Undergarments are clothes worn under other clothes, often next to the skin. They keep outer garments from being soiled by perspiration, shape the body and provide support for parts of it, and in cold climates help the wearer to keep warm. Undergarments can be used to preserve the wearer's modesty, as well as for erotic effect. Special types of undergarments have religious significance. Some items of clothing are designed as underwear, while others such as T-shirts and certain types of shorts are appropriate both as undergarments and as outer clothing. If made of suitable material, some undergarments can serve as nightwear or swimsuits.
Undergarments commonly worn by women today include brassieres and panties (also known as knickers), while men wear briefs, boxer shorts or boxer briefs. Items worn by both sexes include T-shirts, sleeveless shirts, bikini underwear, thongs and G-strings. In countries where the weather is cold, long underwear provides warmth.
TerminologyThere are a number of alternative terms for undergarments. "Underclothes", "underclothing" and "underwear" are formal terms, while undergarments may be more casually referred to as "undies". In Australia, one may hear undergarments being called "Reg Grundys" (rhyming slang for "undies") or "Reginalds", while in the UK the term "smalls" is sometimes used.
Women's undergarments are collectively known as "lingerie". They may also be called "intimate clothing" or simply "intimates".
An "undershirt" is a general word for a piece of underwear covering the torso, while "underpants" (in the UK, often simply "pants"), "drawers", or "shorts" enclose the genital region. Terms for specific forms of undergarments are listed in the table below.
FunctionUndergarments are worn for a variety of reasons. They keep outer garments from being soiled by perspiration. Women's brassieres provide support for their breasts, and men's briefs serve the same function for the male genitalia; a corset is worn to mould the torso into a certain shape. For additional support and protection when playing sports, men often wear more tightly fitting underwear, including jockstraps and trunks. Women may wear sports bras which provide greater support, thus increasing comfort and reducing the chance of damage to the ligaments of the chest during high-impact exercises such as jogging.
In cold climates, undergarments are an additional layer of clothing that help the wearer to keep warm. Undergarments can be used to preserve the wearer's modesty – for instance, some women wear camisoles and slips (petticoats) under clothes that are sheer. Conversely, undergarments can also be worn for erotic effect. It is possible to purchase underwear made specifically for sexual titillation, such as edible underwear and crotchless panties.
Some items of clothing are designed as underwear, while others such as T-shirts and certain types of shorts are suitable both as undergarments and as outer clothing. The suitability of underwear as outer clothing is, apart from the indoor or outdoor climate, largely dependent on societal norms, fashion and the requirements of the law. If made of suitable material, some undergarments can serve as nightwear or swimsuits.
Undergarments can also have religious significance:
- Judaism. Some Orthodox Jews wear a four-cornered prayer shawl called a tallit katan, which has tzitzit (fringes) attached to the corners, draped over their shoulders. To conform with societal dress codes, a tallit katan is often worn beneath one's shirt, but above an undershirt as it should not come into contact with the skin.
- Mormonism. Most members of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) wear special temple garments after they have been endowed in a temple to help them remember the teachings of the temple.
- Sikhism. One of the panj kakaar (five articles of faith) that Sikh men wear is a type of underpants called the kaccha, which are similar to boxer shorts.
Types and stylesCommon contemporary types and styles of undergarments are listed in the table below.
Fashions and trends
Designers and retailersA number of major designer labels are renowned for their underwear collections, including Calvin Klein and Dolce & Gabbana. Likewise, specialist underwear brands such as 2(x)ist, C-IN2, Ginch Gonch and Lord, are constantly emerging.
Specialist retailers of underwear include high street stores La Senza (Canada), Agent Provocateur (UK), Victoria's Secret (USA), and GapBody, the lingerie division of the Gap established in 1998 (USA). In 2008 Abercrombie & Fitch opened a new chain of stores, Gilly Hicks, to compete with other underwear retailers.
