Some years ago I took a group on an excursion in Italy. We went to churches and museums in Florence, and rode around Tuscany a little. It was a see, eat, shop, and relax trip. Among the travelers was one of my co-workers and his wife. He was a humanist who also happened to teach welding. One day over a dish of pasta he announced he had just bought some microfiber underwear. His wife Pam nodded. Both had an unmistakable twinkle in their eyes.
“What’s that?” I asked. I thought of myself as a sophisticate at the time, but when it came to underwear, I knew I was hopelessly retrograde and low fashion.
“High tech,” Don said,
“Lightweight,” Pam said.
“Durable,” Don said.
Then they looked at each other. Again, the twinkle.
After lunch we went to the church of Santa Maria del Carmine. It’s a church not everyone gets to, across the Arno, well worth the walk, famous for the Brancacci Chapel. Inside the church, begun in 1268, Don pointed at a column, shook his head, and commented. Artists and architects, he said, get all the credit. Think of the man who worked on that column, coming to the job every, carrying his tools, hammering away at tiny details in just one part of the church. How many columns did he detail in his lifetime? Did he have days off? Did he bring his wife and kids to the worksite so they could appreciate the scope of the project and see his small contribution? Did he live to see the doors of the church open?
From there we went to the chapel, where we saw the Masaccio frescos, known in particular for an image of Adam and Eve being cast out of the Garden of Eden. On their faces is a devastating look of grief and shame. They know they are lost. They know they are naked. Thus begins, in human history, our life of toil, our knowledge of sin and death, and, as the other Masaccio frescos in the chapel show, humankind’s need for the New Adam and the Church.
Thus too begins, it could be argued, the history of clothes. And underwear.
Underwear history is sketchy. The Egyptians wore loincloths, the Romans an undergarment called a “subligaculum.” In medieval times men wore “braies,” from which we get the term “breeches.” Braies looked a lot like shorts, with a draw-string at the waist, a garment that could be pulled down and drawn up, explaining the term “drawers.” The history of women’s underwear, a problematic subject given gender politics, is sparse. Did they or didn’t they? The skirt and miniskirt had not been invented, making an answer to the call of nature, with long voluminous dresses and shifts to manage, a complicated task. Pants were out of the question. (See Joan of Arc.) It was thought, until a recent exciting discovery, that perhaps women wore no underwear at all.
Then in Lengberg Castle, in Austria’s East Tyrol, comes a trove of textile finds. The contents has advanced our understanding of underwear history. The castle dates back to 1190; in a fifteenth century castle-improvement project, a second story was added to the structure. In this second story, in 2008, a vault was uncovered, revealing medieval bras and underpants. Beatrix Nutz (that’s her real name), an expert in medieval and textile archeology at University of Innsbruck, has studied this find and speaks to its advance in brief history. She asserts, “Trousers and underpants were considered a symbol of male power and women wearing them were pugnacious wives trying to usurp the authority of their husbands, or women of low morality.” For the historical record, Nutz notes that both Eleanor of Toledo and Maria de Medici owned underwear, as did Elizabeth I. In an effigy of the great queen of England, there is mention of a corset and drawers.
A day or so later, we were getting ready to board a bus, taking to the hills around Greve to taste some wine. Don had a special look on his face.
“Today,” he said with a broad smile, “I’m walking with ease and comfort in my new microfiber underwear.”
“Cool,” Pam said.
“It’s a weave that breathes,” Don said.
Well all right then, I thought.
I found some at the outdoor market in Piazza Santo Spirito. I made a couple loops around the piazza, looking at cookery, dishware, linens, food, until I found socks and underwear. I pointed and said to the vendor, “Do you have microfiber? Medium, I think.”
She laid out a couple pair of briefs on the table, all black, then picked up another pair and gave them the Heidi Klum stretch. “Three for ten euros,” she said.
I picked up a pair. They felt soft to the touch. Lightweight, as Pam said.
In white print across the front of the briefs was written, in English, in a font way too large, “SEX. KISS.” I handed them back. “Is this all you have?”
The vendor nodded…