Saturday, November 29, 2008

Cybils Book Review - Underwear: What We Wear Under There

My mother called them unmentionables. My son calls them skivvies. Seeing them hanging out of a person's pants often prompts a smile. Why does underwear spark such interest? Is it the needless giggles that erupt around it's mention, or is it something to do with knowing the tortuous nature of apparel of old? No matter the reason, kids and adults seem to love learning about the fascinating history of undergarments.
Underwear: What We Wear Under There, written by Ruth Freeman Swain and illustrated by John O'Brien, looks at underwear through the years. It begins:
People have giggled about it, snickered about it, whispered about it (shhh) for hundreds of years. They've made jokes; they've teased. They've been too embarrassed to talk about it out loud, even though they have a pretty good idea what's under there.

What is it? What is so funny about underwear?
And ends:
Will underwear still be funny in the future? Maybe it always will be. There's just something about it. Is it because underwear is usually hidden? Because it's the layer between being dressed and undressed? Because it's colorful, silly, skimpy, or just because it's . . . under there?

Can you say it in a whisper? Can you say it out loud? Can you say it without a smile?
"I see London,
I see France,
I see Laura's under ____?"
In between, a skillfully written, engaging text, accompanied by clever, cartoon-style illustrations describes the evolution of underwear from early days to the present. There is much to learn and enjoy here. The illustrations are downright funny. While much of the humor may escape young readers, adults will enjoy every bit of it. For example, one illustration shows shows a woman catapulting into a hoop skirt, while the opposite page shows women fully dressed and parachuting to the floor instead of taking the staircase. Another illustration shows a group of men, women and children dressed in "union suits," skating on a pond. Below them, a bull chases a family dressed in red union suits out of a field. There is also a wonderful illustration of a soldier parachuting out of the sky with what appears to be a nylon stocking.

Here are some of the interesting things I learned while reading this book.
  • Loincloths were the earliest form of underpants and were worn in all parts of the ancient world, including Africa, China, Rome and the Incan empire.
  • Knights wore padded underwear to protect their bodies from their suits of armor.
  • In sixteenth century England, underwear was alive with fleas, ticks and mites because people rarely bathed.
  • A "bum roll" was a cushion a woman wore tied around her waist to hold her skirts out away from her body.
  • Ruffled pantalettes were worn beneath dresses and eventually morphed (shrunk) into drawers, bloomers, and finally the underpants women wear today.
  • Corsets so changed a woman's body that they not only altered the position of internal organs, but made digestion and childbearing difficult.
  • In 1911, with the introduction of the tango, came the need for more flexible "bust supporters" to replace corsets. These supporters eventually led to the invention of the brassiere.
  • On the first day nylon stockings were sold in America, three quarters of a millions pairs sold out immediately.
In addition to the history of underwear, there is a bit of an introduction to the history of diapers. There is also information about what happens to old underwear.
Instead of going into a landfill, the used clothing may be sold at a Goodwill store, or sold to a recycling company that converts it back into cotton fibers to be used in new ways, such as stuffing for dolls. Used clothes are also shipped in large bales to countries such as Zambia in Africa.
The book ends with a timeline on the history of underwear, and includes a list of books and web sites where readers can get additional information.

My son and I had a great deal of fun reading this book. There were oohs and aahs, guffaws, and giggles galore. Upon finishing the text there were several sections we went back to reread. Overall, this is a fascinating read that is well-written and fancifully illustrated. I highly recommend it.

Book: Underwear: What We Wear Under There
Ruth Freeman Swain
Illustrator: John O'Brien
Holiday House
Date Published:
32 pages
Source of Book:
Interlibrary loan (Thank you Alexandria library!)


  1. Sounds like fun! And it reminds me of one of the sayings hung on the wall of my high school latin classroom--"semper ubi sub ubi!" (always where under where)

  2. That's got to go on my Amazon Christmas wish list!

    You'll never guess what my CAPTCHA word was to confirm I'm a human making this comment - ertbra. I wonder what sort of bra that is?

  3. Ah, my kind of book.
    My Spanish-speaking friends called them chonies when we were growing up. Here in the UK it's an eye-rolling daily occurrence for me to say "pants" and for them all to snigger and say, "you mean TROUSERS!" Sigh.

  4. That sounds like a very interesting book! I love children's non-fiction.