Exposed undergarmentsUnderwear is sometimes partly exposed for fashion reasons or to titillate. A woman may, for instance, allow the top of her brassiere to peek out from under her collar, or wear a see-through blouse over it. Some men wear T-shirts underneath partly- or fully-unbuttoned shirts.
A common style among young men is to allow their trousers to sag below their waists, thus revealing the waistband or a greater portion of their boxer shorts. A woman wearing low-rise trousers which expose the upper rear portion of her thong underwear is said to display a "whale tail".
Not wearing undergarmentsNot wearing undergarments under one's outer clothing is known in American slang as "freeballing" for men or "freebuffing" for women; in addition, the term "going commando" is used for both sexes. People choose to forgo underwear for reasons of comfort, to enable their outer garments (particularly those which are form-fitting) to look more flattering, or because they find it sexually arousing. The practice is not without its risks, particularly for women, some of whom have been the victims of upskirt photographers.
Certain types of clothes, such as cycling shorts and kilts, are designed to be worn or are traditionally worn without underwear.
The loincloth is the simplest form of underwear; it was probably the first undergarment worn by human beings. In warmer climates the loincloth was often the only clothing worn (effectively making it an outer garment rather than an undergarment), as was doubtless its origin, but in colder regions the loincloth often formed the basis of a person's clothing and was covered by other garments. In most ancient civilizations, this was the only undergarment available.
A loincloth may take three major forms. The first, and simplest, is simply a long strip of material which is passed between the legs and then around the waist. Archaeologists have found the remains of such loincloths made of leather dating back 7,000 years. The ancient Hawaiian malo was of this form, as are several styles of the Japanese fundoshi. Another form is usually called a cache-sexe: a triangle of cloth is provided with strings or loops, which are used to fasten the triangle between the legs and over the genitals. Egyptian king Tutankhamun (1341 BC – 1323 BC) was found buried with numerous linen loincloths of this style. In the latter half of the 19th century, as skirt styles became shorter, long drawers called pantalettes or pantaloons often accompanied the shift to keep the legs out of sight.
As skirts became fuller from the 1830s, women wore a profusion of petticoats to achieve a fashionable bell shape. By the 1850s, stiffened crinolines and later hoop skirts allowed ever wider skirts to be worn. 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 reached the height of its popularity in the later 1880s, and went out of fashion for good in the 1890s. Women dressed in crinolines generally wore drawers under them for modesty and warmth.
Another common undergarment of the late-19th century for men, women and children was the union suit. Invented in Utica, New York, and patented in 1868, this was a one-piece front-buttoning garment usually made of knitted material with sleeves extending to the wrists and legs down to the ankles. It had a buttoned flap (known colloquially as the "access hatch", "drop seat" or "fireman's flap") in the back to ease visits to the toilet. The union suit was the precursor of long johns, a two-piece garment consisting of a long-sleeved top and long pants possibly named after American boxer John L. Sullivan who wore a similar garment in the ring.
1900s to 1920s
By the early 20th century, the mass-produced undergarment industry was booming, and competition forced producers to come up with all sorts of innovative and gimmicky designs to compete. The Hanes company emerged from this boom and quickly established itself as a top manufacturer of union suits, which were common until the 1930s.
1970s to the present dayUnderwear as fashion matured in the 1970s and 1980s, and underwear advertisers forgot about comfort and durability, at least in advertising. Sex appeal became the main selling point, in swimwear as well, bringing to fruition a trend that had been building since at least the flapper era.
The tank top, an undershirt named after the type of swimwear dating from the 1920s known as a tank suit or maillot, became popular warm-weather casual outerwear in the US in the 1980s. Performers such as Madonna and Cyndi Lauper were also often seen wearing their undergarments on top of other clothes.
Although worn for decades by exotic dancers, in the 1980s the G-string first gained popularity in South America, particularly in Brazil. Originally a style of swimsuit, the back of the garment is so thin that it disappears between the buttocks. By the 1990s the design had made its way to most of the Western world, and thong underwear became popular. Today, the thong is one of the fastest-selling styles of underwear among women, and is also worn by men.
