History of Lingerie Part I: Crete

Ah, lingerie. Corsets, bras, slips, garter belts, bustiers, teddies, baby doll dresses, chemises, peignoirs, camisoles, g-strings, thongs...the lingerie business has kept women looking sexy and their lovers eternally grateful for centuries. Whether pushing up the breasts, revealing the legs or behind, leaving something to the imagination or barely - pun intended - anything to the imagination, lingerie is one of the premiere tools that help women feel beautiful and sensuous.

Sophia Loren shows how it's done, and she does it quite well.

Most women agree that great underwear will make them feel desired even if their outerwear is shapeless or otherwise ho-hum. And Lord knows taking off a women's clothing to reveal a gorgeous bustier or ridiculously hot teddy will never get old; it's like opening presents on Christmas morning, only the present is much better than a new vacuum or movie-of-the-month club subscription. So where did the idea of lingerie originate? Was what we now regard as underwear originally used for that purpose? How did various pieces of lingerie come into existence, and was the idea always to enhance the female body? What civilization is credited with inventing the first piece of lingerie, an item specifically designed to be worn by women only? This History of Lingerie series will explore the origins of lingerie, starting with the first evidence of clothing up until modern times.

Two corsets worthy of any modern goddess, by designer Dallas Parke.

In the early days of civilization, dress was used to indicate status and wealth rather than to cover the human form. Slaves and poor folk in Sumerian and early Egyptian civilizations were generally naked, whereas Egyptian nobles and other persons of status wore loincloths and tunics that featured gold thread. Though the first evidence of what we now call undergarments dates back to 3000 B.C., the first evidence of undergarments worn specifically for and by women dates back to 2000 B.C., in Crete. Unlike previous instances of undergarments, Cretan women wore a full skirt and type of corset meant to enhance the female form in all its sensuality.

The Louvre Pyramid in Paris.

Stop in the Louvre the next time you're bumming through Paris to catch glimpses of a Sumerian terra cotta and a bas-relief that depicts two women, one wearing a loincloth and the other wearing what today's world would call briefs. Both are made of sheepskin and are cinched at the waist with padded belts. It's the only clothing worn in these depictions, the rest of both bodies are left bare. It is assumed that the loincloth came first with briefs the result of gathering the pieces of the loincloth up between the thighs. Yet these two clothing items were not considered undergarments, or clothing worn to protect outerwear from body soil, rather they are simply viewed as the first evidence of clothing in general.

Egyptian soldiers wearing "loincloths."

Egyptian society would not use clothing as undergarments for many centuries; instead tunics, loincloths and underskirts were the usual outerwear. Clothing was a sign of status; the length, colors, and movement of folds in an Egyptian tunic all indicated societal rank. Egyptian men of particularly high status wore loincloths under their tunics, which gave birth to the concept of the underskirt. The underskirt had nothing to do with shielding the privates or protecting the body from the weather, it was simply an indication of status and wealth.

Clothing indicated status and wealth in Egyptian society.

Egypt during the second millennium saw little clothing changes, and clothing was still worn to demonstrate status. An upper class woman during this period would frequently wear two tunics, one of which was usually transparent, though both could be sheer. Slaves during this time generally came from what is now known as the Middle and Near East, and "liberated" themselves by wearing what we refer to as briefs. It is believed these slaves from the other side of the Red Sea brought the briefs from their homelands, though free women during this time period would not have thought to wear briefs beneath their tunics.

Clothed and not-so-clothed ancient Egyptians.

Sewn and draped clothing became popular in Eastern Mediterranean and Egyptian society during the second millennium, though outerwear was generally sewn and undergarments draped on the body. Sewn clothing probably had very little to do with the (originally Sumerian) briefs, but instead was the influence of those that invaded the lands among the Red, Black and Caspian seas - notably the Persians, Hittites, and Indo-Europeans. Indo-Europeans and Persians introduced the concept of the trouser, which had little to do with modesty and instead was worn as durable travel clothing. It was the Semitic people who adopted the trouser from the Persians to shield the lower half of the body from view as a sign of modesty. The loose, flowing clothing favored by Egyptian and Mediterranean societies indicated both societies didn't think at all about disguising the body due to moral or religious beliefs. They even wore loose garments during colder weather, with Egyptian women using pieces of cloth cinched with suspender belts, or "stockings" to keep their legs warm against the chill. The suspender belts left the private parts uncovered, another example of the lack of puritanical modesty that early civilizations had no concept of.

The Etruscans and the Minoans, two early Mediterranean civilizations, also favored loose, open clothing. The Etruscans were believed to have migrated from Asia Minor to what we now call Tuscany, Italy, as early as 1000 B.C., while the Minoans, who occupied Crete, became an established civilization far earlier, sometime around 2600 B.C. The Etruscans ruled most of Western Italy, including Rome, for several centuries and were all about open if not transparent clothing. No sewn or cinched clothing of any kind were worn, and the Etruscans went back and forth between nakedness and wearing clothes. They also enjoyed transparent shawls, which were worn as accessories to undergarment-like dresses, or against bare skin.

Etruscan women wearing loose flowing robes.

