breasts flat, and allow a heaving overspill, to raise the pulse and ardour of any codpiece-wearing admirer.
Through the 18th century, stays encouraged erect posture, ridiculously small waists and breasts to practically pop out of their prison. Laced in from an early age to form the much admired “wasp waist“, women endured physical damage to developing bones and internal organs. Petticoats and bustles filled the void beneath the skirt, but still the breeze circulated freely.
As the hemlines of the skirts crept up a little, the need for pantaloons became necessary for the pious Victorians. The word is derived from an Italian comedy character called Pantalone, who wore garments down to his ankles. These served to maintain modesty, and may have tantalised the hot-blooded young men of the time. The word “drawers” derives from the fact that one would “draw on” one’s pantaloons.
Elizabeth Miller invented loose trousers to be worn by women and this idea was promoted by Amelia Bloomer from 1849 – and thus they became known as bloomers.
Most often made with cotton, and wool for the colder months, until the 20th century these sexy numbers were crotchless and still allowed for good air circulation and passion on the move.
In 1913, the New York socialite Mary Phelps Jacob fashioned the first brassiere by attaching two handkerchiefs together and securing with ribbon, and so breasts were supported and contained thereafter. Perhaps she was bored in a restaurant one day and inadvertently invented the napkin-bra trick.
Underwear, and the accessible nature of undergarments, became less libertine with the progression of time. With the arrival of world war one, men were issued with button-fly shorts and thus their bids for freedom were curtailed, or at least slowed down. Women too were a more complicated prospect for the average lusty chap, wearing fully encapsulated drawers that disallowed draughts and discouraged exploration.
The rest, as they say, is history.