Underclothes first became fashionable as objects of personal display 500 years ago, according to an interesting review by Veronica Horwell in Saturday’s Guardian. The reasons: a combination of new trade patterns, new technology, new cultural influences, and social ideas and practices moving from one area of society to another; in short, a case study in social innovation.

Until the late fifteenth century, undergarments had been regarded as necessary to keep sweat and grease from one’s unwashable outer clothes, and better out of sight. Several things changed this. The first was that increased trade meant that high quality Flemish linen became more widely available – cloth worth showing off, if you like; new types of needles made from Spanish steel (thanks to Spain’s Moorish minority); and new decorative techniques, previously used only for church linen, moved into the household, which were also spread more rapidly than before because they were printed, through the use of woodcuts.

But this isn’t just a story about technology. It is also about representation, and as Horwell notes, around 1470 Botticelli’s models started wearing linen shifts in his pictures of the classical gods and goddesses, while perhaps also prefiguring the individual morality represented by the assault of Luther, and other Protesstant reformers, on the Catholic Church.

By the 1490s, certainly, the 22-year old Albrecht Durer is painting himself (with a certain braggadacio, it has to be said), with his doublet cut away to show acres of shirt-front – a picture which for some reason reminded me of the young Mick Jagger.

Webmuseum, Paris
Source: Webmuseum, Paris

Horwell’s review is mostly of Patterns of Fashion Volume 4, the final volume of Janet Arnold’s lifework, completed by colleagues a decade after her death. There’s a coda to this story which is also interesting. Because the manufacture and maintenance of undergarments had always been a domestic female occupation, as underclothes moved into the light, so women moved into the workplace – in the sense of the formal economy – for the first time, as launderers and lacemakers. By the time lace became a luxury accessory in the late sixteenth century (think of Shakespeare’s characters), some were making a fortune from it.