When did undergarments become common in Europe?

On a discussion list that I’m on, somebody is arguing that underwear (i.e.: linen undertunics, chemises, that sort of thing) didn’t appear regularly in Europe until well into the 17th century. He’s also one of those people who claims that there was no such thing as bathing regularly before the twentieth century came along. Additionally, he claims that buttons, and the tighter fitting clothing they allow, reduced the infant mortality rate, which I just cannot parse.

Now, I was under the impression that undertunics/chemises appeared around the fourth century and were present as part of medieval clothing from there on out. Was this completely wrong? I just find it hard to believe that undgarments weren’t present for the noble and middle classes until the seventeenth century, especially since there are tons of extant examples of chemises and shirts from the late 15th century on.

If anyone can offer any illumination on this for me, especially cites from studies of medieval clothing or contemporary records, I’d be forever grateful. Extant clothing would be wonderful, too, if anyone knows of any examples that are specifically undergarments and predate the 12th century.

See here for some information on that subject. My books are all at home, so I will defer a more complete answer until later. :smiley:

Well, first of all, regarding baths, your friend is certainly wrong. The Romans built bath houses in most of their cities, and, in the middle ages, most cities and large towns had bath houses. What put an end to regular bathing, especially in northern Europe, was, first, the Little Ice Age, which made wood more expensive, and second, the Black Death, which destroyed social life in most of Europe, and which, one theory said, was caused by bathing.

As for undergarments, people tended to wear a linen gown under their clothing.

You also might want to check here:


The various pages on that site have descriptions of medieval clothing, along with pictures from the time showing them.

The Vindolanda Letters, which date from between AD 95 and 125, include in tablet tablet 346 a request from a Roman soldier that socks (udones) and underpants (subligarii) be sent in his next care package (it was a wee bit chilly up on Hadrian’s Wall).

:smack: – sorry, was writing without thinking, as usual – in the letter he states that he has sent the smalls in the care package.


There are extant letters from Katherine of Aragon (c.1500) to her dad complaining of how she didn’t have the money to even buy new chemises for herself, because Henry VII, her father-in-law, gave her no financial help. I presume that chemises were the sixteenth-century version of petticoats, and went under the corsets. No bras until the 19th century AFAIK, and anecdotes about various people falling off horses in front of various kings in England (I’m serious) makes it seem likely that people didn’t wear underpants as such, either.

In “An Underground Education”, Richard Zacks writes that women only started to wear underpants with great frequency when bicycles became popular. Until then, there really wasn’t much need to wear something under your skirt.

Thanks, everybody. This guy definitely isn’t my friend. He’s one of the only people I’ve “met” who can be smarmy through text. He keeps using cites from books and then not giving the full book title or author, so I’ve no idea what books he’s referencing. So irritating.

Unless you’re on your period. Are you a guy, Barbarian?

No, underwear wasn’t a period-related invention. Even after underwear came along, women were still using the same means of protection they always had: a belt which held a rag in place. Women, if at all possible, tried to refrain from activity during their periods to reduce the chances of humiliating accidents.

Victorian women were especially prone to this. It can be misleading to the casual reader-- one of the reasons why people think Victorian women had fragile health was because they were often “indisposed” or “ill” three or four days a month. Of course, only wealthy women could indulge themselves this way. Working-class women just had to double-layer the rags and hope for the best.

Red petticoats were something almost every adult woman had-- except for those in poverty, of course. They were intended to hide inevitable spotting.

Usually old rags were used, which were then washed carefully for the next time. Some women sewed stuffing between two rags to try to cut down on leakage.

It wasn’t until the twentieth century that the pad came along-- even up until around the sixties or so, women in some areas were still using the sanitary belt to hold them in place. (The museum in which I work has a pair of underpants which have pockets sewn into the crotch to hold a pad in place.)

Tampons were somewhat mistrusted until relatively recently. (Anne Frank’s diary refers to tampons and says they’re only for women who have had a baby.) Women who used them sometimes became dangerously ill, either from toxic shock from the materials used, or from improper usage. (Apparently, some women thought you inserted a tampon when your period started and left it there until it was over.)

