Review // Underwear: What We Wear Under There

Underwear: What We Wear Under There
By Ruth Freeman Swain
Illustrated by John O’Brien

Distinctly aimed at young people, this extensively illustrated book is primarily entertaining, but undeniably informative. Swain is an award-winning children’s book author, typically focusing on history.  Without going into a great amount of detail, she covers (rather, reveals) undergarments from ancient civilizations up to modern innovations. Distinctive figures, such as Amelia Bloomer, or John L. Sullivan, and social influences are charmingly referenced, leaving memorable impressions while keeping the brisk pace of the narrative.  Towards the beginning she mentions other cultures, at one point comparing 15th century European knights with 15th century Japanese warriors.  Swain also looks ahead to the future, asking “what happens to an old pair of underpants?” (28), and explains different recycling practices common in the United States.  In the back of the book there is a timeline that reiterates much of the same information from earlier, but also additions, like the design of the bikini, the creation of Lastex from rubber, the invention of Spandex, and more.

John O’Brien’s fanciful and humorous illustrations perfectly complement the text, visually capturing small details, as well as  over-arching themes, and together Swain and O’Brien rescue readers young and old from a dry read.

Recommended for any young fashionistas or budding history buffs, or for any adult who want a quick smile.

Vocabulary interspersed through the text:
Breechclout, breechcloth
Combinations/Union Suit
Long johns
S-bend corset


Carter, Alison. Underwear: The Fashion History. New York: Drama Book Publishers, 1992.

Corey, Shana.  You Forgot Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer! New York: Scholastic Press, 2000.

Cunnington, C. Willet, and Phyllis Cunnington.  The History of Underclothes.  New York: Dover Publications, 1992.  First Published 1951 by Michael Joseph Ltd., London.

Eicher, Joanne B., Sandra Lee Evenson, and Hazel A. Lutz.  The Visible Self: Global Perspectives on Dress, Culture, and Society. 2nd Ed. New York: Fairchild Publications, 2000.

Ewing, Elizabeth. Everyday Dress: 1650-1900.  New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1984.

Farrell-Beck, Jane, and Colleen Gau.  Uplift: The Bra in America.  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

Steele, Valerie.  The Corset: A Cultural History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.


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