While health and practicality had previously been emphasized, in the 1970s retailers of men's underpants began focusing on fashion and sex appeal. Designers such as Calvin Klein began featuring near-naked models in their advertisements. The increased wealth of the gay community helped to promote a diversity of undergarment choices. In his book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (1975), Andy Warhol wrote:
I told B I needed some socks too and at least 30 pairs of Jockey shorts. He suggested I switch to Italian-style briefs, the ones with the T-shaped crotch that tends to build you up. I told him I'd tried them once, in Rome, the day I was walking through a Liz Taylor">Elizabeth TaylorLiz Taylor movie – and I didn't like them because they made me too self-aware. It gave me the feeling girls must have when they wear uplift bras.
Warhol liked his Jockey briefs so much that he used a pair as a canvas for one of his dollar-sign paintings.
In the UK in the 1970s, tight jeans gave briefs a temporary edge over boxer shorts, but a decade later boxers were given a boost by Nick Kamen's performance in Levi's "Launderette" TV commercial for its 501 jeans, during which he stripped down to a pair of white boxer shorts in a public laundromat.
The 1990s saw the introduction of boxer briefs, which take the longer shape of boxers but maintain the tightness of briefs. Hip hop stars popularized "sagging", in which loosely fitting jeans or shorts were allowed to droop below the waist, exposing the waistband or a greater portion of boxer shorts worn underneath. The chiselled muscularity of Mark Wahlberg (then known as Marky Mark) in a series of 1990s underwear advertisements for Calvin Klein led to his success as a white hip hop star and a Hollywood actor.
In January 2008 it was reported that, according to market research firm Mintel, the men's underwear market in the UK was worth £674 million, and volume sales of men's underpants rose by 24% between 2000 and 2005. British manufacturers and retailers claim that most British men prefer "trunks", or short boxer briefs. The director of menswear of major British retailer Marks & Spencer (M&S), which sells 40 million pairs of men's underpants a year, was quoted as saying that while boxer shorts were still the most popular at M&S, demand was easing off in favour of hipster trunks similar in design to the swimming trunks worn by actor Daniel Craig in the James Bond film Casino Royale (2006).
- The History of Underclothes First published in London by Michael Joseph in 1951.
- Stockings & Suspenders: A Quick Flash
- Resource showing Jock Straps and Protective Cups in use, includes historic and patent information.
- The National Underwear Day, August 7, 2007
- History of Underwear, from Freshpair.com
- History of Men's Underwear, from Internationaljock.com
- Esquire Magazine, 1974: A Short History of the Jockstrap
- The Council of Textile & Fashion Industries of Australia
- History of Underwear on mum.org
- A thorough history of 20th century underwear
- The origin of underwear
- Historical Lingerie pictures from the New York Public Library Picture Collection
undershorts in Catalan: Calces
undershorts in Czech: Spodky
undershorts in Danish: Undertøj
undershorts in German: Unterwäsche
undershorts in Estonian: Aluspesu
undershorts in Modern Greek (1453-): Εσώρουχο
undershorts in Spanish: Ropa interior
undershorts in Esperanto: Subvesto
undershorts in French: Portail:Lingerie
undershorts in Italian: Biancheria intima
undershorts in Hebrew: תחתונים
undershorts in Lithuanian: Apatinis trikotažas
undershorts in Dutch: Ondergoed
undershorts in Japanese: 下着
undershorts in Norwegian Nynorsk: Undertøy
undershorts in Polish: Bielizna
undershorts in Portuguese: Lingerie
undershorts in Russian: Мужское нижнее бельё
undershorts in Simple English: Underwear
undershorts in Finnish: Alusvaate
undershorts in Swedish: Trosor
undershorts in Ukrainian: Спідня білизна
undershorts in Chinese: 内衣