This week on the podcast, we covered the fascinating -- and mostly crotchless -- history of women's underwear and chatted with Julie Sygiel, founder and CEO of the innovative underwear startup Dear Kate. And as Dear Kate specializes in making functional, cute underwear that eases discomforts and inconveniences that often come along with menstruation (and other perfectly normal female bodily functions), I wondered: What did ye olde period panties look and feel like?
The first modern period panties weren't panties at all. They were period aprons, bloomers and belts.
Yes, your great grandmother probably wore a period apron. She probably would've called it a "sanitary" apron though because proper ladies didn't used crude terms like menses and period. (In fact, menstrual "period" wasn't uttered in TV advertising until 1985...and by none other than Courtney Cox.)
See, until the 1920s, ladies' underpants were mostly open-crotched. Hence, the sanitary apron. (Women working factory jobs in World War I that demanded they wear trousers hastened the crotch closing). The apron was worn underneath skirts, tied around the waist and covered the backside; a droopy "napkin holder" hung between the legs. And with that, I'd like to give a standing ovation to tampons and menstrual cups everywhere.
Period bloomers -- modeled after diaper coveres, which inspired many menstrual product designs -- might seem like an example of closed-crotch period panty progress. Not so much. These bloomers were usually coated with rubber, the not-so-secret leak-thwarting ingredient of most vintage menstrual garments . Rubber added bulk and snuffed out any breathability, making them rather unsanitary bloomers.
As hemlines rose, rubbery sanitary bloomers would give way to still-rubbery sanitary step-ins.
After World War I, Kimberly-Clark found a handy new use for bandages previously used on wounded doughboys. Enter Kotex "sanitary napkins," the first commercially successful disposable pads. But that fancy menstrual gauze had to be held in place with safety pins, menstrual belts or specialized underwear equipped with maxi pad pockets.
Menstrual belts were essentially period girdles that remained popular to the 1980s. Until 1969 when the first self-adhesive maxi pads arrived in drug stores, it was up to menstrual belts or specialized "sanitary underwear" to keep pads from scooting into places they shouldn't (like onto the feet of the keen fella you're dancing with...horrors!).
For ladies who didn't care for menstrual belts, specialized period panties with a rubber-reinforced crotch pocket for a pad were a common alternative. Those Modess Panti-Kinis below are actually pretty cute -- and cost only 75 cents?! Menstrual win-win.
With the introduction of slimmer self-adhesive pads and panty liners and better absorbing tampons (but not so absorbing as to threaten toxic shock syndrome) starting in the early 1970s, period panties evolved into the stained, castoff cotton briefs many don monthly these days.
But the history of period panties is still unfolding -- and that's a good thing. The development of menstrual products and as well as their advertisement (pad and tampon television commercials were banned outright until the 1970s, FYI) have coincided with advances in women's health and mobility. Though period panties might seem like the unsexy punchlines inside underwear drawers, their existence marks a century of gradual improvements for women both personally and politically. Better yet, thanks to fabric technology advances and smart design, period panties don't even look like period panties anymore -- and I'm not talking about a throwback to the apron days, thank our lucky 21st-century ovaries.