A Brief History of Men’s Underwear

A Brief History of Men’s Underwear


Boxers, briefs, trunks, tighty-whiteys. Although some refer to underwear as “unmentionables,”
men’s underwear actually has a fascinating history that goes beyond its practical uses
of protection, cleanliness, and modesty. Alan Greenspan, the chair of the US Federal
Reserve from 1987 to 2006, suggested in an interview with National Public Radio, that
the underwear industry is an indicator of US economic health because the purchase of
underwear is somehow…. discretionary (a VERY debatable term!). The idea that you can track underwear sales
to economic growth actually has a name, “The Men’s Underwear Index,” or MUI. Men’s underwear styles and sales are also
an important cultural indicator—a way of tracking how fashion, mores, and the idea
of what it means to present oneself as masculine have changed over time. Today we’re going “behind the belt” to
investigate how the shape of men’s underwear in Europe and America provides insight into
both the economy as well as changing notions of masculinity. Before we get to the bottom of the topic at
hand, a brief nod to the first known covering of the male genitalia, the loincloth–a simple
piece of cloth or leather wrapped around the hips and groin. Versions of the loincloth were developed in
diverse cultures, ranging from ancient Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. The primary function of these garments was
to protect the genitals from the sun, the elements, and impact. Our study of underwear, as a more stylish
garment that was (generally) worn underneath other clothing, however, actually begins in
12th century Europe, when men shifted from wearing breeches on the outside, to wearing
them beneath long tunics. As historian Shaun Cole reports, over the
next couple hundred years, breeches became shorter and tighter, and the waistline was
lowered from above the stomach to the hips. In Medieval Europe, wearing breeches was a
signifier of morality. Not only was it thought to be more hygienic
to have a layer between the genitals and outer clothes, but also disguising the shape of
the genitals was believed to promote modesty and chastity. At the end of the 14th century, men’s undergarments
appeared outside again as a way to assert power. Enter the codpiece. Originally the codpiece was simply a flap
that covered the relevant areas. It would be attached to the hose and to a
short jacket and allowed men to urinate without removing their pants. The codpiece could be lightly padded or made
out of leather to offer protection. Over time, codpieces became increasingly decorative
and, well, increasingly increased. Cole argues that the large codpiece was not
meant to offer a sexual invitation to women. Instead, it served as what he calls, “an
aggressive and eye-catching warning to men. Its importance was concerned with social,
temporal and territorial power rather than just sexual prowess.” Codpieces eventually went out of fashion. Historian Victoria Bartels explains that many
costume historians believe that it went out of style due to the more “feminine” look
that came into vogue in the French and English courts. Whatever the reason, by the 17th century,
men were replacing the hose that ran up to the codpiece with an outer legging, which
they wore over a set of “drawers,” or linings tied below the knee and at the waist. The ability to afford such garments was, again,
a sign of the largeness of one’s purse. 18th and 19th century technological breakthroughs
brought underwear to the masses. In the late 18th century, a material that
was less likely to shrink (made out of cotton and wool) was manufactured. This was ideal for constructing garments that
needed to be washed (many, many times) in hot water. In the 19th century, the arrival of the sewing
machine made it more efficient (and cheaper!) to construct clothes. Although manufactured underwear was still
a “discretionary” purchase, the lowered price point made it more accessible to the
masses. Presumably, in this era, the Men’s Underwear
Index was on an uptick. Despite the invention of a form of elastic
that could be sewn into clothes, helping to keep them where they belong, 19th century
underwear was still bulky and uncomfortable. In 1868, a patent was issued in America for
a ladies’ undergarment that united an undershirt to a pair of drawers called a “union suit,”
which some referred to as “emancipation union under flannel” although I think that
would be a better tagline for the birthday suit! It allowed more freedom of movement than afforded
by multi-piece undergarments. The men’s version of the union suit became
popular on the frontier. They became a scratchy, and not particularly
aesthetic, signifier attached to the myth of a rugged American masculinity. If notions of masculinity were tied to the
myth of dominating the frontier, they were also connected to athleticism. At the end of the 19th century, bicycle “jockeys”
delivered packages around cities paved with bumpy, cobblestone streets. In last couple of decades of the 19th century,
a Chicago-based sporting goods store patented an athletic supporter for these riders called
(you guessed it) the “jock strap.” Sears Roebuck mass marketed jockstraps in
their catalogues. By the start of the 20th century, jock straps
were incorporated into team uniforms. At the same time, the union suit was reinvented
for athletes. In 1914, BVD sold a sleeveless version of
