“Over-knickers, knickers, and under-knickers!” – or why the 18th century French Navy’s underwear matters…

Two years ago, while giving a ‘sailor fashion’ demo at the Rochefort shipyard of the recreated frigate Hermione , I was confronted by a middle-aged woman in my tour group who, after I had been describing my wardrobe for several moments, blurted out (in French), “Well, are you wearing historical underwear too??”  And I was! (Completely hand-stitched linen underwear in fact.) Trying to refocus the group’s attention however, and not knowing that the antique word for breeches – ‘culottes’ – now means ‘knickers’ in contemporary French [‘Granny panties’ if you’re American], I exclaimed indignantly, “Well yes! I’m actually wearing three layers of knickers! – over-knickers, knickers and under-knickers!” The haunting laughter of that tour group aside, today I’ll be addressing this question with reference to the French Navy of Louis XVI. Rather, what did late eighteenth century French mariners wear under their breeches and trousers – and why might these historical underpants actually matter?


Displaying a reconstructed ‘seaman’s estate inventory’ on the La Rochelle pier-side, in cooperation with the Association Hermione-Lafayette (March 2015).

The first problem is one of documentation: consider for instance the clothing you’re currently wearing, and how long you will (or likely won’t) keep it… Undergarments are paradoxically intimate AND expendable, and the same applies more broadly for any antique clothing, which typically either survives by accident — because it was lost, forgotten, or hidden — or because it was somehow exceptional, or worth preserving for emotional reasons. And given the intensive daily use and re-use of lower-class working garments, plus the elitist nature of collecting, upper-class apparel overwhelmingly dominates extant garments in most museum collections. Within such archives, maritime clothing is even rarer still, with most pieces being recovered in fragmented form from shipwrecks after having spent centuries underwater. And underwear is almost entirely absent, barring haphazard examples like the medieval bras recently found under an Austrian castle’s floorboards. All this would make finding even pieces of common sailors’ attire, let alone their underwear, as likely as finding a linen needle in a vast underwater haystack – after all, how can we infer the existence of a garment that doesn’t survive, wasn’t usually discussed in writing, and isn’t typically shown in art?

Yet the common misconception that 18th century men (and seamen) simply did not wear underpants is only partially true, something we can genuinely infer from a) material, b) textual, and c) visual sources.

A) Rare material survivors, like the twin examples of extant ‘drawers’ below show practical details of construction and function. Both are made of lighter-weight linen, have a 2 button front closure, and eyelets in the rear of the waistband for lacing which adjust their fit. They have a full seat, both to accommodate the long hem of a period male shirt, and to allow physical movement (sitting, riding, twerking, etc). And their crotches are noticeably open, allowing a man to easily urinate or undress, with any indecency covered by his thigh-length shirt. Additionally, the leg seams are hemmed to the outside to prevent chafing along the inner thighs, while tape ties under the kneecaps both serve to secure the over-knee stockings worn underneath, and to prevent the fabric from riding up or bunching uncomfortably. When worn under cloth or leather breeches, such layering – with body linens beneath sturdier external fabric – created a washable undergarment which absorbed perspiration, body oils and subsequent odors, and helped men at all levels keep clean, healthy and fashionable.


Underdrawers (linen), 18th century, French. Metropolitan Museum of Art, #1996.386.3.


Underdrawers (linen), c. 1750-1800, Europe/France. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, #1996-218.

B) As for texts, official naval ordonnances under the Ancien Regime do not appear to mention underwear; even rare examples of government-drafted ‘packing lists’ for personnel reviews which mention basic garments like shirts do not mention seemingly mundane undergarments.[2] However, comparison to royal decrees regulating the army can be fruitful; for example, separately issued linen drawers cited in the 1747 code for the French infantry’s dress[3] were replaced by linen-lined breeches by 1762 and 1779[4]. Lastly, dead sailors’ estate inventories DO sometimes list drawers (‘calcon’) in their detailed listings of possessions, suggesting their potentially more widespread use (see two examples below).


‘One drawers’, in Iventaire apres deces de Jean Lafargue, matelot’, 1778, Paris National Archives, MAR/C/7/157.


‘#3 – three bad drawers’, in inventaire apres deces de Pierre Giquel, matelot’, 1775, Paris National Archives, MAR/C/7/118.

