28 October 2009

Research: Men's Underpants

By Erastes

When you write romance, particularly historical romance, you need to know a lot about the clothes. For me, part of the sensuous and pleasurable aspects of writing in eras other than our own is to picture exactly what my characters are wearing, what those clothes are made of, how they are created, dyed, woven, etc. A historical writer has to be partly geek, and would fit right in with any society of living history buffs.

When you write books which are going to have the protagonists stripping off, then you need to know what's under those clothes, and when--like me--you write about homosexual men, you need a good grounding in what men wear under those breeches, those kilts (if anything) and those dandified trousers. And how they go on. And how they come off!

So I'd like to share a little with you about things I have learned about men's undergarments whilst researching for my books. Here I cover up to the Elizabethan age, I'll share later eras perhaps in another month.

Loincloths might still be around (roll on global warming!!), but they have been found in burial sites on the bodies of men living over 7,000 years ago. Who knows what sparked man to start covering his bits--it would hardly be warmth, after all. It would offer some level of protection from thistles I suppose, but not if a sabre toothed-tiger was coming at you at groin level.

Tutankhamun was buried with 145 loincloths. This seems either a lot, or not enough, depending on your point of view of how long the afterlife is going to be. Of course by this time, the loincloth was worn under a skirt. Still--roll on global warming!

The Ancient Greeks obviously didn't have to worry about sabre-toothed tigers, and consequently didn't wear any underwear at all. Good for them! Φοβάμαι τους Έλληνες όταν είναι πηγαίνοντας καταδρομέας!*

The Romans did, though00big sissies. Possibly because their empire stretched into chillier areas. They'd wear something called a subligaculum, which in modern terms means a pair of shorts or a loincloth and was worn under a toga or tunic.

Pull-on undergarments were invented around the 13th century, large baggy drawers called "braies" made from linen were worn by men under their clothes. This style of undergarment did not really change in design for 500 years--Plus ca change...I know some men who change them about as frequently--other than to be fashioned from better, finer fabrics and to have ornamentation.

These knickers shrank considerable during the Renaissance as the familiar image of cod-piece and hose emerged. The hose themselves were an open garment--not like our tights or hose of today. Tight on the legs and open at the front and back which could not be worn openly as the privities hung lose. As the doublet became shorter clearly something else was needed! The braies shrank to show off the hose, and the codpiece was developed to protect the wearer's modesty.

Or at least at first.

Gradually the codpiece evolved, became padded, shaped to fit and as some clearly showed were frankly showing off--and obviously exaggerating. Some of the most "impressive" are those belonging to Henry 8th and shown at the Tower of London.

What is interesting about fashion today is that of showing off one's designer underwear is not a new thing at all. The rich would commission the most exquisite undershirts, and underwear, fabulously expensive fabrics and meticulously embroidered. Why, they reasoned, am I paying for such incredible work that will never be seen? Well, partly because Sumptuary Laws came into force in many European countries, restricting the sumptuousness of dress in order to curb extravagance, protect fortunes, and make clear the necessary and appropriate distinctions between levels of society.

This led to the "slashing" fashions that we see in the Elizabethan period, where the overclothes had slits, the better to show off the gorgeous clothes being worn beneath, and thus bypassing the laws.

After these excesses calmed down, and waistcoat shirt and breeches took the place of doublet and hose, men returned to wearing braies or "strossers." During the English Civil War the only difference between undergarments and overgarments were the weight of the wool they were made from.

*I fear the Greeks when they go commando.

A history of Men's Underwear
Revival Clothing
Vintage Skivvies