Drawers, Knickers, or Pants: Why Do We Call Them That?

There truly is a National Day for absolutely everything and even a National Underwear Day! That’s right! Undergarments have their own appreciation day and, to be precise, it was August 5.  At first glance, National Underwear Day may seem rather silly but actually we probably don’t give enough thought to the importance of underwear. Before August ends, we want to remedy that by taking a look at underwear from a historical perspective.  Have you ever wondered why there are so many names for our various undergarments? It turns out that all the names we have for underwear today are rooted in the past.

Cooling in Basement

Woman in a shift and petticoat.

Underwear as we know it today didn’t really get its start until the 1800s.  Prior to that, people like the Washingtons and the Lewises actually didn’t wear much at all under their numerous layers of clothing.  Women wore nothing under their shifts (which were loose-fitting, waistless dresses that acted as the first layer of a woman’s wardrobe and were sometimes the outer layer in hot weather or workday situations).  Men’s shirts were initially similar to shifts in that they were all-purpose – base layer, outer layer, sleep shirts, etc.  But, men were actually the ones who began the trend toward true undergarments.

In Washington’s day, men wore breeches on the outside, but they also wore a similar lighter weight garment underneath, which came to be known as “drawers.” Why drawers, you ask? The prevailing theory is that the name comes from the fact that early versions of this undergarment were actually two separate legs that had to be “drawn” up and tied in place, hence why we still refer to underwear as “pairs” even though they are single garments now – “a pair of drawers”, “a pair of underwear.”

St Panteleimon

Icon of saint Panteleimon (Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai) dating from the 13th century. Credit: Wikipedia

Eventually, women adopted men’s undergarments for themselves, with some modifications.  This is the point where the ubiquitous term “pants” has its beginnings.  “Pantaloons”, “pants”, and “panties” all come from the same remarkable origin, a Catholic saint, martyred in the 1st century A.D. named Saint Pantaleon. Now, Saint Pantaleon had nothing to do with pants himself but centuries after his death, he became a focus of religious zealotry in Venice, Italy, where many men wore a peculiar type of breeches that were rather poofy.  Because the men who were also a part of the cult of Saint Pantaleon wore these same poofy breeches, they came to be known as “pantalones.”  Additionally, because of their rather flamboyant behavior and dress, pantalones became the stereotypical way to depict Venetian characters in comedic plays, which travelled across Europe.  Eventually the most distinctive characteristic of these comedic characters, the poofy breeches, became iconic and took on the name “pantaloons.”

Interestingly, pantaloons became a popular fashion accessory among women in France, as an undergarment that was intentionally meant to be seen under slightly shorter dresses.  When the fashion reached England, it was primarily among men, and eventually the word “pantaloons” was shortened to “pants” and applied to any outerwear bottoms generally.  Among women, they remained undergarments, which got continually shorter and smaller as the centuries passed, and are now referred to with the diminutive “panties.”

The Italian Comedians by Antoine Watteau

“The Italian Comedians” (c1720) by Antoine Watteau shows several characters in costumes with pantaloons typical of commedia dell’arte theater popular in European from the 16th to the 18th centuries. Credit: National Gallery of Art

Alice Manfield, Guide Alice, Mt Buffalo c1900

Portrait of Alice Manfield (Guide Alice) (1878-1960), mountain guide, naturalist, chalet owner, photographer, and early feminist figure based at Mt Buffalo, Victoria, Australia. Photographer: Unknown. Credit: State Library of Victoria.

And now the term “knickers.” Although this name for both male and female underwear got its start in the United States, its current usage is much more common in Great Britain.  In 1809, Washington Irving wrote A History of New York under the pen name Dietrich Knickerbocker.  Knickerbocker was depicted in newspaper illustrations wearing loose-fitting, almost baggy, breeches tied or buckled at the knee.  This style of knee breeches had become highly fashionable among young men in America, and the press surrounding the book and Knickerbocker himself added to the trend.  Eventually, the style became known as “knickerbockers” but the breeches weren’t an undergarment.  Men wore them to play sports (one of the first professional baseball teams was called the New York Knickerbockers, and knickerbockers were standard baseball uniforms well into the 20th century) and for casual wear.

Knickers or Drawers

Kncikers or Drawers, 1880s, Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Once again, though, women saw a handy piece of clothing, and altered it for their own purposes.  At this point in women’s fashion, hoops and cages were being used to hold skirts out and add volume.  Things were a bit drafty under those cages, and knickerbockers seemed like the perfect solution.  In order to capitalize on this trend, manufacturers had to differentiate the bottoms that men were wearing for manly pursuits from the bottoms that ladies were wearing under their hoop skirts, and so “knickers” were born.  Much like pantaloons, knickers kept getting shorter and smaller until they were basically the same thing as panties.

And there you have our brief history of underwear for National Underwear Day!

Meghan Budinger, Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

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