The History of Underwear - Part 3

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Man of La Mancha and His Buddies

During the period when El Cid was galloping around Spain, the nobility wore fitted breeches under tunics that could reach to mid-calf or below – similar to the snug fit of today’s compression shorts.

The lower classes, however, wore tunics at knee level with breeches that were loose and baggy thus they were afforded the comfort provided by the today’s boxer shorts and men’s briefs.

A century later, when Genghis Khan stormed through Europe, he would find a noble class whose breeches had shrunk. (Historians do not report if this was the immediate result of Khan’s arrival – which assuredly meant doom.)

Nonetheless, he found the nobility of Europe wearing invisible drawers that served the same purpose of today’s boxers or men’s briefs. At the same time, the laboring classes made do with a breechcloth.

This was a strip of material, usually in the form of a narrow rectangle, which passed between the thighs and secured before and behind under a belt or string. The rectangular shape notwithstanding, this was clearly the predecessor of the currently popular men’s thong.

At about the same time, the rigidity of plate armor necessitated the addition of padded linen linings that served as protection against the cold harsh metal. Additionally, armor clad men on horseback began to wear padded loincloths. Historians say that these were the real antecedents to what has been worn as men’s underwear ever since.

The New World

The tunic started to disappear about the time Christopher Columbus set sail on his spice run to the Orient. It was morphed into the doublet which was a snug fitting buttoned jacket that men of his time wore. And, it is at this time that we see signs of men’s legs being newly revealed and their outer clothing becoming more colorful and flamboyant.

The top of the outfit was formfitting and laced up the front – much like the mountain men would wear three centuries later while cavorting around the American West.

Men as well as women wore stiffened stomachers with pointed front panels. However, underneath, both sexes wore chemises, which is the French word for “shirts.”

Thus at this point the world was introduced to what would evolve into the men’s t-shirt because their garments also served as a nightshirt and, like the t-shirt, it is still worn for that purpose by many men today.

The outer garment was slashed at various places including the wrists and neck. The purpose of which was to selectively display various sections of the undershirts. Thus at this point in history, we encounter the introduction of “revealing or sexy men’s underwear.”

The style of the time allowed men to wear stockings that were decorated with embroidery. They were even bejeweled. Early hose stopped at the knee. But a short time before, the men who rode with Richard the Lionheart wore hose that had risen to mid-thigh and were pulled over the breeches. Clearly, this was the introduction of pantyhose for men.

Later men’s hose often were tied with ribbons below the knees and were attached to the breeches. These were the decorative precursor of garters; they then were laced to the doublet. In the beginning, stockings were cut from either linen or wool cloth and shaped to the leg.

Knitting was little known until the time of Elizabeth I and when introduced, knitted hose meant greatly improved fit. Although elastic had not yet been invented the end result was not unlike the snug fit of today’s athletic supporters, briefs, trunks, shorts and t-shirts.

Another “knit-fit” accessory would also appear later, specifically in the current reign of Queen Elizabeth II. They are the readily available leg warmers worn during rehearsals by both male and female dance students and professionals.

Codpiece Rex

By the sixteenth century the male codpiece was dramatically apparent. Think Henry VIII. Who, thanks to the various portraits painted by Hans Holbein the Younger, is probably the most recognized of all the British monarchs.

The codpiece began in this era as a simple, three-cornered gusset in the upper part of what is referred to as trunk-hose. These were short full breeches reaching about half way down the thighs.

The codpiece was enlarged into a stiff stuffed protuberance that echoed and emphasized the shape of the male sexual organ. These exaggerated “centerpieces” were sometimes used as a storage place for coins, snuff or sweets. A costume historian has written, “During this time the entire male population above the age of three appeared to be suffering from a severe case of priapism.”

Today’s male athletes wear the codpiece’s lineal descendant, the athletic supporter or jockstrap, as a protection for their genitals. A derivative for male dancers is referred to as a dance belt.

In the world of ballet – the dance belt (or jock strap) is stuffed, not with a hard cup, but usually with women’s sanitary napkins. This not only provides a little extra protection to the dancers’ private parts but also permits the display of an enhanced symbol of masculinity for any number of ballerinos who need to portray that.

Renaissance men were also known to wear padding to flesh out their calves because a “fine leg” was considered to be most desirable.

Thus, the aforementioned Henry VIII, with his plumed hat, broad shouldered robe, slashed and decorated doublet, embroidered hose, beribboned garters and aggressive codpiece was the image of masculine power at that time.



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