“I wish that someone would write something about underwear.” someone wrote on Facebook. Of course, I thought. I will gladly do that. Underwear is a subject that comes up over and over again. It seems to interest many people.
The first question then is: “What do we mean with underwear?” Let us say that we mean the garments we wear directly against the body, and which are not intended to be seen. Then we have discarded e.g. trousers and headwear, but not limited ourselves to the type of underwear that we use today. On the other hand, the questions we typically get about underwear are about the ones we are used to, so I would like to start with them anyhow. So let’s start with:

The Briefs/Boxers

Did the Vikings wear briefs? If we want to know that, we need to go to the sources we have on Viking age clothing. They are mainly of four kinds:

  1. Archaeological textile finds and finds of brooches etc. which show where the garment were placed.
  2. Pictures
  3. Texts
  4. Clothing history, i.e. what was worn before and after the Viking age

When it comes to briefs we have no archaeological textile finds, no brooches or similar, and no pictures of briefs from the Viking age. If we want to use texts we need to know what briefs might have been called by the Vikings so we need to turn directly to clothing history.

In medieval pictures you sometimes see men bathing or working only clothed in something that, at least during the latest part of the medieval period, resembles briefs or boxers. During the part directly after the Viking age they look more like a piece of linen pulled between the legs and fastened to a cord or belt around the waist. They are always white and sometimes used together with a pair of hose. The word that is used for this garment is in English “braies” and in Swedish “brokor”. The word “brokr” is also found in the Icelandic sagas when they describe clothing from the Viking age. This really sounds good. Now we have a name for the Viking age briefs!

But that is where we find the problem: There are two types of brokr in the Icelandic sagas, “leistabrokr” (brokr with feet) and “okulbrokr” (brokr without feet). I don’t think that briefs can have feet and that means that we are talking about something else here. The most probable interpretation is that “leistabrokr” means a pair of trousers of the Thorsbjerg type with feet sewn on and that “okulbrokr” then means the same type of trousers but without feet (Hägg 1984 (2), pgs 163-164). If we now have a word used for trousers in the Viking age and that word then changes to mean briefs later, this rather indicates that we did not have any garment similar to briefs during the Viking age, whose name could continue to be used. I also find it very unpractical to fit a pair of braies of the early type into a pair of close-fitting Thorsbjerg trousers.

Interest, if we want to continue looking at the clothing history, is what happened when the hose were replaced by trousers again. Then the briefs disappear completely (they remain for a little while to help keep the complex outfit together (see picture). Instead men wore a long shirt which was folded in between the legs and thereby used as underwear for the lower part of the body too (see picture).

As a conclusion, there are no indications of any use of briefs or a similar garment during the Viking age, rather the opposite. Additionally briefs were not needed because the shirt could be used instead during the Viking age too. On the other hand we don’t have any EVIDENCE that briefs were not used. To get that we would need to find a few Vikings with clothes that were so well preserved that you could clearly see that they did not wear briefs.

Time for the next garment:

The Panties/Knickers

Here we have the same starting point: We lack archaeological finds completely, and also picture. Actually it is even work, because we don’t have anything that might be compared to panties in the texts either. So we have to turn to clothing history again.

Panties of the type we are used to today; a quite small garment sewn together at the crotch, started to be used in the 1920s (see picture).  This was probably caused by the skirts becoming much shorter than before.You didn’t want to risk showing too much by mistake.

Before this, women among the upper classes and in cities used a similar garment, the long drawers or pantaloons (see picture). In the countryside and among the lower classes women still walked around without anything panty-like. The drawers were longer than the panties, but most importantly; they were not sewn together at the crotch. The drawers became common in the beginning of the 1800s, probably to help keep the legs warm when the women wore the fashionable thin cotton dresses.

The earliest sources we have on drawer-like garments are among the courtesans in Venice in the 1500s (see the picture to the left). These garments actually were sewn together at the crotch, but we should not forget that they were worn in a very special environment where the women showed parts of their bodies that ordinary women almost didn’t know existed.

When we have come this far the questions usually start to come

  1. Don’t you freeze without panties? Answer: No, you wore thick layers of skirts instead.
  2. But what did one do during ones period?
    Answer: Sanitary protection fastened to the panties is something really new. When I was a child in the 1960s (yes, I am incredibly old, I know), the first sanitary pads fastened to the panties had just been invented. Before that women wore sanitary pads fastened to a girdle (see picture) and the panties were not needed at all. The alternative was to use nothing. Women probably chose method based on social class and how my they bled. We don’t know how they solved the problem in the Viking age.

But aren’t there at least one example of a pair of medieval panties? Yes, there is one garment from the 1400s which looks like panties (see picture) and it is a very interesting garment, but it still is no evidence for using panties in the Viking age.

So: There are no indications of panties during the Viking age, and no need for panties either. Actually it is the opposite. The reason for panties not being used until the 1920s is not only that the drawers became improper, but also that it is really impractical to go to the bathroom when wearing several layers of long wide skirts as well as a pair of panties that need to be pulled down. But just as for the briefs, we of course don’t have any EVIDENCE for not using panties in the Viking age.

Let’s continue to the third common underwear garment:

The Bra

Just as before, we don’t have any archaeological finds, pictures or texts showing any type of bra or similar garment giving support for the bust. Just as the panties, the bra became common during the 1920s (se picture). Before that there was no use for it, because the women used to wear a corset (see picture). The corset in its turn appeared towards the middle of the 1800s when all women should have a waist like a wasp.

Before that women wore a pair of stays. There was probably a gap in the end of the 1700s and the beginning of the 1800s when no type of supporting garment was used, or at least some of the women wore no supportive garment. When the stays reappeared they changed form, from something very stiff (see picture) intended to keep the bust flat and give a good posture, to something whose main function was to give a small waist (se picture).