FILED IN: Book Reviews

Underwear: What We Wear Under There, Written by Ruth Freeman Swain; illustrations by John O’Brien

Underwear: What We Wear Under ThereUnderwear: What We Wear Under There
Written by Ruth Freeman Swain; illustrations by John O’Brien
Holiday House; $16.95
32 pp.; ISBN-13: 978-0823419203

Review by Amy Brozio-Andrews

In this entertaining and wide-reaching book about underwear, Ruth Freeman Swain takes young readers through the chronological factual history of undergarments with an eye for the interesting and the humorous.

Beginning her survey of the development of modern underwear with the breechcloths worn by Native Americans and the loincloths worn by ancient Incas, Egyptians, Romans and more, Swain’s narrative moves quickly through time and geography, covering European men’s leggings from the Middle Ages to the Japanese fundoshi worn by samurai underneath their kimonos, women’s 19th century corsets and hoop skirts to 20th century silk and nylon stockings, undershirts and even diapers (cloth and disposable). Swain’s book concludes with a look at new uses for old underwear plus a hint of what the underwear of the future might look like.

Underwear: What We Wear Under There goes beyond fashion to include lots of historical detail that’s sure to catch kids’ interest with a narrative that’s lively as well as educational. For example, 16th century underwear got washed only a couple of times a year and it was generally infested with all kinds of pests — the idea was that wearing this undergarment layer would keep people’s clothes cleaner. Those wide skirts worn by women in 18th century Europe could actually be folded up for sitting down. And long johns got their name from the famous late 19th century boxer John L. Sullivan, who boxed while wearing his long underwear. Today, used underwear that gets donated to organizations like Goodwill Industries can be recycled into things like doll stuffing, and work on new kinds of underwear may mean that future undergarments will absorb moisture and odors.

John O’Brien’s humorous artwork is the perfect light touch to accompany the book’s narrative. In one scene, a woman jumps through her hoop skirt to get into it while in another, ladies leap from a balcony, their hoop skirts like parachutes, to the gentlemen waiting below. In another, Native American men wearing breechcloths walk the catwalk like fashion models while on the facing page, a snake charmer of sorts cajoles a strip of loincloth into position.

Balancing factual and funny, Underwear: What We Wear Under There is sure to elicit giggles while teaching kids about the social history and evolution of underwear from a fashion and practical perspective. Swain’s conclusion of the book with a look at futuristic underwear drives home the point that undergarments are continuing to evolve, even today, and that the story of underwear is by no means over so we’ll be able to snicker about it for a long time to come.