Before The 15th Century, Adults Frequently Wore Diapers

(Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons. Modified with diaper.)

 

Sorry—that is misleading. In the Middle Ages, there was a fancy fabric called diaper. It was a cloth decorated with a repeating pattern, like diamonds, floral patterns or geometric shapes. The diaper pattern was sometimes used with silk fabric, and even gold and silver threads would be sewn into clothing or linens in the diaper fashion.

Around the 15th century, however, the fabric was being widely used in a new way. Enough people were using the diaper-decorated fabric as nappies for their young children that the cloth became irreconcilably connoted with baby excrement. Consequently, diaper fabric fell out of fashion on anything but babies and toddlers.

In books before the 15th century, however, there are plenty of references to grown people, and everyday objects, being clothed in diaper fabric. An example from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is included below—now it should make more sense to the average reader.

“And with Arcita, so the poets sing,

Went great Emetrius the Indian king

On a bay steed whose trappings were of steel

Covered in cloth of gold from haunch to heel

Fretted with diaper.”

  • From The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, translated by Nevill Coghill (Penguin Classics edition, 1977).

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