the suit with shorter legs and made out of lightweight cotton. According to legend, after the heavyweight
boxer, Jack Dempsey, won the 1919 world title, Everlast began to market a long and loose
style of underwear called “boxer shorts.” Even though briefs were introduced as useful
to exercise at the start of the century in France, they didn’t catch on in America
until much later. Although American manhood was often associated
with domineering, pugilistic, and athletic qualities, in the 1920s, some were incorporating
more traits associated with ideas of the “feminine” into men’s clothing. According to fashion historian Daniel Delis
Hill, a 1925 edition of Men’s Wear reads: “…despite the alarm for many men that
athletic underwear in pink, pale blue, peach, blazer stripes, etc… has a feminine look
about it, ‘such designs became widely available from mass merchandisers like Sears and Montgomery
Ward.” It’s interesting that pink, blue (and stripes?)
were all lumped under the umbrella of feminine attire. Much as men’s underwear became more colorful,
it also became softer, due to declining silk prices and the mass-production of rayon in
the 1920s. Soon this decorative undie trend spread to
appreciating the masculine form itself. In the 1930s, a Wisconsin company called Coopers
introduced the Jockey Y-cut brief. According to an ad: “‘Jockeys’ are snug
and brief, molded to your muscles… Built-in masculine support made of lightweight,
porous, absorbent knitted fabric with the famous Y-front, no-gap front opening.” When a Chicago Marshall Field’s store displayed
jockey-clad mannequins in their windows, it caused a sensation. 30,000 pairs were sold within three months. Coopers renamed their company “Jockey”
and even hired a plane called the “Mascu-liner” to deliver briefs across America. Scholars Martin and Harold Koda offer an important
insight: the 1935 launch of the jockey short coincides with the era that American beaches
began to allow men to go topless. The “erotics of the male were undergoing
change,” they write, which represents “a sea-change in concepts of masculinity.” This exuberance about the male form was tempered
somewhat by WWII. Rubber was rationed and many manufacturers
reverted to earlier ways of fastening underwear. In the army, soldiers were issued olive drab
cotton briefs and “long johns.” And the infamous undies got their name from
champion heavyweight boxer John L. Sullivan, reinforcing the connection between idealized
masculine athleticism and underoos. Hill argues that WWII gas rationing caused
the long john to also have a resurgence on the home front. But this tempering did not last for long. After the war, the American economy was booming. People had more money in their pockets and
there was demand for novelty, even in men’s underwear which is the thing underneath those
fat-filled pockets. This meant new fabrics, shapes, patterns. Manufacturers such as Sears and Montgomery
Ward began selling men’s underwear with prints on it, which may denote a more playful
attitude towards the male body. During the 1950s and 1960s, men’s pants
were being cut more tightly, including the marketing of bikinis to American men by familiar
companies, including Jockey. In the 1970s, men’s underwear branched out
to include more extreme forms culminating in 1982 when Calvin Klein made some of these
designs mainstream, as it launched a line that included thongs, and g-strings. Calvin Klein also placed visible branding
on waistbands. The desire to show off the brand of one’s
underwear may be one factor contributing to the trend of “sagging,” or exposing one’s
underwear above low-hung jeans. This trend, first made popular by 1990s hip-hop
artists, was viewed as a general desire to thwart authority and reject mainstream values. It is an assertion of rebellion and, as such,
is completely at one with the domineering, pugilistic, and athletic vision of American
masculinity behind earlier underwear trends. There is also a strain of Puritanical “modesty”
in American masculine culture. Enter the enormously popular “boxer brief,”
which appeared in the early 1990s. The ‘boxer brief” is an updated version
of the Victorian knit underwear. It provides the support of a brief combined
with the coverage of a boxer, without all of that annoying bunching. These essentially-conservative garments are
available in a wide variety of colors and materials. As such, they offer a relatively safe space
for personal expression. But don’t be fooled. These are a rather tight garment, designed
to draw attention to conventional male anatomy. Consider the boxer-briefs included in Duluth
Trading Company’s “Buck Naked” underwear brand, a line which the company describes as “No
pinch, No stink, No sweat” and markets as being “like wearing nothing at all.” Because what’s more modest than going commando? These fashions suggest American men have become
increasingly comfortable with the idea that their bodies are sexually desirable. And new shape-reducing options suggest that
some associate thinness with allure. So although the ties between men’s underwear
designs and changing ideals of masculinity have been as stubbornly stuck together as
the worst wedgie for hundreds of years, by the late 20th century the tides were changing
to include more expressive and playful designs. And today these discretionary unmentionables
are bucking the norms even more than ever before.

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