The idea of items of clothing being private or public or that a body can be in an appropriately clothed or unclothed state is a relative concept that differs over time and from culture to culture. No tribal society, unless it has been infiltrated by concepts of western dress, appears to have garments that could be considered as underwear: items of clothing that act as a layer of insulation between the skin of the body and its outer garments.
The anthropologist Ted Polhemus uses the example of the loincloth, which is a garment at once in direct contact with the wearer's genitals but at the same time open to the public gaze. He postulates that this intimacy is allowable in small established communities where everything is known of the participants, unlike the rituals followed in larger, more industrialized, and thus anonymous societies. It is only when the cultural notion of privacy is apparent that underwear can perform its ritualistic function of shielding the body from the open scrutiny of others.
It was in ancient Egypt that the concept of having a second layer of clothing between the skin and the outer, more decoratively embellished layer of dress was devised. At that time the inner layer was worn more as a status symbol than for any erotic or practical reasons.
In Europe and North America underwear appears to have developed in range and complexity as the sight of a naked body moves from being an everyday public occurrence to a social taboo, and codes of acceptable social etiquette and civility deem the naked body private. Strategies come into play to make the body respectable, and underwear thus achieves its primary role, to shield the sexual zones of the body from the gaze of others.
Up to the nineteenth century underwear in Europe and North America had two main functions: to protect expensive outer garments from the dirt of the body beneath, as bathing for most was an expensive and time-consuming luxury, and to add an extra layer of insulation. The first items of underwear were unisex and classless linen shifts with no particular erotic connotations. By the nineteenth century, however, the notion of underwear began to change as fashion became more inherently gendered.
Underwear remained practical and functional for men, with cotton being the staple material, but for women it became an erotic exoskeleton helping to achieve the fashionable silhouette by constraining the body and coding certain parts as sexual. The corset, for instance, derived from the cotte of the 1300s, a rigid laced tunic of linen, became a device used to compress the waist while simultaneously drawing attention to the breasts and hips. This leads to the inherent tension in the nature of underwear: it conceals but simultaneously reveals the erogenous zones of the body. Adam and Eve may have modestly covered their genitals with fig leaves, but by doing so, they drew attention to the sexual parts of their bodies.
The bra, for instance, supports the breasts but at the same time creates a cleavage, an entirely invented erogenous zone that exists only as a result of the underwear that creates it. Underwear also exists to disguise the messy reality of the functions of the body. On the one hand observers are fascinated by layers of clothing being stripped away but are repulsed when confronted with the traces of the body left behind. As the popular saying goes, "We should never wash our dirty linen in public."
Polhemus sees underwear as preventing what he dubs "erotic seepage" (p. 114) in public encounters, as in the case of men, whose penises are not always subject to voluntary control. Thus the tightly laced corset worn by women (and children up to the late eighteenth century, when the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau advocated their abolition for children) was not just a whim of fashion, it was also believed to lend support to the fragile bodies of women and to constrain their sexuality; women could be "strait-laced" but also "loose."
The corset is also an example of how certain forms of underwear have moved in and out of fashion and have been reworked into different garments that retain the primary function of shaping the body into the fashionable ideal. The couturier Paul Poiret may have declared the corset dead by the 1920s, but it merely went on to assume other forms such as the dancing corset, girdle, and the roll-on of the 1950s.
By the 1980s the corset had moved to outerwear through the work of British designer Vivienne Westwood who in her seminal Portrait Collection of 1990 featured photographically printed corsets using the work of eighteenth-century artist François Boucher (1703–1770). She subverted the whole notion of the corset as a physically restricting item of underwear by using lycra rather than the original whalebone or steel stays of the nineteenth-century version. The elasticized sides of Westwood's design meant an end to laces at the front or back. The corset could now be pulled over the head in one easy movement.
By the nineteenth century the range of underwear available for women had become elaborate and its use proscribed by ideas of sexual etiquette to the extent that the accidental revealing of underwear was considered as mortifying as the naked body itself. In 1930 J. C. Flügel in The Psychology of Clothes attempted an explanation: "Garments which, through their lack of ornamentation are clearly not intended to be seen (such as women's corsets and suspenders, the coarser forms of underwear) when accidentally viewed produce an embarrassing sense of intrusion upon privacy that often verges on the indecent. It is like looking 'behind the scenes' and thus exposing an illusion" (p. 194). Vestiges of this idea can be seen in contemporary culture, such as the acutely embarrassing state of a man being seen with his trouser zipper down, even if all he will be revealing is his underwear.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries underwear, in some instances, could not be referred to directly in polite conversation, with "unmentionables" being a favored phrase. The twentieth century brought changes, however, including a gradually more relaxed attitude toward both sexuality and underwear.
