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.