Underpants of the Ancients

I was thinking about Helen of Troy, and then I began thinking about the underpants of Troy. This occurred when I was watching the movie “Troy,” which is not about a guy named Troy, but about a city (or possibly a country) named Troy, which stole Greece’s queen and then had to defend itself when Greece came looking for her. I always pictured Greece storming up in a wife-beater T-shirt, like Marlon Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” standing outside the walls of Troy yelling, “HELLLLL-ENNNN!,” but this is not the way the movie portrays it.

Anyway, all the men in this movie wear tiny skirts, as news of pant technology had not yet reached Greece in 1200 B.C. Beneath the tiny skirts, they wear even tinier underpants, necessary for purposes of modesty, particularly in battle, when the men spend a lot of time in mid-air or upside-down. And it occurred to me that the underpants of the ancient Greeks cannot have been very comfortable. Heck, I’m not thrilled with the underpants of the modern Americans, and we’re light years ahead of the ancients in most ways. (We speak English, for example.)

As the movie wore on — it is well over a million hours long — I began to wonder more and more about ancient customs, fashions and practices. Did the women wear lacy, pretty underclothing, or was it the same as the men’s? What about brassieres? How often did all this stuff get washed? Did people have more than one set?

By the time the movie ended, several days later, I was consumed with a desire to learn about the unmentionables of the ancients. So I went to our friend the Internet, which knows everything. I told Google to look for “underwear,” but this brought up quite an alarming number of alarming sites, so I narrowed it down to “ancient Greek underwear.”

Ancient Greek fashion in general is covered quite thoroughly on the Internet (as are most subjects, I suppose). I was delighted to read this story, at the Web site for the Hellenic Museum [direct link now defunct], by the historian Herodotus, that explains why Greek fashion changed from Doric to Ionic:

“Herodotus explains, after a disastrous military campaign by the Athenian army, all the forces were put to death except one man who managed to escape, return to Athens and tell the women about their husbands’ fate. Devastated, the women took the huge pins from their Doric peplos and butchered the man in anger and contempt. The remaining men of Athens were so horrified that they declared that only closed pins would be worn on clothing and that the Ionic dress should be worn by everyone in the future, as it required only two pins. Whether the story is true is uncertain, but there was a period when open pins went out of favor.”

The closest parallels to this that I can think of in modern life are the sudden unpopularity of the narrow, square mustache circa 1939 and the pillbox hat post-1963.

Information on ancient Greek underwear specifically is a bit harder to come by, and if the Internet doesn’t have ample information on something, I feel like I must be a complete weirdo for wanting it. One source says the Greeks didn’t wear underwear per se but that the Romans did. There is a discussion group at Yahoo! (enthusiasm theirs) called Male Underwear History whose moderators found it necessary to note, “This is NOT a gay fetish list!” (sure it isn’t), but the folks there don’t go back as far as ancient Greece. Other sites indicate the basic triangle-shaped loincloth was worn by all peoples and cultures for hundreds of years, except that the Greeks were fond of being utterly naked, even during their Olympics (which gave new meaning to the term “freestyle”).

So at this point, my findings are inconclusive. And the trouble with ancient history is that even if you read all the books on the subject, you still might not have a consensus on how things actually went down, since most of the books were written thousands of years later by people who weren’t there. (I’ve already heard from one person telling me the film “Troy” is inaccurate because the warriors in those days went into battle wearing NOTHING below the waist, either to intimidate the enemy, or to make him laugh, whichever worked, and I’m sure now I’ll hear from historians who believe the opposite.) Nonetheless, I shall continue to research until I’ve gained a greater understanding of Greek underpants, or until I get tired of it, whichever comes first. The important thing is, if you search for “Greek underpants” on Google, my Web site will hereafter be among the hits. So I’ll be attracting a pretty interesting clientele from now on, I think.

By the way, it was reported that Brad Pitt tore his Achilles tendon while playing Achilles in the film “Troy.” You don’t even want to KNOW what happened to the guy who plays Buttocks.

I'm very fond of the final joke in this column. (Brad Pitt really did tear his Achilles tendon, by the way.) I spent the better part of last week telling it to everyone who would listen. You can replace the word "Buttocks" with any other body part when you tell it. I know I do. And this makes three columns in a row to reference Brad Pitt, which is odd, considering how little thought I give him in my everyday life.

My review of "Troy" can be found here. Brian Cox is especially good in it.