Underwear in the Medieval Period

The artwork known as

De Agostini / A. De Gregorio / Getty Images

What did medieval men and women wear under their clothes? In imperial Rome, both men and women were known to wear simply wrapped loin-cloths, probably made from linen, under their outer garments. There was, of course, no universal rule in undergarments; people wore what was comfortable, available, or necessary for modesty—or nothing at all.

In addition to loincloths, medieval men wore an entirely different type of underpants called braies. Women of the period might have worn a breast band called a strophium or mamillare made from linen or leather. Just like today, those competing in sports could benefit from wearing confining garments that correspond with modern sports bras, dance belts, or jock straps.

It's entirely possible that the use of these undergarments continued into medieval times (especially the strophium, or something similar), but there is little direct evidence to support this theory. People didn't write much about their underwear, and natural (as opposed to synthetic) cloth doesn't usually survive for more than a few hundred years. Therefore, most of what historians know about medieval undergarments has been pieced together from period artwork and the occasional archaeological find.

One such archaeological find took place in an Austrian castle in 2012. A cache of feminine delicates was preserved in a sealed-off vault, and the items included garments very similar to modern-day brassieres and underpants. This exciting find in medieval underwear revealed that such garments were in use as far back as the 15th century. The question remains as to whether they were used in earlier centuries, and whether only the privileged few could afford them.

Underpants

Men in breeches at a medieval fish market

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Medieval men's underpants were fairly loose drawers known as braies, breies, breeks, or breeches. Varying in length from upper-thigh to below the knee, braies could be closed with a drawstring at the waist or cinched with a separate belt around which the top of the garment would be tucked. Braies were usually made of linen, most likely in its natural off-white color, but they could also be sewn from finely woven wool, especially in colder climes.

In the Middle Ages, braies were not only used as underwear, they were frequently worn by laborers with little else when doing hot work. These could be worn well below the knees and tied to the wearer's waist to keep them out of the way.

No one really knows whether or not medieval women wore underpants before the 15th century. Since the dresses medieval women wore were so long, it could be very inconvenient to remove underwear when answering nature's call. On the other hand, some form of snug underpants could make life a little easier once a month. There's no evidence one way or the other, so it's entirely possible that, at times, medieval women wore loincloths or short braies.

Hose or Stockings

A 14th century man reclining in stockings down to his toes by artist James Dromgole

 

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Both men and women would often keep their legs covered with hose, or hosen. These might be stockings with complete feet, or they might be merely tubes that stopped at the ankle. The tubes could also have straps underneath to secure them to the feet without completely covering them. Styles varied according to necessity and personal preference.

Hose were not ordinarily knitted. Instead, each one was sewn from two pieces of woven fabric, most commonly wool but sometimes linen, cut against the bias to give it some stretch. Stockings with feet had an additional piece of fabric for the sole. Hose varied in length from thigh-high to just below the knee. Given their limitations in flexibility, they weren't particularly well-fitted, but in the later Middle Ages, when more luxurious fabrics became available, they could look very good indeed.

Men were known to attach their hose to the bottoms of their braies. A laborer might tie up his outer garments to keep them out of the way, with hose stretching all the way up to his braies. Armored knights were likely to secure their hose this way because their sturdy stockings, known as chausses, provided some cushioning against the metal armor.

Alternatively, hose could be kept in place with garters, which is how women secured them. A garter could be nothing fancier than a short cord that the wearer tied around her leg, but for more well-off folk, especially women, it could be rather more elaborate, with ribbon, velvet, or lace. How secure such garters might be is anyone's guess; an entire order of knighthood has its origin story in a lady's loss of her garter while dancing and the king's gallant response.

It is generally believed that women's hose only went to the knee, since their garments were long enough that they rarely, if ever, afforded the opportunity to see anything higher. It might also have been difficult to adjust hose that reached higher than the knee when wearing a long dress, which for medieval women was almost all the time.

Undertunics

Three laborers air out beneath their undertunics in art by the Limbourg brothers

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Over their hose and any underpants they might wear, both men and women usually wore a schert, chemise, or undertunic. These were lightweight linen garments, usually T-shaped, that fell well past the waist for men and at least as far as the ankles for women. Undertunics often had long sleeves, and it was sometimes the style for men's scherts to extend further down than their outer tunics did.

It wasn't at all uncommon for men engaged in manual labor to strip down to their undertunics. In this painting of summer reapers, the man in white has no problem working in just his schert and what appear to be a loincloth or braies, but the woman in the foreground is more modestly attired. She's tucked her dress up in her belt, revealing the long chemise underneath, but that's as far as she'll go.

Women may have worn some kind of breast band or wrapping for the support that all but the smallest cup sizes couldn't do without—but, again, we have no documentation or period illustrations to prove this before the 15th century. Chemises could have been tailored, or worn tight in the bust, to help in this matter.

Through most of the early and high Middle Ages, men's undertunics and tunics fell at least to the thigh and even below the knee. Then, in the 15th century, it became popular to wear tunics or doublets that only fell to the waist or a little below. This left a significant gap between the hose that needed covering.

Codpiece

Henry VIII's notorious codpiece

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When it became the style for men's doublets to extend only a little past the waist, it became necessary to cover the gap between the hose with a codpiece. The codpiece derives its name from "cod," a medieval term for "bag."

Initially, the codpiece was a simple piece of fabric that kept a man's private parts private. By the 16th century it had become a prominent fashion statement. Padded, protruding, and frequently of a contrasting color, the codpiece made it virtually impossible to ignore the wearer's crotch. The conclusions a psychiatrist or social historian could draw from this fashion trend are many and obvious.

The codpiece enjoyed its most popular phase during and after the reign of Henry VIII in England. Even though it was now the fashion to wear doublets down to the knees, with full, pleated skirts—obviating the original purpose of the garment—Henry's codpiece poked confidently through, demanding attention.

It wasn't until the reign of Henry's daughter Elizabeth that the popularity of the codpiece began to fade in both England and Europe. In the case of England, it probably wasn't a good political move for men to flaunt a package that, theoretically, the Virgin Queen would have no use for.