C) And finally, while period visuals of underwear are rare, since men are typically shown either fully dressed (or, less commonly, in nightclothes, or simply naked), two notable exception are satires of wives ‘wearing the breeches’, and lingerie makers (see below). In the first one can clearly see bare male legs underneath the shirt’s hems, while the second shows stockings held up by individual pieces of woven tape, and finally the third depicts drawers are at bottom left amongst the linen vendor’s merchandise. At least in contemporary artists’ minds then, either separate drawers or simply shirts both constituted acceptable ‘underwear’.


Nicolas Guerard (engraver), ‘Presage Malheureux – Mauvais Menage et Debate Pour la Culotte’, 1689, National Library of France, ark:/12148/btv1b84074938.


John Collet (artist), William Humphrey (publisher), ‘The Battle Royal, or Who wears the Breeches’ 1774, Lewis Walpole Library (Yale University) Digital Image Collection, #774.06.15.01+.


Nicolas de L’Armessin, ‘Habit de la Lingere’ in Costumes Grotesques, 1695, National Library of France, ark:/12148/btv1b8407155i.

What then can we conclude then about the undergarments sailors wore, or didn’t? Long shirts tucked into their breeches may have served for some, while others may have worn legwear lined in linen; or indeed separate ‘drawers’ more akin to modern underwear underneath their ‘culotte’.

And finally, why does this matter?!

a) Underwear is a very human issue, which makes the radically different people in the past that I study feel somewhat more relatable. I also  wear hand-sewn drawers every time I work and live in historical garments, and find them far more comfortable than modern briefs or boxers, which both bunch up uncomfortably under well-fit breeches.

B) Drawers are a fine example of the challenge (and reward) of interweaving material, visual and textual sources, a real archival detective hunt from which multiple plausible interpretations are plausible!

c) The extending practical supervision of the state and elite commanders into the daily lives of seamen (via increasingly detailed government ordonnances) is visible in how underwear was regulated (or initially not), a trend which began in the late 18th century and continued on into the 19th and 20th centuries.

d) Finally, underwear was arguably more important than cannonballs. Well into the mid-20th century, disease killed vastly more people throughout each human conflict than combat wounds. And if one considers specific 18th century cases like the typhus epidemic which killed thousands of French seamen in a fleet assembling to invade England from Brest in 1779 (a deadly virus transmitted by bodily parasites) , the connection of naval undergarments and hygiene to the grand course of 18th century geopolitics cannot be overstated.

(above; Washing my dirty linens as a naval laundry demo, August 2016). [I’d say the soap in my hand is just as critical as the cannonballs stacked to my left – but what do you think!? Leave a comment, and spread the word!!]

[2] ‘Copie de l’instruction de la Cour, relativement à la division des équipages par escouades, & à leur équipemens; signée pour copie d’Orvilliers Brest 1779’, Available at: http://librairie-marine.com/documents/lois/lois.htm Accessed: 19 May, 2016. ; RÉGLEMENT Sur l’Ordre, la propreté & la salubrité à maintenir à bord des Vaisseaux, du premier Janvier 1786’, Article 36, in Mallard, Ordonnances et Reglemens, Concernant La Marine (Toulon, 1787). p. 424.

[3] ORDONNANCE DU ROY, portant règlement pour l’habillement de l’infanterie Françoise. Du 19 janvier 1747, p. 4.

[4] Règlement arrêté par le Roi pour l’habillement et l’équipement de ses troupes du 21 février 1779. [Strasbourg Library]. p. 4.

6 thoughts on ““Over-knickers, knickers, and under-knickers!” – or why the 18th century French Navy’s underwear matters…

  1. Pingback: Shellfish, Sma’lines, Seaboots and shows: Semester 1 in review | "Fishy Fashion and Maritime Modes"

  2. Great article Adam. You should expand it for a serious publication. The under breeches that are almost sheer, do you know the material the rest of them I’m guessing are linen? Do you know if any where made of cotton?
    Would like a list of seaman’s estate inventory. Is it available? Warm regards


    • Thank you Sigmund! The pairs above are both higher-end, and made of finer linen (which, as you say, is visible in its quality). Linen is by far and above the most common fiber for undergarments of all kinds in this period, although wool flannel is also used for both mens shirts and drawers. Cotton by contrast would be more expensive until well into the 19th century, and was most often printed with fashionable patterns and imported from overseas. As for estate inventories, the only ones I have personally are in French, but I’d be happy to send them to you regardless (including a translated transcription). They are by no means comprehensive, but they’ve been hugely useful in adding clues such as their references to under-breeches!


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