Underwear (Li Mutanni)


Roberto Benigni

   In ancient Rome the forefather of the underwear was the subligatum (under ties), a piece of linen cloth tied around the waist and going between the thighs. It was used mostly by the dancers, athletes and gladiators, who in their work often unwillingly had their intimate parts showing during the exercises and the dances. They were a sort of suspensors for the males and a protection of sort for the females. The boys were the first to cover the pudenda (unmentionable), as protection. Nothing fancy, some rough “containers” made of goat wool.

     Even Cicero speaks about them, citing the femoralia (between the femurs), as an obligatory covering for the actors when playing the Plauto’s comedies: licentiousness in speech but modesty in dressing. Horatius calls them subligata (tied under), but considers them a constraining element. The matrons and the senators did not wear them and, it seems, even the foreign people, or barbarians did not use them, since the men were wearing some kind of trousers. The other ancient people were using the perizoma (some kind of short tunic around the waist down to the high thighs).

     In the mediaeval times the girls did not wear anything close to the underpants. It was said that they were lacking aeration! Therefore in the medieval the “braghe”(trousers), were a male prerogative, while for a lady, worthy of such a name, just even the thought of wearing them, would have been dishonorable. They were a license for the ballerinas, actresses, female athletes and prostitutes, some church people were saying that they (the underpants) contained an element of lustfulness.

     But the lay boys kept on wearing the suspensors, which with the passing of time became more elaborate, multicolored and “external”. The noble women, on the festivities, would wear the parabullias (literally, ball catchers), something similar to the today’s panties. The medieval people, male or female, afflicted as they were by poverty, diseases and famine could barely survive, let alone pay attention to the underpants…

     Instead it is said that the chastity belts for the noble women, used as an impediment to cheating, very much disliked by the men leaving for war, were in great fashion. It seems that the daily use of underpants for women was introduced by Catherine dei Medici, but with little luck. In the first period of the Inquisition, the Church, the Protestants and such looked at them as instruments of “Satan and lust”. Women considered them impudent and good only for “liberal” women and prostitutes, and if that was not enough, men judged them inconvenient and useless.

      A good push to the use of the underwear, going against the rule that the pants had only to be exclusive garments for the prostitutes, was given by Lucrezia Borgia, who, for her love rendezvous, wore the calecon (trousers) of changing colors. In the male field, men were jumping frivolously to forms and color a la page: décor-colored pin stripes, patterns and first-rate material.

     In 1700, the Enlightenment started to make obsolete the old waywardness, even though the “culottes” still had hard opposition, by the likes of Louis XV, who, to the enthusiastic Madame Pompadour, that had given him as present a pair of shorts, said sternly: “A man in shorts will never be a hero”. It would not be long that the “revolution” of the panties and shorts (underwear) will be a fait accompli. The “revolution” started in England, where middle class ladies started to wear beautiful underpants made of silk, linen or cotton (according to their economic possibility), to be tied at the waist and to the legs under the knee. A famous underwear was the one that Napoleon III gave to the Countess of Castiglione, a pair of red panties, with the words: “The underpants are a virtue, before lowering them, one must reflect”.

By Fara Misuraca

Translation by Nino Russo

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