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The Fascinating History of Underwear

For most of human history, apparel was just draped fabric. Undergarments, if worn at all, remained simple and usually bottomless. This article explores the fascinating history of underwear from the ancient Aztecs and Egyptians to the Greek and Roman era.

History of Underwear - Villa Romana del Casale Mosaic in Piazza Armerina, Sicily.
A bra-like garment was used by women of ancient Rome, as depicted on a mosaic from the Villa Romana del Casale in Piazza Armerina, Sicily.

When it Came to Ancient Undergarments Less Was Often More

By Ḏḥwty, Ancient Origins, October 2, 2015

Undergarments are an essential part of today’s society. They can be readily purchased from departmental stores, come in all shapes and sizes, and serve a variety of functions. In the ancient world, however, the situation was very different.

Loincloths: Underwear or Outerwear?

History of Underwear - Codex Mendoza
An illustration from the Codex Mendoza showing elderly Aztecs smoking and drinking. The Aztecs wore loincloths with and without outer garments. (Wikimedia Commons)

To begin with, undergarments were not exactly a standard type of clothing. The loincloth is perhaps the most basic type of undergarment available, and remnants of leather loincloths that are 7000 years old have been found.

In colder climates, the loincloth would be covered by outer garments, thus making it an undergarment. In warmer climates, however, the loincloth was worn alone, and was perhaps, technically speaking, not an undergarment.

Apart from leather, loincloths were also made using plant fibers. Undergarments were probably more often made using these materials, though they are less likely to survive in the archaeological record. Therefore, our knowledge of such articles of clothing is dependent on the available pictorial representations or written sources in many places.

History of Underwear - Queen Bint-Anath
Queen Bint-Anath and her daughter with a god and goddess as depicted in her tomb in the Valley of the Queens, Egypt. Bint-Anath and her daughter are both wearing kalasiris. (Wikimedia Commons)

Nevertheless, some undergarments of this type have survived over time. In the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh, Tutankhamun, various articles of clothing were found. These included tunics, shirts, ‘kilts’, socks, and a large supply of undergarments in the form of triangular loincloths made of linen. For the average ancient Egyptian, however, clothes were expensive.

Furthermore, the hot Egyptian climate meant that wearing lots of clothing was impractical. Therefore, the loincloth was probably the clothing of choice for the average man in ancient Egypt. For women, on the other hand, the usual clothing was a simple dress known as a kalasiris.

It is unclear if ancient Egyptian women wore undergarments, but considering the climate, it is unlikely that they did so.

Ancient Bras

History of Underwear - Minoan snake goddess
Minoan snake goddess or priestess wearing an apodesmos. It has been suggested the reasoning for an apodesmos was to enhance the breasts (and therefore fertility). (Wikimedia Commons)

The first evidence of women’s undergarments is said to have come from the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete. It has been claimed that in Minoan art, women are depicted as wearing a band of cloth to support their breasts. This article of clothing is said to be called an apodesmos, which was typically a woolen undergarment that bore a basic resemblance to the design of modern bras.

The apodesmos was wrapped in front of the chest, and fastened with pins in the back. The reason(s) behind the use of the apodesmos by Minoan women, however, is unclear. This practice may be considered as somewhat odd, as it is believed that women in the rest of the Greek world did not use undergarments…

More about the history of underwear. Read the full article here…

Source: Ancient Origins.

What we know about ancient clothing and the history of underwear is learned mostly from works of art and written sources. Also see… Sexuality in Art and Music Throughout the Ages.

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