Brief History

Why wear pantiesThe Need for Panties

It was during the regency era women began wearing undergarments. From about 1820 drawers were made of more feminine cotton lawn fabric and draw laced at the waist. They were quite baggy which accommodated the split through the crotch, so that despite the opening, the looseness afforded some modesty when sized correctly.

It’s suspected that before 1789 and the French Revolution, long skirts, a petticoat or two, a corset and linen chemise was all the underwear thought desirable or necessary. As the end of the century approached finer lighter fabrics of lawn, sheer silks and batiste replaced heavier brocade and thicker materials. Women began covering their lower regions because it was warmer to wear something in the cool north European climate.

Prior to this era quilted petticoats along with a pannier skirt had often been an attractive and visible part of a woman’s dress. The fabric used in the skirt was also heavier and the layering meant that the lower half of the body was kept quite warm and the heavier cloth used meant that skirts did not billow up.


The Empire fashions at the turn of the century were often little more than sheer nightgowns. The practical solution to the discomfort of lighter clothing was to simply adopt the warm undergarment called pantaloons and already worn by men.

The pantaloons were made of light stockinet in a flesh toned nude colour and reached all the way to the ankles or to just below the knee. This is why Empire women often appear to be wearing no underwear when seen in paintings of the era. The flesh tone pantaloons acted in just the same way under clothes as they do today when a women wears a flesh toned bra and briefs under white or pastel trousers and top.

Young women and children were wearing pantalettes under their dresses by 1820. The drawers were loose and made of two leg sections held together with a tie at the waist. Each panatalette leg was decorated with frills at the bottom edge.


The term knickers comes from the book written by Washington Irving in 1809 and called History of New York. He used the pen name Diedrick Knickerbocker. Herr Knickerbocker was supposedly descended from the original Dutch settlers in New York and was lampooned by the well-known caricaturist George Cruikshank. In illustrations in the book the Knickerbocker men were dressed in loose breeches, strapped or tied at the knee.

From then on the breeches were known as knickerbockers and were often used for sports activities. Women borrowed the knickerbockers to wear under their new draughty hoped cage crinolines. Drawers and Knickers soon came to mean the same undergarment.

Victorian Drawers to Combinations and Knickers

Drawers 1840-76

Queen Victoria’s standards of propriety were so stringent that she soon ensured that knickers became a staple of every woman’s wardrobe. In her younger days she was a leader of fashion and her hairstyle was much copied. Other styles she favoured were also followed. Such was her long term influence that by the dawn of the Edwardian era in 1901 only the poorest women went without underclothes simply due to the extra cost.

In the 1840s drawers were plain and reached well below the knees. In the 1850s they became more embellished so that by 1868 decoration on knickers was usual. Often the lower leg edge was trimmed with lace and had 5 or 6 tucks above it. By 1876 the drawer legs merged to become closed. That is, the open nature of the crotch was closed and an opening of about 4 inches closed by a few buttons existed instead at the side hip. A revolution had occurred – drawer legs were no longer separate – they were now knickers. Fabrics used were changing too and silk, as well as flannel was popular choice for knickers.

By the late 1870s knickers were accepted and widely worn by women; although as an item of underwear they were never referred to in polite company. It was almost as if they did not exist. Often the knickerbockers were made from brilliant scarlet flannel. These fabrics such as smooth fine flannel and alpaca wool had nainsook linings that could be detached for washing and they were fashionable until the turn of the century when suddenly they lacked daitiness.

Combinations Arrive in 1877

There was new competition for the newly popular drawers. Just as today women wear panties, knickers, thongs, briefs, g-strings etc., so women sought the perfect underwear for their sense of self in Victorian times. The competition came in the form of a new item called combinations. Combinations were first developed as a garment in 1877. They were initially made from linen, silk, merino, calico, cambric or nainsook in flesh pink tones or cream colours. they were made more popular as a style in the late 1880s by Dr Jaeger and his versions were made of fine wool.

The all in one garment called combinations, consisted of basically a camisole bodice attached to drawers. It eliminated the need for a chemise and the latter versions were frillier and prettier garments that merged into lingerie the more exotic their appearance. By 1892 other variations made of silk or fine muslin were the usual preferred fabrics.


By 1895 knicker legs became very wide and decorated with frills at the knee. In general the width of the leg was about 20 inches around the knee with a 10 inch lace frill. The knickers were easily accommodated under the wide petticoats and equally full wide skirts of the era. In the early Edwardian era the frilled fancy knickers were often worn over the combinations.

By 1905 the majority of fashions for other fabrics been replaced by garments made from the finest lawn or cambric.

Combinations became less usual, but were still worn. The latest fashion was to wear either the new skirt knickers also known to us as French knickers (often open legged) or the closer body skimming fitting directoire knickers. Knicker styles have generally conformed to the silhouette line of an era, so that by 1908, as the silhouette slimmed to a column, these closer fitting knickers called the directoire style soon became the norm.

From Layers and Layers to a Single Layer

Changes in outer clothes and in underwear had begun prior to World War 1. The war simply accelerated and developed new ideas as war always does. The number of layers of clothes on the body was gradually being reduced as the 20th century progressed. War work had emphasised the fact that for an active life, women needed more freedom of movement and so gradually as freer movement became an ideal under clothing began to match it.

