It seems hard to believe, but until the end of the 18th century, “decent” women had always gone knickerless.
“Until the late 18th century, [women`s] underwear consisted only of smocks, shifts, stays and the highly important petticoats of all kinds” states the wonderfully named C. Willet Cunnington in his History of Underclothes (1992).
Which begs the question, why ?
Apparently it was yeast infections and crab lice, among other reasons suggest the authors of A History From Below; Women`s Underwear and the Rise of Women`s Sports (2004)
“Pre-20th century women had to do without knickers and the like because of the perpetual fear of thrush.”
This was in part due to the lack of in- door plumbing and the laissez faire attitude to personal hygiene.
Explorers returning from their travels in Turkey and Persia told of the existence of “harem pants” which briefly gained notoriety amongst the fashionable women of the time. Over time they gradually evolved into drawers, loose-fitting under-trousers with ribbons to “draw” them tight at the waist and the legs.
It appears that the only French women who wore underwear were ballet dancers. The ever vigilant Victorian sexpert Havelock Ellis recounts in his Studies in the Psychology of Sex ( 1897) that in 1727 a young ballerina had her skirt torn away by a piece of stage machinery, and the Police then issued an order, that in future no dancer could appear on stage without wearing drawers
Three events occurred in the following century that finally led to the great female “cover up”.
The first being the antics of two formidable women. Amelia Jenks Bloomer (1818-1894) and Elizabeth Smith Miller (1822 – 1911). They were both supporters of the early women’s movement and extolled the virtues of the Turkish pantaloon and knee length skirt combo later to be immortalised as bloomers.
Meanwhile the eccentric British botanist Sir Henry Wickham somehow convinced Brazilian authorities to “lend him” 70,000 rubber tree seeds for the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew. These seeds were then sent out to British plantations in Ceylon and Malaya where efficient production techniques made rubber far more available than before. A by- product of this “rubber boom” was the availability of cheap elastic.
The end of the 19th century saw the arrival of “closed” drawers with an elasticated side waist opening, and by the turn of the 20th century, “knickers” – the term taken from knickerbockers – had replaced the drawstrings with elastic.
Still on all matters rubber, the final event ending a millennia or two of “going commando” was the start of the Victorian cycling boom, started by John Dunlop’s (1840-1921) invention of the pneumatic tyre. The era’s hoop skirts were totally inappropriate for cycling. A woman cycling in a skirt was an eye-opener for men every time she raised a leg or fell off her bike.
By the 1920s, some women still wore drawers but many found knickers more practical. Wide frilly versions became known as French knickers and the closer fitting Directoire knickers sported elasticated tops and bottoms.
The next part of the gradual shrinkage of ladies underwear was the introduction of briefs. The first mention of “briefs” appears in the Sears Roebuck catalogue of 1930. It is believed that these were worn only monthly, to keep sanitary towels in place.
During the Second World War it was a question of “Keep calm and knit a pair” as due to widespread rationing, D.I.Y knitted knickers were the only feasible options. The military supplied directoire knickers worn by women in the Armed Services were known as “passion killers” due to their drab appearance.
In the 1950s, more and more knickers were machine manufactured and designs flourished in a variety of previously unheard of colours. In the “Swinging 60`s” bikini style knickers became very popular to fit in with the new fashion of mini- skirts and unisex trousers
The wheels of fashion then just kept on turning, leading to today’s infinite varieties of “undies” From the Bridget Jones retro- big pants to the dental floss- like thongs.