Underwear: A Brief History
Exploring the pioneering developments of undergarments.
Having patented a wide variety of fabrics, sewing machines and other equipment, George D. Munsing was an accomplished turn-of-the-century inventor and businessman. But perhaps his best-known contribution to the industrial revolution was his pioneering work in the world of undergarments. Innovative weaving technology, combined with the age’s latest materials, put Munsingwear at the forefront of the worldwide skivvy scene.
This weekend I explored a museum exhibit chronicling the history of the Munsingwear factories in Minneapolis. Exotic as underwear history may seem, you don’t have to go all the way to London or France to see a curious exhibit like this, it’s right near its source at the Minnesota Historical Society. While they still have the full Munsingwear collection in the museum archives, this was a "brief" exhibit that is now closed, but luckily it came to my attention just in time and I visited on its final day.
Everyone can appreciate underwear for what it is, its purpose and variety of shapes and styles. As a person with a chronic digestive illness, I certainly have a special relationship with underwear. Any patient will agree, I suspect, that underwear is a critical ingredient in the IBD recipe for success. But frankly, it never even occurred to me that it would have a rich history of development like any other industry. And indeed it does.
The advertisements in the exhibit were particularly eye-catching. I found it interesting to realize that, from its beginning and all the way up to modern times, underwear advertising has shared a consistent component throughout its history… the depiction of people doing all manner of awkwardly abnormal things in their underwear—as if it would be natural for groups of people to hold a band rehearsal, go four-wheeling in the desert, have a picnic, or perform circus acts while wearing nothing but undies.
Cheerleading Tower, Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society.One such example from the early 1900s showed a human tower of nine people, held up by one man at its core, all wearing just their union suits. Instantly it reminded me of a story my father used to tell. There was a legendary German family of aerial acrobats in the Milwaukee area who performed such human pyramids while walking a tightrope high in the air. One fateful day, the act went horribly wrong when the patriarch had trouble keeping the formation together. Moments before the family tumbled to tragedy, he was heard to say, “Ich kann nicht mehr halten.” Translated from German, this means “I can no longer hold it.”
Fusing that story with the gloomy seriousness of his German upbringing, my father would occasionally use that phrase when he felt like things were falling apart around him. It serves as a fitting metaphor in that sense. But when you inject that story into the combination of undergarments and digestive illness, Ich kann nicht mehr halten takes on a second meaning—number two, if you will.
Obviously, the severity of this predicament is nowhere near equivalent to the tightrope tragedy, but when we see it coming it can seem every bit as horrifying. For those who periodically find themselves in that situation—and it does happen enough for us all to understand it well—all I can say is thank goodness for Munsingwear.
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