How we ended up wearing underpants has a fascinating history, with its humble beginnings in ancient Egypt. These days, underpants have been transformed by technology, with high-performance undies that claim to do everything from filtering flatulence to emitting soothing vibrations.
The first type of underpant was the loincloth worn by ancient Egyptians. Known as a schenti, it was made from woven materials, commonly cotton and flax, kept in place with a belt. The lower classes and slaves were almost naked, so technically this loincloth was often “outerwear”. But Egyptian art from 1189 BC to 1077 BC in the Valley of the Queens shows pharaohs wearing sheer outer garments, rendering the loincloth a type of underpant.
Unlike many Egyptian clothing styles, which stayed basically the same for three thousand years, the loincloth developed over time into the loin skirt. Hieroglyphs from the Middle Kingdom period of Egyptian history (c. 2000–c. 1500B.C.E.) show male workers wearing a short skirt tied around the waist with a belt. The garment was similar to the schenti, or kilt, worn by the higher officials, called nobles. Although there is no direct evidence, the drawings from the period seem to indicate that these loin skirts may have been woven from grass or straw. These loin skirts were usually fairly short, reaching only to mid thigh, and were sometimes worn over a loincloth, the flap of which can be seen hanging down below the hem of the skirt. The loin skirt remained the clothing of choice for working men through the years of the New Kingdom (c. 1500–c. 750B.C.E.).
This early piece of underpants would eventually make its way to Greece and then onto Rome. After the fall of Rome, the loincloth wouldn’t be seen by Westerners until the 19th century during the Colonial era. However, underwear had certainly evolved from the loincloth during that period to eventually become what we wear today.