Why Do We Wear Underwear? 8 Health Reasons You Need Them
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If you're wondering why we wear underwear, it's simple—for cleanliness, comfort, and support for the nether regions.
When was underwear invented?
Knickers, drawers, banana hammocks, tightie whities, butt floss, panties (and manties), trunks: The sheer number of euphemisms we have for underwear shows what an important role they play in modern life.
In fact, one of the most iconic images in modern fashion features Kate Moss posing in nothing but her Calvin Klein undies.
Yet, for all the attention they get these days, no one is quite sure when the trend of covering your privates with a special item of clothing started.
There are plenty of historical examples of people wearing underwear-type clothing, going back thousands of years and through many cultures, says Deborah Christel, PhD, an assistant professor of apparel merchandising, design, and textiles at Washington State University and president and co-founder of the underwear company Kade & Vos.
Art and historical texts show everyone from ancient Egyptian pharaohs and traditional Japanese wrestlers to Native Americans and centuries of Chinese noblemen wearing a version of the loincloth.
There is even a record of Vikings using a sock as a way to keep their twig and berries warm during the cold months.
Subligaculum: The early underwear
One of the earliest progenitors of undies in Western culture was the “subligaculum.” A type of fabric wrap ancient Romans wore around their nethers, it was essentially a “glorified diaper,” according to Christel. But up through the 1600s, underwear wasn’t considered a priority.
Women through the middle ages wore a “chemise” dress. And men wore loose knickers or pantaloons under or as a part of their clothing.
Through the 17th and 18th centuries, both genders started to wear drawers or bloomers, a loose type of shorts or pants that was a separate item of clothing. Women would often wear other undergarments as well, including a corset, hoopskirt, and bustle.
“There were a lot of layers happening,” says Christel.
The rise of the pantalettes
It wasn’t until fashion started getting more form-fitting that anything resembling what we would recognize as underwear came into style, Christel says.
Starting in the early 1900s, “pantalettes”—a shorter, more fitted type of drawers—became popular. By the 1930s, pantalettes became shorter and tighter, as did the name, “pantie briefs” or just “panties.”
The 1940s and 1950s gave them more style and used more luxurious fabrics, including silk from parachutes.
This was also about the time when underwear started to be thought of as “sexy” and something you just might want other people to see.
Trendy hip-huggers, briefs, bikinis, and more
The 1960s’ cultural shift included undergarments, says Christel. That’s when a wider variety of styles—hip-huggers, briefs, bikinis—began to emerge.
The 1970s added the thong and the 1980s brought us the g-string and high-cut underwear.
The big undergarment innovation in the late 1990s and early 2000s might actually feel like a throwback: shapewear for daily use. Spanx and others reintroduced both men and women to underwear designed to hold in and shape the body.
So what about now? “Today the trend is for comfort, often a full brief,” Christel says. “Shapewear is still popular, but it is more of a special occasion item and not an everyday necessity. We are also seeing a decline in the popularity of the thong.”
Delmaine Donson/Getty Images
Why do we wear underwear?
Many people are haunted by their mother’s dire warning to always have a fresh pair of underwear on in case you get in an accident and paramedics might have to see your undies.
Not only is this bad advice—if you soil yourself during a bad accident, emergency responders don’t care in the slightest what your underwear looks like, according to one EMT we spoke to—but there are so many better reasons to wear clean underwear.
Underwear serves two main purposes: fashion and function, specifically to help keep the genital area clean and protected, says David E. Bank, MD, a dermatologist and founder of The Center For Dermatology in Westchester, New York.
How the underwear feels and performs should take precedence over how it looks, he adds. And whether or not you should wear underwear to bed or under your workout clothes when you exercise also may depend on your personal circumstances.
Health reasons to wear undies
Wearing underwear isn’t strictly necessary for good genital health. But a pair of well-fitting undies made of a breathable fabric can provide some real benefits, Dr. Bank says.
It should be noted that these benefits only extend to clean, well-fitting underwear that is changed on a daily basis, says Sherry A. Ross, MD, an OB-GYN in Santa Monica, California and author of She-ology: The Definitive Guide to Women’s Intimate Health. Period.
Lower risk of some infections
“Undies provide a barrier against some bacteria, fungi, dirt, and other environmental contaminants,” Dr. Ross says. This is especially helpful if you regularly wear bottoms, like jeans, that only get washed occasionally and may trap germs close to your genitals. (Make sure you’re washing your underwear the correct way, though.)
Protection against “chub rub”
A bad pair of undies can cause pain from rubbing, chafing, and pinching. The right pair, however, can prevent a lot of discomfort, Dr. Ross says.
For instance, wearing a longer “bike short” or “boy short” style under a skirt can keep your thighs from rubbing together.
Less genital irritation
Underwear can also protect your genitals from irritation from clothing—like those crotch seams in pants that run right between your legs, Dr. Ross says.
More comfortable workouts
Exercising in tight, sweaty leggings or shorts can encourage bacterial growth.
But wearing a pair of sweat-wicking sports underwear can help keep that area clean, dry, and more comfortable so you can work out longer, says Marisa Garshick, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology and clinical assistant professor of dermatology at New York Presbyterian-Cornell.
Fewer zits down there
Acne in the genital and butt region is a real thing and wearing good underwear can help reduce it, Dr. Garshick says.
“When sweat or oil sits on the skin for too long, it can lead to clogged pores, leading to breakouts,” she says.
Wicking underwear can help keep your skin clean and dry. Too late? Here’s how to get rid of acne in places other than your face.
No more zipper accidents
Getting skin, pubic hair, or other things caught in your zipper is a special kind of pain and embarrassment.
Wearing underwear significantly reduces your risk of these types of accidents, particularly when you’re in a hurry.
Protects against leakage
If you experience bladder incontinence or you’re a woman who is menstruating, wearing underwear is an invaluable tool for keeping your clothes clean, dry and unstained, Dr. Ross says.
You can buy underwear specifically designed to be extra absorbent or use regular underwear to hold a pad in place.
Wearing pretty or shaping underwear can give you a little boost of confidence, even if you’re the only one who ever sees them, Dr. Ross says.
Wearing underwear goes back to ancient times of Egyptian pharaohs and traditional Japanese wrestlers. It has evolved over the centuries to provide both fashionable comfort and support. Whether you like to don a pair of boxer briefs or even granny panties, there are many health benefits of underwear.
However, it’s a personal choice to suit everybody’s own needs.
- Deborah Christel, PhD, an assistant professor of Apparel Merchandising, Design and Textiles at Washington State University and President and co-founder of underwear company Kade & Vos
- David E. Bank, MD, a dermatologist and founder of The Center For Dermatology in Westchester, New York
- Sherry A. Ross, MD, an OB-GYN in Santa Monica, California and author of She-ology: The Definitive Guide to Women's Intimate Health. Period.
- Marisa Garshick, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology and Clinical Assistant professor of dermatology at New York Presbyterian-Cornell
- Smithsonian Magazine: "A New Exhibition Is All About Underwear"