Female undergarments began to contract. By 1917 the brassiere gained mass popularity and thinner lighter weight fabrics used for knickers and a simple camisole top that could button to the knickers meant that often this was all a woman wore beneath a lined garment. This was all in complete contrast to the body of heavy underclothes worn only 50 years previously.

Top clothing changed to the extent that the skin itself became fabric. Previously much of the body had been covered, but nude limbs now acted almost like a fabric, even more so once it became fashionable to enhance skin with a suntan thus bringing the ability to change even the hue of flesh as climatic conditions allowed. In addition as the top outer garments often were no more than a single layer dress or suit, the underwear needed to feel smoother for comfort as a scratchy wool top garment was more likely to irritate and chafe the skin beneath with fewer layers of underwear.

The smoother fabric that proved ideal at this point was artificial silk made from rayon. It was known then as art silk. Simply put artificial silk was made from a complex process of putting wood cellulose chips into chemicals for several days until that created a viscous solution. The solution was thick enough to be extruded into a wet bath of more chemicals and it solidified on contact with the chemical bath. It left behind an artificially regenerated man made fibre that set on contact with the chemicals. Further treatments helped create a whole range of fibre variations as the century progressed. Artificial silk was affordable and available to all classes.

Knickers to Panties

The name of knickers changed in the 1920s. In 1924 knickers became known as panties and later by 1930 were called panty briefs. The underwear became smoother in line essential under the new slinkier bias cut garments of the 1930s. The length of knickers varied with the fashions. By 1927 they reached far above the knee, but so then did the top skirts! Once skirts were longer knickers ended just above the knee again. By 1934 panties were tailored to fit the body contours giving a very smooth line and a style we would recognise today.

Art silk remained popular but in the 1940s and 1950s most knickers worn were either made of cotton which could be boiled or silk for special occasions. By the 1960s totally nylon knickers were usual. By the 1970s cotton gussets were added for comfort. In this era various permutations on the bikini bottom took panties lower and lower down the hipline and higher and higher up the thigh. Leg variations from straight cut to high cut became usual. Hipster styles became fashionable in floral printed fabrics. Flesh toned knickers were a must have.

By the 1980s eco conscious superfine cotton jersey knickers were back in fashion, but so were slinky silk or polyester satin or crepe de chine French knickers dripping in lace. The teddy all in one body garment became a hugely erotic item of underwear. Designer knickers became usual with brand names suddenly getting attention. Sloggis and Calvin Kleins were popular names of the 1980s to the extent of letting show the designer woven waistband. CK underwear became a known brand name worldwide as it was constantly advertised on the highly visible waistlines of men and women everywhere.

By this time a wide range of knicker styles getting briefer and briefer had arrived. The cut of the leg once considered highline was now renamed low cut to accommodate an even more highly cut leg. Skimpy bits of fabric that merely cover the pubic area or sometimes barely cover it thus making it necessary for extreme techniques of pubic hair removal, are called tangas, thongs and strings. G strings, once the province of strippers became a norm for many consumers in the 1990s particularly younger females who favour low rise trousers. Previous to that such styles were often kept for the bedroom rather than everyday wear.

A g-string has a string, whilst a thong has a small bit of fabric an inch or so wide coming to a y shape at the waistband. Thongs can be made of silk, nylon, leather, cotton etc and also be adorned with diamante, lace or embroidery. The string parts of g-strings can be made of decorative pieces such as rhinestone belts and are often designed to be seen when worn. The initial acceptance of thongs was credited to the disappearance of visible panty lines when worn under trousers. Now they are worn under trousers to be visible.

It should be noted however that South American women favoured these styles long before they gained mass acceptance in Europe. Their popularity among young western women may be due to the fact that many simply cannot recall how similar these often visible strings seem to older women to the never to be seen elastic sanitary belts used before sanitary towels had wing wraps or were adhesive backed or were replaced by tampon varieties.

Famous makers of attractive underwear still include Janet Reger, Agent Provocateur, Rigby and Peller, La Senza, La Perla, Marks and Spencer, Gossard, Charnos, Lejaby, Victoria’s Secret, Playtex, Warners,Triumph and Berlei.

Knickers Can be Naughty

Knickers and their styles have always been a subject for fun and amusement in seaside postcards, cartoons and the butt of jokes about women who have let themselves go or lost interest in sex dependant on their chosen style.

This has been emphasised even more in the past 20 years as some styles of knickers have moved through stages that have reduced the amount of fabric needed to make an item so small it can appear to consist of nothing more than a bit of strapping reminiscent of a 1950′s sanitary belt.

In the UK in 2003 Marks and Spencer the clothing store had coverage on one third of the British lingerie market. This makes it the first stop in Britain when a consumer seeks underwear, with the average woman buying 8 pairs of knickers a year and the store selling 60 pairs a minute. In the UK Marks and Spencer sell 25 million pairs of knickers every year, with 4.8 million women confess to owning a pair of large Bridget Jones style.

The knicker elastic they use has to survive 1000 washes. The admiring glances they get – well that’s up to you…. maybe not so many after 1000 washes….

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