The History of Underwear - Part 2

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Part 1 · Part 2 · Part 3 · Part 4 · Part 5 · Part 6 · Part 7 · Part 8

“It’s All Greek to Me.”

The uninformed may find it strange that the Ancient Greeks never considered wearing any form of protection to the groin area during their celebrated Olympic Games. The Greeks had a lot of time to think about it because, after all, these events were the longest-running recurring event in antiquity.

The early Olympics were heady events. There were peripheral activities that came with the Olympic festival: artistic happenings, new writers, new painters and new sculptors. There were even fire-eaters, palm readers, and prostitutes. And, of course, there were the celebrated athletes, each of whom performed his feats without wearing as much as a single stitch of clothing.

A reader recently asked National Geographic magazine: “Why did the Olympic athletes compete in the nude?” Here’s how that esteemed periodical replied: “The truth is that no one knows.

According to one story, it began when a runner lost his loincloth and tripped on it. Everyone took off his loincloth after that. But ancient historians have traced it back to initiation rites—young men walking around naked and sort of entering manhood.”

The answer continued by adding: “We know how fundamental nudity was to Greek culture. It really appealed to the exhibitionism and the vanity of the Greeks. Only barbarians were afraid to show their bodies.”

“The nude athletes would parade like peacocks up and down the stadium. Poets would write in a shaky hand these wonderful odes to the bodies of the young men, their skin the color of fired clay. But other cultures, like the Persians and the Egyptians, looked at these Greek men oiling one another down and writhing in the mud, and found it very strange. They believed it promoted sexual degeneracy.”

We are told that Plato was a huge fan of Olympic wresting and Sophocles could be found hanging around the Olympic handball court. Aristotle and Socrates surely bounced around the various events.

One would think that the civilization that gave us these great thinkers would have had someone in their stable who would have thought hard enough on how to come up with the world’s first and greatest jockstrap. Even a thong, bikini or the precursors of today’s men’s briefs or boxers would have been sufficient. But, no, that thought never occurred to any of those great thinkers.

Couldn’t one of the women who were married to the “fathers of geometry” figure out the simple angles that are necessary to put together a men’s t-shirt? Couldn’t one of her sons have grabbed a brass wine goblet and modified it into some form of a genital protecting hard cup? Surely that would have been placed on a shelf at home after the festivities as a dearly cherished vessel that not only protected but benefited those early Olympic wrestlers.

The invention of a jockstrap or athletic supporter, or any other form of men’s underwear, never occurred to them because historians tell us the Greeks went without underwear all the time – even when they were off the playing field. Simply put, they didn’t wear underwear – ever. Oh well, great thinkers didn’t always look for practical results.

After all there was a widespread rumor floating around after World War II that claimed the now world-renowned scientist, Albert Einstein, father of the atomic bomb, didn’t know how to tie his own shoelaces.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

In the 1950’s, a little tike visiting his gramma would occasionally hear the wise woman order the command “Pull up your britches or you’re gonna fall down.” The little lad had never heard the word britches before but he intuitively knew that gramma was ordering him to pull up his pants.

At the same time her husband, the boy’s grandpa, might have been entering the room wearing a new pair of gabardine slacks. The observant women would tell him, “You’ve got a piece of lint on your trousers.” Granma was born in the late 1800’s and probably didn’t know that her terminology, specifically britches and trousers, are derivatives that date all the way back to the Ancient Romans.

These garments were Roman underwear. Granma could care less; she just wanted her grandson to be safe and happy and her husband to be smartly dressed.

At least as early as the second century B.C., the Romans were exposed to bifurcated garments. That was when the Teutons defeated one of their armies.

These warriors from the North were garbed in short tunics under which breeches or baggy trousers were worn as a form of men’s underwear. This was sure proof to the Romans that they were barbarians.

Contrary to the usual result, instead of the defeated people adopting the conquerors’ mode of dress, it was here the other way around. The invaders soon began to wear something resembling Roman dress. However, the Romans gradually accepted both long and short trousers as their underwear.

They were adopted first by soldiers, who recognized their practicality – something that is always noteworthy when considering the appropriate style, form or fabric of men’s underwear.

In conservative Rome, meanwhile, both men and women continued to wear similar layers of tunic, plus toga, although men sometimes wore an extra under-tunic. These were usually shorter than those worn by women in order to accommodate their more active life style.

The subligaculum was also a kind of men’s underwear worn by ancient Romans as evidenced by the Latin prefix “sub” which translates as “under.”

However, gladiators, athletes, and stage actors frequently worn it as an outer garment – “for the sake of decency.” The subligaculum most closely resembles a pair of shorts or trunks, or it could also be a simple loincloth that was wrapped around the lower abdominal area.

In 481 AD, when King Clovis ruled in the area near the current boarder of France and Belgium, his subjects wore breeches or braies. These ended at the knee or were long and cross-gartered. Either way, they were worn under a knee-length tunic thus making them a form of men’s underwear.

It was much later that male and female attire diverged dramatically. Men shortened their tunics and exposed their legs in breeches.

These were not as short as men’s briefs or trunks. Women continued to hide their legs under long skirts that reached to their feet. Thus it was men, not women, who wore the first in history, shall we say, to wear “sexy underwear.”



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