A brief history of briefs – and how technology is transforming your underwear
Slip. We tend not to talk about them but they are part of life (unless you become a commando).
Briefs have a fascinating history and are now transformed by technology, with high performance underwear that claims to do everything from filtering gas to emitting soothing vibrations.
The first type of boxer shorts was the loincloth worn by the ancient Egyptians.
Known as a schenti, it was made from woven materials, usually cotton and linen, held in place by a belt.
The lower classes and slaves were almost naked, so technically this loincloth was often an “outer garment”. But Egyptian art from 1189 BC. AD to 1077 BC. AD in the Valley of the Queens shows pharaohs wearing transparent outer garments, making the loincloth a kind of underpants.
In Europe in the Middle Ages (500-1500 AD), underwear consisted of a thin linen or cotton shirt for both men and women. A form of boxer shorts returned during the 15th and 16th centuries, when men’s leggings were bifurcated (split in half).
To provide additional protection for the male genitals, a padded fly has been added. The fly also served as a symbol of sexual energy, designed to enhance rather than conceal the genital area.
The arrival of drawers
From the early to mid-19th century, both men and women wore bifurcated drawers with separate legs – a type of knee-length pants that hung from the waist. This simple style of boxer shorts made it easier to relieve yourself, especially if multiple layers of petticoats or panties were worn.
Women’s closed-crotch underwear (pantalettes) appeared in the mid to late 19th century.
In 1882, robe reformer Dr Gustave Jaeger argued that wearing natural wool fibers close to the skin help disperse body poisons by letting the skin breathe. He also found that the elastic qualities of knitted clothes were more likely to promote exercise.
Also in the 19th century, the popularity of men’s long-legged pants led to a change in men’s underwear, with stockings (leggings) extending to the ankle. These were made of silk for the rich and of flannel, or later of wool, for the masses.
For women in the early 1900s, dressing involved several layers of underwear, including a shirt and drawers, followed by a constricting corset.
During World War I, more women performed physical labor in factories, mines, and farms and therefore needed utilitarian clothing. The silhouette of outerwear such as loose pants and coveralls paved the way for panties, which women began to wear from around 1916. From the 1920s, the corset was gradually replaced by less restrictive elasticated versions such as the belt and “Steps“gradually replaced the corset.
Latex, a rubber thread introduced in 1930, allowed stretchy underwear to become closer to the body. These eventually evolved into styles of underwear similar to those worn today. In 1938, after the invention of synthetic nylon fiber, light and easy to wash underwear began to appear.
Men’s underpants or underpants shorter at the crotch appeared after 1945. In 1959, a new synthetic elastomeric fiber called Lycra has been invented. Combined with cotton or nylon, it was strong, stretchy and recovered well. The result was more body-conscious underwear for men and women.
In the more permissive 1960s, underwear became shorter for both sexes, and the Y-front was largely phased out of men’s underwear. In the 1970s, underwear was virtually seamless. (The thong, or thong, I would say, is hard to define as boxer shorts – its main popularity seems to be that it offers wearers an invisible pant line.)
With advancements in fiber technology and knitwear manufacturing, underwear today can be as modest as a pair of Aussie Bonds briefs, or high tech with the inclusion of haptic communication.
For example, the Sydney, New York-born Wearable-X company teamed up with condom maker Durex to create interactive underwear called Fundawear. Fundawear has a “vibrant touch” which can be transferred from anywhere in the world via a smartphone app. Underwear contains actuators (which are similar to devices that vibrate smartphones). The couples who wear it converse through the app, transferring the sensations to each other’s underwear.
At the same time, the Modibodi and Thinx brands have developed reusable underwear for women having their period or suffering from incontinence.
The fabric technology allows the underwear to be rinsed in cold water, machine washed and, when dry, ready for reuse. Since its launch in 2014, Modibodi has grown into an Australian market leader in reusable menstrual underwear.
british brand Shreddies even developed “gas filter” underwear for men and women using carbon absorbent fabric. According to its website, the underwear uses “the same activated carbon material used in chemical warfare suits.” Which is good to know.
Medical underwear for postoperative and postnatal patients is also widely available in Western hospitals, providing infection control and wound care.
Advances in material manufacturing, additive fabric coatings, and intelligent body-centric textile applications have the ability to monitor patient physiological conditions and deliver personalized care and direct user feedback to medical specialists. University of California researchers has developped a textile-based printable electrochemical sensor, which can be used for a variety of medical and security applications. Soft textile sensors, for example, when printed on the elastic waistband of underpants, can recognize chemicals secreted through the skin.
The loincloth has come a long way.
Alana Clifton-Cunningham is Senior Lecturer in Fashion and Textile Design at Sydney University of Technology. This article originally appeared on The conversation.