Underwear / Undergarments: Definition of Clothing

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Undergarments, also called underwear or sometimes intimate clothing, are clothes worn next to the skin, usually under other clothes. Wearing and changing underwear permits outer garments to be worn repeatedly without needing to be cleaned.

In addition to keeping outer garments from soiling, undergarments are worn for a variety of reasons: warmth, comfort and hygiene being the most common. Undergarments are often used for modesty or erotic display; sometimes both of these motivations are simultaneously present.

Undergarments can also have religious significance, as in the special temple garment worn by followers of the LDS Church (Mormons).

"Underwearing" (being in public wearing nothing but underwear)

Wearing just underwear in public is considered an intermediate form between being socially acceptably dressed and being nude. People are often arrested if found wearing only their underwear. Some prisons issue inmates specially dyed underwear, which often helps in catching escapees, who might strip off their prison jumpsuit and walk off a job site wearing only their underwear. Police response to underwearing depends on context. For example, in a public fountain that has been specifically designed for waterplay, it is often acceptable to run through it wearing only underwear, because of the recognized spontaneity of such activities on a hot day (e.g. people can't be expected to carry a bathingsuit with them everywhere they go). Thus cooling off in a fountain or lake is considered acceptable underwearing, because the underwearing serves a necessary purpose. Deliberate acts of underwearing are often done as a form of protest (e.g. "I'd rather be caught in my underwear than be caught wearing fur").

In such cases, the underwearers are usually thought of kindly, but end up getting off once the matters work their way though the court system. It is thus mainly the inconvenience of arrest that keeps underwearing under wraps. In other cases, corporations have used underwearing as a form of sensationalism for advertising. For example, freshpair.com had a number of models parading around New York's Times Square wearing nothing but their underwear. None of the models were arrested. Some feel that cops turning a "blind eye" to this activity is biased toward commerce (i.e. underwearers are OK as long as their cause is commerce, and not performance art or protest). Charges filed, pending arrest for underwearing are typically "disorderly conduct" rather than public indecency.

Of course a person is not underwearing when wearing only shirts and shorts that are designed to function as both underwear and outerwear.

Since there is no other word for underwearing, (i.e. nude, naked, and stripped usually refer to being completely naked), sometimes people who are wearing only underwear are referred to as naked. For example, the "naked cowboy" is a celebrity who often wears only underwear, boots, and a cowboy hat. In the Emperor's New Clothes, the emperor, wearing only his underwear, was referred to as "naked".

Historically T-shirts were originally considered underwear. Thus at one time, it was unacceptable to be seen in public in a T-shirt. People were required to wear at least two shirts in public: an outershirt, and an undershirt. More recently, T-shirts were re-interpreted as outerwear, and it is now acceptable to wear only one shirt in public.

These social constraints apply only to mixed-gendered spaces. For example, it is acceptable for a person to be with other people (of the same gender) when they are in a change room or other space that has been specifically designated for changing clothes.

Underpants are in British English also called pants. Women's underpants are also called knickers (British English) or panties (American English).

Two major types of men's underpants are the boxer short (shorts-length and loose) and the brief (smaller and tighter). The two are combined in the aptly-named boxer brief (long and tight). For performances, such as erotic dance, briefs are often preferred.

For more details and variations, see the Present Day section below.

For urinating the penis is either passed through a fly, or the front side of the underpants is lowered (they are flexible enough to do that without lowering the whole underpants). Even if a fly is present, it is a matter of preference which method is chosen.


Ancient and classical period

The loincloth is the simplest form of underwear, and it was probably the first undergarment worn by human beings. A loincloth may take two major forms. The first consists of a long, triangular piece of fabric with strings or strips of cloth sewn to the corners. The strings are tied around the waist, and the cloth is brought up between the legs and tucked into or otherwise fastened to the resulting band. The alternate form is more skirt-like: a cloth is wrapped around the hips several times and then fastened with a girdle. In warmer climates, the loincloth may be the only clothing worn (making it effectively not an undergarment), but in colder temperatures, the loincloth often forms the basis of a person's clothing and is covered by other garments. In most ancient civilizations, this was the only undergarment available (King Tutankhamun was buried with 145 of them). The loincloth continues to be worn by people around the world (it is the traditional form of undergarment in many Asian societies, for example).

