What Lies Beneath
By Patrick F. Cannon
Unmentionables, scanties, unders, or if you prefer, underwear. That which lies beneath. The last bastion of modesty, or the trigger of desire. For most of mankind’s history, its origins have been shrouded in mystery, never a subject for polite discourse.
As with so many once taboo subjects, I feel it’s my duty to expose once and for all the history of an important branch of the apparel family. I should first tell you that for thousands of years there was no distinction between underwear and outerwear. In warmer climes, folks didn’t wear anything. Where the winter’s chill was likely, only animal skins were available until fabric was invented by the Assyrians. Even then, making cloth was such a laborious task that even one garment required the continuous labor of several slaves for a week or two (depending on size).
Until the Egyptians invented needle and thread in the Second Dynasty, the typical garment was just a square of cloth with a hole in the middle for one’s head, gathered together at the waist with a bit of rope. Such a lavish use of cloth was of course not available to the slaves and lower orders. They had to make do with left over bits; thus, the loin cloth. They rather resembled the cloth diaper, which most people today have never seen.
You will be as surprised as I was to learn that it wasn’t the Greeks who finally invented underwear. It appears they had been too busy inventing philosophy, democracy, algebra, geometry, saganaki and the mushroom burger. Anyway, the climate in Greece was generally salubrious, so they must have felt no particular urgency to cover their nether regions.
Rome was quite another matter. Although the city itself was quite warm, the restless Romans soon ventured north to conquer all and sundry. As they got nearer the Alps, the cold breezes tended to sweep up under their tunic skirts and shrivel their privates. As if this wasn’t bad enough, it could also raise their skirts, thus exposing chill-reduced manhood. Across the battlefield, their enemies, the Extragoths, hurled abuse and guffaws at them.
That did it. The very nest day, their commander, Pubic Minimus, ordered his legions to wrap their scroti in cloth from their extra tunics. They didn’t immediately realize they had invented underwear, but we do.
Why it took so long for the next advance remains a mystery. Suffice it say that the idea of having openings for one’s legs doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone until the 11th Century. If one studies the famous Bayeux Tapestry, which commemorates William the Conquerors victory over Poor Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, one might notice a tiny figure in the background. Apparently, a hapless Saxon, due to the fortunes of war he had been stripped of his outer garments by his conquerors. In his death throes, he seems to be wearing boxer shorts!
The next great advance was the Cod Piece. By the 15th Century, tights had been developed. Since there was no room for standard underwear, the size of one’s manhood become rather noticeable. As the gents strolled along the avenue, the ladies couldn’t help noticing which fellow was more or less endowed. The Cod Piece, rather like a leather cup, could visually even the playing field, at least until the wedding night. (By the way, that’s Henry VIII up there. Perhaps if he’d gone commando, history might have changed.)
Things stayed much the same until the invention of the elastic waist band by Pierre DuPont in 1824. We now take it for granted that we can simply pull up our shorts, without needing to tie them tight with lace of some kind. Our only decision is the classic one – boxers or briefs? I’m a boxer’s man myself, but belong to a divided family; my brother Pete remains faithful to briefs, or “tighty whities” as they are often styled.
(I feel a responsibility to add something about one of the most complicated of all undergarments, the Union Suit, or “long johns” as they are often called. These winter-worn garments were donned by rustic types in the Fall, and not removed until Spring, whereupon they must now undergo a controlled burn by order of the EPA.)
What advances await us I don’t pretend to know. By the way, you may have noticed I haven’t said much about ladies’ undies. When I began looking into this, it soon became apparent that that subject was so complex that even my curious mind couldn’t even begin to understand its many twists, turns and permutations. Just look at a Victoria’s Secret catalog and you’ll see what I mean.
Copyright 2019, Patrick F. Cannon