Blast From The Past: The Underwear Of Yesteryear

Animals don’t wear any clothes. They don’t even wear underwear! But most of us do. You’re probably wearing underwear right now. But what did people wear in the past? Was it like what we wear today?

(Photo via Shutterstock)

More than 250 years ago, French fur traders came to Illinois Country on canoes looking to trade blankets, metal fire starters and more with Native peoples like the Potawatomi. In return, the French wanted beaver furs. The buildings you see at Isle a la Cache Preserve today look like a French cabin and a Potawatomi longhouse of the 1700s. They make us think about the people who used to be here — and what underwear they sported!


Potawatomi make underwear easy


The answer to what kind of underwear the Potawatomi wore is easy. They didn’t wear any. Boys wore a loincloth that covered what underwear would. In colder weather they would add a shirt and leggings. Girls wore skirts and shirts or dresses, but nothing between the dress and their skin.


Does that sound weird to you? Well, for most of human history, no one wore undergarments. There are plenty of groups of people across the world today who don’t wear underwear.


French underwear

A linen shift. (Photo by Sara Russell)

The main undergarment for French people was something that looked a little like a plain white nightgown. When females wore it, it was called a chemise, or shift. It would fall to their knees or lower, and it might have had some lace at the edges. What boys wore was called a shirt, and it reached mid-thigh.


Gotta keep it clean


Shirts and shifts were made from a type of fabric called linen. Linen was used because it absorbed all the dirt, sweat and grime from the body. This was important at a time when their idea of bathing was very different from ours. They didn’t have showers and baths that magically produced hot water by simply turning a handle! The linen also protected outer layers of clothing that were difficult to wash.

Linen fabrics. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Shifts and shirts made of linen helped keep people clean. Do you see the texture in the fabric?


If you were wealthy, you would have maybe 10 shifts – or more! – to rotate through, and you could wear a new one every day. (Hopefully, you are doing this with your underwear.) Poorer people had to make do with just a couple. They would wear the same shift for several days.


As you can imagine, the shifts and shirts got dirty. Laundry day was important. One way to get whites really white was to use stale urine! How would that work? After weeks of sitting around, a compound called ammonia is released from urine. It’s slightly corrosive, which would knock out dirt and grease from the shifts and shirts. In some places, they would lay shifts and shirts on grass, because the chlorophyll from plants would make linen whiter, too. If all else failed, they would scrub with soap and water.


All the extra layers


A shirt was generally all boys needed as an undergarment. They just tucked it into their pants as a layer between their skin and their clothes.

Girls would wear the same basic undergarments as their moms and grandmothers. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Girls had a more complicated dressing process. It is made trickier by the fact that there were no zippers or elastics during the 1700s.


First, over their shift, they would add a petticoat or two. Petticoats are underskirts that tie at the waist. Their skirts didn’t come with pockets, so they had to add them. The pockets were two pouches on a string. Girls tied this around their waist and positioned one pocket on each side. They also wore stays or jumps around their torsos. Think of these like a vest that gave them the right shape, supported their bodies and helped their posture. After that, they would be all done putting on undergarments. Now they are ready for your outerwear — skirts, jackets and gowns.


Stays and jumps were tricky. Both girls and women wore them. Sometimes boys wore stays, too. Men didn’t. One thing everyone wore in the 1700s were stockings. They were just really long socks that went up past the knees. There was no elastic in the 1700s, so they would tie them on with a ribbon or string.


Whew! That’s a whole lot of work to uncover the undergarments of the past. Don’t forget that Potawatomi and French people are still around today, but they probably don’t dress like their ancestors every day. They dress in modern clothing — and underwear — just like you.


Next time you pull on your underwear, think how easy you have it! Want to learn more about the people who called Illinois Country home? Explore Isle a la Cache Museum and preserve in Romeoville.

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