Underpants or drawers, known colloquially as “panties,” were first worn during the Renaissance for function but were also used as a chastity device. They were described at the time as “helping women keep clean and protecting them from the cold, they prevent the thighs being seen if they fall off a horse. These drawers also protect them against adventurous young men, because if they slip their hands under their skirts they can’t touch their skin at all” (Saint-Laurent, p. 65). As a result of their direct contact with the female genitals, underpants were considered the most risque of garments, so much so that it was considered almost more immodest to wear them than not, as they not only concealed but also drew attention to the vagina. Thus, until the mid-nineteenth century, they were primarily worn by prostitutes and by little girls.
By 1841, however, The Handbook of the Toilet suggested that French drawers were “of incalculable advantage to women, preventing many of the disorders and indispositions to which … females are subject. The drawers may be of flannel, calico, or cotton, and should reach as far down the leg as possible without their being seen” (Carter, p. 46). Underpants were variously known as drawers, knickers (derived from the original knickerbocker), smalls, britches, and step-ins. Nineteenth-century drawers were designed so that each leg of the garment was separate and the crotch was either open or sewn closed. By the end of World War I, as skirts became shorter, underpants became scantier. Thus in the 1920s, underpants were much smaller than in the nineteenth century.
Outside the realm of erotica and the burlesque theater, underpants were intended to be hidden garments. During the Wimbledon Tennis Championships in 1949, tennis player Gertrude Moran took to the court wearing a short tennis dress, designed by Teddy Tinling, that revealed a pair of ruffled lace-trimmed knickers. This apparel made headlines around the world as a very daring fashion statement. One of the seminal panty moments of post–World War II film saw Marilyn Monroe revealing her underpants when a draft from a subway grating blew up her skirt in the film The Seven Year Itch (1955).
The 1960s saw the development of matching bra and brief sets, disposable paper panties, and the bikini brief. In the 1990s, a new fashion for thong underwear became popular. More recently, boy-style underwear briefs have come into fashion for women. By the 1990s the meaning of panties had completely changed. Previously they had to be hidden at all costs but in this decade it became fashionable to wear big waist high pants under the transparent outerwear designs of Gianni Versace or Dolce & Gabbana. The deliberately non-sexual look of the pants diffused the potential vulgarity of the clothes above.