Women in ancient societies usually wore loincloths as well. However, Greek and Roman women often wore straps of cloth across the breasts to support and hide them, and many Roman women wore legless panty-like garments around the hips and crotch.

Middle ages and Renaissance

In the Middle Ages, underwear became looser fitting, made of soft materials such as cotton. The loincloth was replaced by loose, trouser-like clothing called braies, which the wearer stepped into and then laced or tied around the waist and legs at about mid-calf. Wealthier men often wore chausses as well, which only covered the legs. By the Renaissance, the chausses became form-fitting like modern hose, and the braies became shorter to accommodate longer styles of chausses. However, chausses and many braies designs were not intended to be covered up by other clothing, so they are not actually underwear in the strictest sense.

Braies were usually fitted with a flap in the front that buttoned or tied closed. This codpiece allowed men to urinate without having to remove the braies completely. Henry VIII of England began padding his own codpiece, which caused a spiraling trend of larger and larger codpieces that only ended by the end of the 16th century.

The modern men's shirt appeared during this era, but it was originally an undergarment. Renaissance noblemen also adopted the doublet, a vest-like garment tied together in the front and worn under other clothing.

Medieval women usually wore a close-fitting underdress coupled with braies-like leg wrappings. Noblewomen sometimes wore a brief cotton or linen garment called a shift underneath this underdress, but it did not become commonplace until later centuries.

Renaissance fashion dictated that a woman's skirts stay full and voluminous. Noblewomen began wearing the farthingale, an underskirt with hoops sewn into it. By the end of the 16th Century, the hoops grew to be almost twice as wide as the person beneath.

Chastity belts also appeared during this period, invented by Crusaders worried about the fidelity of their wives back home (at least according to legend). Modern researchers are still unsure how commonly used such devices actually were.

Enlightenment and industrial age

The inventions of the spinning jenny machines and the cotton gin in the second half of the 18th century made cotton fabrics widely available. This allowed factories to mass-produce underwear, and for the first time, people began buying undergarments in stores rather than making them at home. The standard undergarment of the 19th century for men, women, and children was the union suit, which provided coverage from the wrists to the ankles (this "second skin" style is more commonly known as long johns today). The union suits of the era were usually made of knitted material and included a drop flap in the back to ease visits to the toilet.

In the 18th century, women began wearing stays, a type of undergarment that wraps around the torso from behind and ties closed in the front. These stays were often stiffened in the 1750s and 1760s, when they became known as the corset. Different colors became available (though linings remained white). The corset remained popular with aristocratic women well into the 19th century, when the design was modified to fit much more tightly. A tiny waist came to be seen as a symbol of beauty, and the corsets were laced with whalebone or steel to accomplish this. This caused great pain to most women, and some even suffered damage to internal organs and bones as a result. These later corsets did not wrap around the breasts as their predecessors had. Breasts were thrust outward by many corset designs, but were otherwise allowed to hang loose.

The corset was usually worn over a thin shirt-like garment of cotton or muslin called a shift. In the latter half of the 19th Century, long drawers called pantalets or pantaloons often accompanied the shift to keep the legs out of sight as skirts styles got shorter.

The other major female undergarment of this period was the Crinoline petticoat. This underskirt served a similar purpose to the farthingales of the Renaissance, only the petticoat kept skirts full by means of stiff fabrics and numerous layers rather than hoops. It also differed in that it was fairly inexpensive, and therefore commoners and aristocrats alike could afford to wear it (though wealthy women could usually afford petticoats of finer material and of more elaborate design).

The bustle, a frame or pad worn over the buttocks to enhance their shape, had been used off and on by women for two centuries, but it reached the height of its popularity 1880, and went out of fashion for good in the 1890s.

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