by Mick Sullivan, illustrated by Suki Anderson
We all wear underwear — even famous people like Buzz Aldrin, Queen Victoria, and Satchel Paige. Through the ages, plenty of these figures have made history. Sometimes their underwear did, too (even if they might have tried to hide it). From Abe Lincoln’s embarrassing wardrobe malfunctions to Amelia Bloomer’s eponymous undies to Otzi the Iceman’s 5300-year-old skivvies, I See Lincoln’s Underpants opens the top drawers of some of history’s most interesting people for more than just a peek.
In addition to Short Shorts and the Underwear Hall of Fame, sixteen biographical chapters highlight the lives and most interesting moments of people like “Australian Mermaid” Annette Kellermann, silent film star Buster Keaton, and inventor Garrett Morgan. If you take away nothing else, let it be this: Always leave the house in a fresh pair. You never know what could happen.
Rarely seen items of human clothing take center stage in Sullivan’s illustrated history book.
In this offbeat nonfiction work, the author notes that Marie Antoinette caused a scandal by attending official court functions wearing only a white shift—a cotton underdress that at the time was only worn beneath additional layers of clothing. During Al Capone’s trial for tax evasion, Sullivan notes, it was discovered that the famous Prohibition-era gangster wore “glove silk” underwear that cost $12 a pair—which, at the time, was equivalent to a week’s wages for the average American. The author reveals that Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, the second man on the moon, wore special, NASA-designed long underwear during his first lunar walk, which came equipped with tubes to collect his urine in a removable bag; unfortunately for him, he tore the underwear while climbing out of the lunar capsule, meaning that when he finally had to go, the urine floated around in the leg of his spacesuit. These are just some of the little-known, real-life underwear tales that Sullivan has unearthed, from the 5,000-year-old undies of a mummified man to the underthings of silent-film actor Buster Keaton, revealed after his pants caught on fire and burned away. In addition to famous figures, Sullivan covers lesser-known underwear-wearers, including George Washington’s “frenemy” and fellow Revolutionary War general Charles Lee; pioneer celebrity swimmer Annette Kellerman; bra inventor Mary Phelps Jacob; and suffragist Amelia Bloomer. The author also shines a spotlight on great innovations in the history of such clothing, including the “vermin-proof” underwear of World War I. Along the way, he explores the underdiscussed relationship that Western society has with its so-called unmentionables.
Sullivan’s prose is sly and well crafted, as if the author means for it to be read aloud: “In an effort to help their armies, sneaky Civil War women secretly stashed things such as weapons, boots, clothing, money, coded messages, and more underneath gigantic skirts. Many were successful in delivering their clandestine contraband, but not every undisclosed underclothes undertaking was a success.” He finds fun, unexpected corners of history to mine for content; one chapter, for instance, deals with the Mona Lisa, which was famously stored in a trunk beneath the undergarments of a thief who briefly stole it from the Louvre. (Sullivan goes further by pointing out that the painting once hung in Napoleon’s bedroom: “If the real Lisa could have somehow seen through the painted eyes of her portrait, she would have undoubtedly seen one of history’s most famous and powerful men in his underwear.”) As the book leaps between industries, countries, and centuries, it quickly becomes apparent that the history of underwear is the history of human society; the reader learns as much about past figures’ privacy, shame, humor, and ingenuity as they do about cotton and silk. The text is accompanied by joyful and amusing black-and-white illustrations by Anderson that contribute to the book’s lighthearted ethos. Although the work seems geared toward younger readers, history buffs of all ages will find much to enjoy; who knew, for instance, that Meriwether Lewis gave William Clark underclothing for Christmas?
An irreverent and entertaining historical survey.
© 2023 Heart Ally Books, LLC