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Lexicons of Lost Lifestyles: Clothing, Part 8 - In the Beginning . . .

Under what circumstances would you find a man wearing a petticoat? And why would anyone call those long, frilly leggings worn under a woman's skirt "bloomers"? These and other questions are answered in this month's exploration into the strange terminology used to describe the "unmentionables" our ancestors wore.


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As we begin a new year, it seems appropriate to me to consider the beginnings of one's dressing procedures. There has almost always been a category of clothing that fits into the "unmentionables" grouping – the necessary garments that are not discussed in polite society. While today words like "under pants" are rather self-explanatory, some of the terms used to describe the garments worn beneath what the world sees are not as easily explained away. Here we will take a look at some of those items as well as one article of clothing that is worn atop the garments, but is nonetheless necessary.

Have you ever taken a moment to examine the word "petticoat"? Just as the name implies, originally a "petticoat" was a "little coat." As such, it was not exclusively a woman's garment, in fact, it wasn't worn by women at all. It was created for knights, in the 1400s and 1500s, to wear under their armor to reduce chafing. Apparently its purpose was appealing to well-dressed men of the late 1500s and early 1600s, because they adopted it to wear under the doublet. Initially, it was worn as a vest or waistcoat and it must have appealed to women, who soon were found wearing a similar garment (by the same name) with the appearance of what we now call a "chemise." By the later-1600s the petticoat was extended to cover the lower part of the body as an underskirt as well, just as it is seen today; though often, in modern vernacular, a "petticoat" may not have an attached bodice (Funk, p. 151).

I was listening to an old radio program in which Jack Benny was doing some Christmas shopping and decided to get some "lingerie" for his female friend (not a "girlfriend"). My initial thought that it was rather presumptuous for a male to attempt to get something as intimate as "lingerie" for someone with whom he was not in a romantic relationship. Then I read the origin of the term and softened some in my assessment of this action: the word "lingerie" comes from linge, meaning "linen." It was an ordinary fabric used to create fashionable linen dresses – called lingerie – worn for special events. The cloth itself was made from natural fibers that had been improved upon by French designers, winning world-wide acclaim for their efforts. Even after the advent of other options for their garments, women preferred the feel of the softer fabric against their skin, hence the evolution into using lingerie as an undergarment (Garrison, p. 132).

Mrs. Amelia Bloomer has gone down in history, accurately or not, as the person responsible for those undergarments our female ancestors wore, called "bloomers." Initially, as part of the Suffragette movement, Mrs. Bloomer suggested women don an outfit of long, billowy pants that were topped with a knee-length skirt. Didn't catch on (wonder why). But years later the concept of wearing feminine trousers under the skirt for girls, while exercising, did and the pants were given the name "bloomers," after their alleged creator (who insisted she only borrowed the idea from Mrs. Elizabeth Miller . . . but I guess "Millers" would not sound quite as acceptable) (Morris & Morris, p. 70). Note: I do have some advertising cards that my great-grandfather had for his shop featuring drawings of girls in bloomers and short skirts; ca. 1890.

My mother's dresser had five drawers, and in the top one, she kept her drawers. That sounds like a very unusual drawer, to say the least. "Drawers" were worn by men and women and consisted of an attached length of material encasing the legs, separately, attached to a breech portion to cover, well, the rest. Because they were "drawn" up over the legs and buttocks, they got the name "drawers" (Hendrickson, p. 217).

Personally, I prefer that term – drawers – to the next one: "long johns." Most likely that was a term ca. WWII, when the Army issued long underwear to the recruits to keep them warm. Letters sent home made reference to the cotton drawers (hardly "briefs") and one recorded piece in the Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune, 1944, mentions the similarity between the soldiers' long johns and the garb worn by John L. Sullivan, the boxer; a term was born (Quinion)!

While fashion may have dictated that well-to-do women be ostentatiously attired when engaged in formal affairs, they were no different to us today, longing to do our genealogy in our own home, "wearing slippers and pajamas" as we surf the Internet. OK, there was no Internet in the early French society, but the desire to be clothed in loose-fitting garments was reality, nevertheless. So these women, who often had to be "dressed to the nines" when in public could don clothing that spoke of being "neglected attire" (negligee) when in private (much to the chagrin of her distinguished husband, no doubt). And so it is that, no matter how revealing we may consider today's negligee to be, it once meant, simply, a "loose-fitting dressing gown" (Garrison, p. 133).

From that we move to something far more revealing: the "G-string." While most are familiar (with reference, if not in actual experience) to the term being applied to an exotic dancer's "costume," the term dates back to early America when the colonists (no doubt, rather horrified) saw the garb of the Native Americans: a piece of breechcloth ("breechclout") being worn about the waste to strategically cover particular parts of the body. The colonists and frontiersman gave this "clothing" the name "G-string," for reasons not specifically clarified. Nevertheless, conjecture suggests that it is because the cloth was held into place by a piece of cord or sinew that was thin enough to be light-weight, yet thick enough not to cut the skin. For those newcomers to this country, they might have likened it to the thickest string on the most popular instrument: the violin. This was (and still is) the G string (Funk, p. 82). It would behoove the wearer, however, not to try to replace his fiddle string with that which held his garment in place!

And finally, in this article in our Clothing Series, we come to a garment that seems to fit in no other category: the pinafore. This form of apron, consisting of a bib, used to protect the clothing underneath, was actually pinned on the front of the top part of the person's frock ("pinned a-fore"). Originally, it was worn by both boys and girls, no doubt to keep their clothing clean, but later became solely a female's garment, used by women as well as girls, and no longer required pins to keep it in place (it is either sewn or tied onto the frock) (Funk, pp. 34-35).

So there we have a brief (not to be confused with "briefs") review of some of the undergarments our ancestors used to protect their skin beneath their outer clothing. Trying to imagine the many layers some chose, or had, to wear is mind-boggling; unless, of course, you have ancestors who wore those G-string garments. Whatever group your ancestor occupied, genealogists who are armed with an understanding of what was meant by the terms used to describe their forebears' clothing helps in understanding what journals, letters, and even estate inventories identified.


Funk, Charles Earle. Horsefeathers & Other Curious Words. New York: Harper & Row, 1958, 1986

Garrison, Webb. What's in a Word? Fascinating Stories of More Than 350 Everyday Words and Phrases. Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press, 2000.

Hendrickson, Robert. The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Rev. & Expanded Ed. New York: Checkmark Books, 1997, 2000.

Morris, William, & Mary Morris. Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, 2nd ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

Quinion, Michael. "Long Johns," World Wide Words, 21 Feb 2004. Accessed 28 July 2010, from

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2011.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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