From Lingerie To Tighty-Whities: A Sort-Of-Secret French History Of The Underwear

Retracing the history of the undergarment
Retracing the history of the undergarment
Veronique Lorelle

PARIS – A cheeky move, one might say. To retrace the history of the undergarment – from the XXL fig leaf on Adam’s attributes taken from a 10th century manuscript to the tighty-whities of the 1980s (called kangaroo briefs in France because of their front pocket) – is a daring, er, undertaking indeed.

A challenge cheerfully taken on by Brigitte Govignon in her new book, Caleçons, culottes & compagnie (“Boxers, Undies and the Rest”): one of those picture books that you leaf through – or rather pluck the leaves of – with great delight.

Scorned, worn to the last thread or thrown away, long johns and briefs haven’t left a huge mark on history. Most of the undergarments on display in museums are no more than two centuries old – and most of them are usually of the alluring lingerie type. So to refresh our memories, Govignon collected a rich iconography, from Carpaccio and Velasquez paintings to naughty postcards, posters, mail order catalogues and advertisements.

Humanity was able to do without briefs and panties for a long time. For millenniums, men went commando under their togas – women under their petticoats. If you want proof just take a look at the Museum of Delphi’s The Battled Between The Gods and the Giants, dating from 525 BC, where the artist – with commendable attention to detail – sculpted a bit of pee-pee hanging out from under a toga.

There is also this gallant scene from a 1767 painting by Fragonard where, sitting under a swing, a young man watches with a smile while his lady friend swings in a silk dress that leaves nothing to the imagination. The painting is called Les Hasards Heureux de L’Escarpolette (“The Happy Accidents of The Swing”).

Fragonard's "The Swing" - Photo: Wallace Collection

Reign of the fly

While no one wore them in everyday life, underwear was worn for the practice of sports. Roman mosaics from the 4th century BC show female athletes playing ball or throwing discs, sporting panties and strips over their chests. They were basically competitors in bikinis! When briefs (le slip) were launched in France in 1906, in the Manufrance mail-order catalogue, it was as sports clothing. Its female version, the panty (la culotte), was patented by Petit Bateau in 1918.

Both the slip and the culotte have an exuberant – and prominent – ancestor born after the Hundred Years’ War waged between France and the UK from 1337 to 1453. A sort of bulging leather or metal pouch that attached to the front of the crouch of men’s braies –long-john type trousers that had been worn since the Gauls. The word braie probably comes from the Latin braca, meaning pocket. All that is left from this glorious invention is the front pocket that is still found today on the front of pants.

Many paintings from the Middle Ages depict kings and feudal lords showing off their colorful and provocative front pouches. This symbol of a triumphant sexuality reached all wands of society, as shown by the paintings of Pieter Bruegel the elder, where peasants exhibit with pride their manly attributes.

"Emperor Charles V with a dog" by Titian - Photo: Prado Museum

Maybe the fantasy around this bulging pouch – the male version of the “push-up bra” – is the reason why today’s heroes, from Tarzan to Superman would not be caught without their respective tighty-whities, which are an integral part of their costumes. It’s as if these few inches of cloth hide a tremendous power.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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