Five years of posting and you haven’t figured it out? :wink:

Here’s a hint about what kind of equipment I have under my pants. And why I’m intimately familiar with not only periods, but can tell you that in Manhattan, hospitals still issue post-partum women pads and a sanitary belt.

Anywho, the advent of female bicycling led to the popularity of the bloomer-- imagine long boxer shorts with a tie-draw at the bottom to help stay in place.

It was my impression that underwear only first became widespread after industrialisation in the 18 and 19 century made cotton widely and cheaply available. Before then some people would have used wool, but that was scratchy and hard to wash. Perhaps some in the upper classes would have used silk before that – but that was never commonly available.

Their linen was made from linen, also called flax (“hør” in danish). Hence the garments were called “linen”.
AFAIK underpants were a comparatively late invention. At least I know that 17th-18th century men from the lower classes would wear an extra long undershirt, that they pulled in between the legs, and then pull up their trousers to hold it in place. The bottom of the shirt would then serve as a protective layer between the skin and the trousers.

Undergarments would definitely have been made from linen. Not only is linen much more comfortable than wool against the skin, it is also far easier to launder, and it is absorbant, too. And before cotton was readily available, flax (the plant linen is derived from) was much more commonly cultivated than it is now, so linen would not have been a luxury item as it is today.

The Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health (no, I’m not kidding) has a page discussing just what women wore when they had their periods. A belt and pad looks hi-tech compared to what some women were using. Sanitary apron, anyone? Or maybe you’d prefer to knit your own pads

The rags were often burned afterward according to the women in my family. My grandmother used old rags at least part of her life. Also, premade women’s sanitary napkins were available from the Sears and Roebuck 1889 catalog; our library had a copy.

That would explain the origin of a french saying “They are like ass and shirt” (“Il sont comme cul et chemise”) when refering to two people who have close ties/ are supportive of each other (always used when criticizing said people, for some reason), or sometimes even : “They are like ass and shirt, there’s always one to wipe the other”.

Some women could afford to throw rags away, some could not. Same with purchasing them.

I’d imagine that burning them must have caused an awful stink. I bet a lot of women simply tossed them the hole in the outhouse. (A friend of mine does archaeological digs in old outhouses. Cloth would not survive, but he’s found some pretty interesting stuff.)

Well, my point was that 1889 was before the twentieth century.

These linen undershirts were quite often smocked at the neck and sometimes that smocking was visible peeking above the outer garments. It is hinted at in many old paintings and as painting became more detailed, it can be seen more clearly. This allowed the neck to be resonably stretchy without elastic and also to gathered neatly a large quantity of cloth so movement would not be restriced as much. Smocking will also adjust in the third dimension, so it could be made to lie comfortably against the skin and not curl away like a fixed woven band would. Smocking is more durable than just a drawstring and a single broken thread would not necessarily mean the whole neckline would come undone like a broken drawstring would. Smocking can be done with the supplies needed for the rest of the tunic and is not so labor intensive as to be impractical on a common garment.


Come to think of it, I’d say there might still be some poor women who employ this method in Appalachia and the like. Disposable supplies can be expensive.

Clean underlinen was a matter of pride for the wealthy. Considering the amount of effort it took in days of primitive laundering techniques, snowy-white linen was something of which to be justly proud.

Fashion tends sometimes made the underlinen an integrated part of the outfit. In Tudor times, sleeves were slashed to show the linen below. Here is a portrait of Henry VIII with the bodice of his outfit slashed and the linen pulled through in puffs. This unknown lady has very large puffs of linen pulled through slashes in her sleeves. In this portrait of Mary I, you can see the collar of her linen. In Elizabthe I’s time, this would evolve into the elaborate ruff.

Elaborate outer garments could not always be washed, but underlinen could. Though the body beneath might not have been washed for a while, a person was considered clean if their underlinen was.