Sew Over/Under: An Undie’s Purpose – A Brief (teehee) Dip into What We Wore Underneath

Shifts. Panties.  Camisoles.  Tap pants.  Bloomers.  Boxers.  Slips. Cod pieces.  Bustiers.  Jock straps.  Bras.  Hosiery. Briefs. Corsets.  Panniers.  Chemises.  Garter Belts.  Spanx. Hoop skirts.  Body Suits.  Crinolines.  Girdles.  Stays.  Thongs.  Up until the Jazz Age, underwear had two main purposes:  to protect and to shape.

A vintage 1930s era lingerie sewing pattern showing two women wearing bras and french knickers
Simplicity 2288 from the 1930s featuring a wireless bra and tap pants

My earliest reference of undergarments comes from the 1958 film “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” starring Elizabeth Taylor. She sauntered about as Maggie the Cat in one of its most famous scenes wearing the flimsiest I-can’t-believe that-got-past-the-1950s-censors slip, while trying to get her (you have to read between the lines) gay husband, played by Paul Newman, to notice, rather than to resent her. I didn’t pay any attention to classically handsome Newman; I only saw the slip and I was absolutely smitten. Because of this one scene, I began collecting slips because it made me feel like I could touch the glamour of Ms. Taylor. It’s almost like that story in the Bible where someone touched the hem of Jesus’ garment and they were healed. Slips heal me from being basic. Seriously. And if I can find a matching peignoir?

Elizabeth Taylor stands in a doorway wearing an ivory lacy satin slip, looking towards Marlon Brando.
Loving the scalloped lace on this late 1950s negligee!


Aside from the glamorous aspect of negligees and slips, I may be one of ten women left in the continental US who still wears slips under dresses. It may be from habit, but memories of going to church on a sultry July Sunday in Charleston meant that I would be sweating through my dress, a feeling I absolutely abhor, similar to when you are wearing socks and step in something wet. Yuck. In order to preserve my sanity, I would use the slip as a barrier between my sticky skin and the gorgeous, dry clean only (of course, because I wasn’t playing with ya’ll, even in middle school) dress. I used slips for what their antecedents were created for: to protect.

A man wearinf a sweat-soaked shirt with his back to us looking distressed.
Dig if you will the picture. A dramatic representation of me during South Carolina Summers.

To understand the hygienic and practical purpose of such undergarments from a Western perspective, let’s go back to the Tudor era, late 15th to the early 17th centuries.  It’s such an exciting era for modern fashion and textile historians to study because we have so many great existing examples of undergarments preserved in museums, along with a wealth of written records about their use and care.  It’s not the earliest record of undergarments – that would be the Egyptians or some recent Ice Age era discovery – but it’s a great place to understand how some of the earlier iterations of undergarments influenced today’s underwear. 

Tudor-era clothing was typically very expensive, so much so they were often considered assets in a will.  Because clothing was expensive and laundering quite a laborious affair at all strata of society, men and women typically wore linen (because it was easy to mill and absorbed fluids well) undergarments to create a shield between the body and the garment.  The equivalent today would be something like Hollywood red carpet gowns. Even though I prefer to expire before Mariah Carey (I literally can’t even fathom being alive if Mariah isn’t), if she can leave me all of her couture gowns, I would be grateful and wear them to the grocery store, the library, taking out the garbage, a friend’s wedding, etc.

The word “lingerie” literally comes from the French word for linen. Women wore linen shifts – a type of chemise – under a corset along with a litany of other garments like hose, petticoats, kirtles, stomachers, etc, all to keep the wearer warm, keep the garments clean, and to create the desired dress shape, at least for the upper classes.  “Panties” were not really a thing at this point; this concept came a few centuries later.

Two mannequins wearing long cream-coloured, heavily embellished robes.
Surviving Tudor era shifts, Fashion Museum, Bath, UK

Men also wore shifts and girdles to preserve their expensive and finely-embroidered clothing. Clothing in the Tudor era was one of the major indicators of wealth, so it was in a person’s best interest to keep a garment looking (and smelling, let’s be real) fresh as long as possible.

A mannequin wearing a scoop neck, full length nightgown with a peter pan collar and full, gathered three-quarter sleeves
Chemise, American, 1822

The 2019 version of the shift is either a garment shield, for the arm pits, or slips, which only me and your grandmother seems to wear. They essentially have the same function as their forebearers 500 or so years ago: to create a barrier between your skin and your clothing; however, it’s considered “fashion forward” and is a hallmark of the much-lauded (I thought I would never see the day) 90s style to wear a “slip dress.”

A mannequin displaying a knee length ivory and black slip with spaghetti straps, lace bodice, dropped waist and a pleated skirt made of sheer black chiffon and ivory lace
French chemise “slip”, 1920s

Once I thought I would emulate Naomi Campbell and leave my house in a slip and cardigan. My grandma was like, “I THINK TF NOT,” so that was that. Can you imagine Queen Elizabeth I walking out the door in just her undies (shift, corset, kirtle, petticoat)? Well, that’s what I was trying to do and I don’t blame my grandmother one bit for her reaction. My edges are still reeling from the snatching I endured. But it’s interesting to note that what was once meant to be an undergarment is now worn as just a garment, and feeling burned by my grandmother, I only wear slips inside for me and my neighbors (I have floor to ceiling windows) to see.

A tall black woman with hair in a high ponytail walks along a catwalk wearing an elaborate slip dress in shades of lilac, aqua and lime green.
Naomi Goddess Campbell modeling a Versace slip dress in 1996

I hope this has been an interesting primer for our Sew Over/Under in August. There are a myriad of different undergarments but I thought shifts needed some shine. I also wanted to illustrate that undergarments don’t just consist of lacy panties and boxer briefs. There is a long history of both men and women wearing an almost unisex garment for the same purpose out of necessity. I would like to challenge the notion that we are so different from our ancestors, no matter how long ago they lived. Technology has widened the gulf between how we used to live and how we live now, but the needs and functions of the body are still the same. In the words of Shakespeare, George Sand, and Mariah Carey: “Be gone sweat!”

A walk in closet displaying rows of satin and lace slips and robes. In the foreground hangs a white lace corset.
No, this isn’t La Perla. It’s Mariah Carey’s underwear closet.

My name is Jacinta, also known as PinkMimosabyJacinta on the ‘gram. I’m Australian by birth but Southern by the grace of God, or so they tell me (shout out to Charleston, SC my hometown… And just in case my Aussie family reads this and feels left out, shout out to Perth, Western Australia too). All the things I love in life — Queen of Everything Mariah Carey, travel, reading, and sewing — allow me to transcend my current state. Creating something for yourself is such a transformative and confidence-building exercise. I’m positively addicted! While the circumstances that led me to sew are not rosy, I am so thankful for the outcome.