A key item of women's underwear was developed in 1913 when New York debutante Mary Phelps Jacob, under the name Caresse Crosby, designed one of first modern bras, although the notion of supporting the breasts dates back to the Roman Empire when women wore scarves or strophium to mark themselves out from the "barbarous" unfettered breasts of slaves. Jacob's bra was boneless and kept the midriff free, while suspending the breasts from above rather than pushing them upwards from beneath as was the nature of the corset.
Cantilevering was added to bras in the 1950s by firms such as Warner's, who had bought Jacob's original patent, and Triumph, whose cone-shaped, circular-stitched bra in nylon or cotton batiste was worn by the popular Hollywood incarnation of the Sweater Girl as exemplified by stars such as Jayne Mansfield and Mamie van Doren.
In America the union suit held sway for men until the 1930s, when the first shorts with buttons on the yoke, originally developed for soldiers during World War I, became more freely available. The union suit, fashioned out of knitted fabric that reached from the wrists to the ankles, was one of the first industrially produced items of underwear, and emphasized warmth rather than comfort or convenience. It made no direct reference to the penis—unlike the codpiece, which was less about sexuality and more about rank and status.
However, a massive cultural change occurred in the 1930s when Cooper Inc introduced its Jockey Y-front design with overlapping fly for ease of urination. In the same decade the boxer short, originally issued to infantrymen for summer wear in America during World War I, began its acceptability in men's underwear fashion. The 1960s saw a vogue for brightly colored under-wear in nylon and polyester for both men and women, which continued through the 1970s. By the 1980s manufacturers responded to what appeared to be a newly fashion literate male consumer, popularly referred to as the New Man, who was taking a more active interest in his grooming and, concomitantly, his underwear.
Calvin Klein helped in a reworking of masculinity as erotic at the end of the twentieth century with his advertising campaign by photographer Herb Ritts in 1993, using pop-star-turned-actor Mark Wahlberg. Wahlberg was portrayed in Calvin Klein underwear as a powerfully sexual figure, overturning the traditional language of advertising and its representation of male bodies. Wahlberg displayed his semi-clad worked-out body in a mainstream advertising campaign that appealed to both a male and female gaze. A man's body could be sexualized outside the pages of gay erotic imagery, and women could find pleasure in looking. The social and physical power of masculinity was no longer expressed solely through the world of work, but through a semi-nude body clad in designer underwear.
While male underwear was playing with the idea of the erotic as well as the practical, women's underwear began to make reference to athletics, reflecting an increasing interest and participation in exercise and the world of physical culture. From the early twentieth century, as cultural attitudes toward women and sport have changed and an athletic rather than reproductive function has been acknowledged, manufacturers have responded with more practical underwear. One important development was Dupont's invention of nylon in 1938, which helped in the creation of ranges of easy-care, drip-dry underwear. Lycra followed made in 1950, a new material of a knit of two yarns: a synthetic polyester or polyamide, and elastic fiber or spandex.
Underwear that made direct reference to athletics was to reach a height in the 1980s when aerobic exercise and the newly toned and muscled body that ensued became the cultural ideal for women. The runner Hinda Miller invented the sports bra, which became a classic of women's underwear design, made of stretch fabric with no fasteners so as to be pulled over the head with ease—a direct response to the needs of sportswomen that has entered mainstream fashion. The sports bra has become a signifier of a healthy lifestyle rather than a garment simply worn by women athletes. By the early twenty-first century many items of underwear had body control as their primary function. The taboos around the intake of food and keeping the inner workings of the body pure through organic food and practices such as colonic irrigation have influenced underwear design, which evokes a "naturalness" and a "simplicity" to match the twenty-first century obsession with body engineering. Ironically, this supposedly "natural" look runs concurrently with an emphasis on the artificial in the guise of the Wonderbra and other forms of more erotic and body shaping underwear.
Underwear is no longer unmentionable, and the world's leading fashion designers and celebrities are prepared to lend their names to or launch ranges of directional underwear design—from Australian model Elle Macpherson and pop star Kylie Minogue to brands such as Tommy Hilfiger and Chanel. Designer label underwear carries such cachet for the young consumer that it is pulled up the body so as to be displayed openly over the waistbands of jeans, following a look originally associated with the protagonists of hip-hop culture from the South Bronx of New York in the 1980s.
Carter, Alison. Underwear: The Fashion History. London: B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1992.
Flügel, J. C. The Psychology of Clothes. London: Hogarth Press, 1930.
Polhemus, Ted. Bodystyles. London: Lennard Publishing, 1988.