It is the Minoans that are credited with using clothing in a completely different way than Egyptian and other ancient societies. Somewhere along the line the Minoans must have realized how stunning and awe-inspiring the female body is, and made clothes to accentuate it. Two of the first examples of this are the Cretan skirt, which was rounded and wide, and the Cretan corset. The ancient Cretans were referred to as Minoans after legendary King Minos - think of the Greek myth of Theseus and the story of the Minotaur, which was set in Crete - and the Minoan Era took place between 2600 B.C. and 1400 B.C. Historians divide the Minoan Era into three distinct periods--Early (2600 B.C. to 2000 B.C.), Middle (2000 B.C. to 1700 B.C.), and Late (1700 B.C. to 1400 B.C.). A temperate climate, Crete had warm, dry summers and short, mild winters. The island's fertile plains provided ample food supply that fed the population and also helped create commerce, as Crete's natural resources were often exported to the Greek mainland, the Aegean islands, Egypt, Syria, and Cyprus. Crete's main exports besides food, such as olive oil, included timber, herbs, wool, cloth, purple dye, wine, and currants. Though Minoan society flourished for centuries, scholars are unclear as to the exact reasons for the society's demise.

So, just where is Crete anyway?

The Cretan skirt was made of rush and metal. It flared out in hoop skirt-like fashion, and featured layered flounces. The hoops of the skirt are the first example of an undergarment worn exclusively by women, could be compared to the crinoline, and came about sometime during 2000 B.C. The skirt was cinched at the waist to make the hips appear wider. The skirt's hoops paved the way for other undergarments endured by women throughout history, such as bustles, farthingales, panniers, hooped petticoats, dress improvers, and of course the crinoline. All of these items were designed to give the female body a distinct hourglass figure.

A depication of the Cretan Snake Goddess.

The Cretan corset, another example of underthings worn only by women, was also invented around this time. The evidence of the Cretan corset is Snake Goddess, a famous Polychrome clay statue from the late Minoan period (about 1600 B.C.). Because Minoans created images of their goddesses wearing corsets, it is believed that Minoan women also wore this type of clothing. The cult of the snake was popular in Crete at this time, particularly around the Knossos region. The Snake Goddess was also the society's Household Goddess, and is generally thought to be associated with rebirth, fertility and renewal. The snake goddess theme eventually came to Greece, with depictions of the snake used on Greek goddess Athena's shield as a symbol of protection. Snake Goddess is depicted wearing a laced corset that came up under the breasts to to accentuate them by pushing upward and outward. Unlike over bust corsets, the Minoan corset displayed the entire bust. The goddess also wears a flounced skirt with a cinched belt in the depiction, giving her a delightfully curvy figure.

A Minoan seal featuring some very curvy ladies.

A goddess-driven society - Snake Goddess is merely one example - Minoans clearly celebrated women. Most of the artifacts from Minoan society feature women, either alone or in groups. It is believed that women in Minoan society actively participated if not dominated the society's religious practices and events. Men are rarely depicted in Minoan art and other artifacts, and if they are they are rarely shown in positions of power. One example of Minoan art believed to reveal women's status in Minoan society is a fresco that shows a white-skinned woman and dark-skinned man engaging in a dangerous sport - performing somersaults over a charging bull. The dangerous nature of this activity is evidence that Minoan women were not considered their society's second class citizens, but instead were equal to men. Women played a powerful role during the height of Cretan society as evidenced by seals, spears and gold artifacts that date between 2000 B.C. and 1700 B.C.

The Temple of Knossos on Crete.

Cretan "womenswear" made the Cretan female appear slender yet curvy. This is arguably the first time women wore clothing specifically for the purpose of appearing rounded and sensuous. Skirts featured a variety of vivid colors and Minoan women also wore makeup. Though historians have sometimes written of Cretan women as seductive temptresses from foreign lands sent to entice and bewitch, there is no evidence that Cretan women were not native to the island. Perhaps male historians disliked the idea of powerful women, and turned Minoan women into harlots for that reason.

An artist's rendering of a Mionan palace.

Cretan corsets were made of bone, and marked a period of sexual awareness that could be thought of as the first "sexual revolution," though the 1960s are often associated with this term. The corset and hooped skirt or crinoline were worn by Minoan women to proudly display their femininity, which was not a shameful or dirty thing. These early examples of lingerie were not meant to demonize women as foul temptresses who bewitched their men, rather they celebrated the female form. The elaborate underthings were associated with the upper class. Whether or not less affluent female members of Cretan society had access to these undergarments is unknown.

Minoan man and woman performing death-defying stunts with a charging bull.

It is also important to note that the corsets sported by Minoan women were both specific to women and paved the way for the "underwear as outerwear trend" that we modern women still enjoy today. In fact, the corset is still viewed as a piece of outerwear in many societies. Since they were made from bone, they had to be very stiff, and bones were used in corsets for centuries. For example, the Elizabethan corset was made of whalebone. Though the image of a woman getting laced up into her corset is a common one, one has to wonder how exactly Minoan women got into and out of their corsets. Crete was an exporter of cloth, so perhaps cloth was used to lace the corset. As with pretty much all corsets, the Cretan corset may not have been made for comfort. It was designed purely to push the breasts up and out as much as humanly possible.

A fresco from the Temple at Knossos, thought to depict queens.

It is fascinating that a culture that made clothing to show off the sensuality of the female form also highly regarded its women. Though the corset did glorify the female form as an object of desire, it was not considered shameful to do so, rather it was just another aspect of Minoan culture. The goddess-centric ancient world did not demonize lust and sensuality, nor did it view the power of sensuality as an evil thing. Too bad more societies since the dawn of Christianity weren't this awesome!