The History of Men’s Underwear–from the caveman’s loin cloth to the Calvin Klein boxer-brief

Underwear

The primary purpose of underwear is to protect principal garments from bodily soilure. (In a world without underwear, men who do not properly clean themselves would have “skid marks” on their Brooks Brothers suit-pants rather than on their Fruit of the Loom underpants! And thank God it is relatively inexpensive T-shirts—rather than relatively expensive dress shirts—that bear the brunt of those unsightly underarm deodorant and perspiration stains). Undergarments serve the additional purposes of supporting, contouring, and protecting certain body-parts. And in addition to providing warmth, underwear, if styled properly and selected appropriately, may enhance sex appeal.

History of Men’s Skivvies

Throughout history, the relationship between underwear and primary garments can best be characterized as “in-again, out-again.” For example, what would become the earliest manifestation of underwear—the loin cloth—actually began as outerwear. But as man’s ability to clothe himself evolved, the loin cloth lost its prominence as king of outerwear and was relegated to the humble position of underwear. When the naturally mummified body of Ötzi the “ice man,” who lived around 3300 B.C.E., was discovered in the Ötztal Alps between Italy and Austria in 1991, underneath his cloak of woven grass was a leather loin cloth, indicating that by 5,000 years ago, loin cloths had already become underwear rather than serving as the outerwear they once were for Ötzi’s cave-dwelling ancestors. And Egyptian tombs dating from as early as the second millennium B.C.E. contain extra supplies of linen loin cloths (which the Egyptians would wear under their linen skirts) to sustain them into the afterlife. The wrap-around loin cloth served as underwear for centuries until the Middle Ages—in the 13th century—when step-into, pull-up underwear was invented. Typically made of linen, men would step into their drawers, called “braies,” then secure them around the waist and at the mid-calf by tying or lacing. While the historical record suggests that men of all social classes wore braies during the Middle Ages, only men of the upper echelons wore “chausses”—tights that covered their feet and the lower portions of their legs.

During the Renaissance, chausses became form-fitting (like present-day hose) and covered the entire foot and leg, resulting in braies becoming shorter so as to allow for more of the chausses-covered legs to be exposed. During the Renaissance, then, long, skin-tight chausses and short braies—both regarded as underwear during the Middle Ages—became outerwear. (But See Piero della Francesca’s The Baptism of Christ [1450], where a half-dressed figure is wearing the mid-15th century equivalent of a Jockey-cut white brief).

Men’s underwear as it is primarily known today—the “tighty whitey” look—began taking form in the Victorian era. Until the early 19th century, underwear was made in the home, by hand, primarily of woven linen, cotton, wool, or silk fabrics. Underpants were loose-fitting, extended to the knees, and typically had a drawstring waist. Undershirts, also loose-fitting, resembled what is today referred to as the “painter’s shirt,” but without the collar. But it was the Industrial Revolution plus two pre-Victorian inventions—the knitting machine by William Lee in 1589, and Eli Whitney’s cotton gin in 1793—that led to the mass production of machine-knitted cotton underwear, beginning in the last decades of the 1800s. And for the first time, rather than treating “intimate apparel” intimately, men would purchase ready-made underwear from retail stores instead of having the garments made by hand at home.

By the 1870s in the United States, the standard men’s underwear was the “union suit,” so called because it was an all-in-one, skin-tight undergarment typically made of machine-knitted cotton or wool. Union suits featured buttons down the center-front, from its crew neckline to the crotch, and covered men to their wrists and ankles (Women and children also wore union suits). Some union suits were knee-length and sleeveless. The union suit would remain the gold standard in men’s underwear until the 1930s, when boxers and briefs became preferred. By the late 1800s, men’s knitted underwear was also being made in two separate parts: a long-sleeved top, and long-legged pants. Unlike union suits, the separate tops were only buttoned quarter-way from the neck. And it was those undershirts that became the inspiration for what would become the Henley shirt (See Henley Shirt above, this chapter). The separate underpants were secured at the waist by buttons, snaps, tie-closures, or drawstring. (In World War II, long, skin-tight underpants that extended to the ankles—but were not connected to a top—were issued to American soldiers. And because they resembled the boxing gear prized fighter John L. Sullivan would wear during the height of his career between 1882 and 1892, they were dubbed “Long Johns,” a term still applied to fitted, long-legged underpants).

Elastic, invented by Thomas Hancock in 1820, revolutionized underwear over a century later in the 1930s by simplifying it: Underwear could be put on and taken off easily; buttons, snaps, and tie-closures became superfluous or irrelevant (During World War II, with a shortage of the rubber needed to manufacture elastic, buttons, “French backs,” and snaps were again used as fasteners and size-adjusters in men’s underwear); and since underpants could be secured at the waist (rather than supported from the shoulders), the union suit fell out of favor, boxers and briefs becoming all the rage. The 1930s also saw the introduction of functional design elements—such as the Y-vent, access-flap, and “kangaroo pouch”—to boxers and briefs. And leg, arm, and neck bands were added to knit briefs and undershirts for enhanced fit and aesthetics.

Color was introduced to underwear in the 1940s. And as with so many other fashion trends throughout history, the inspiration came from the military: During World War II, soldiers were issued olive-drab undergarments, which, when hung out to dry on battlefields, provided for better camouflage than traditional white underwear. Another major advancement in underwear in the 1940s came as a result of nylon, which served as the foundation of a new outlook on the cut and fit of men’s underwear. The use of Sanforized (preshrunk) fabrics also became commonplace in the production of underwear in the 1940s—and for good cause since before that technology, men would have to buy underwear one size larger in order to accommodate for shrinkage when laundered.

The in-again, out-again relationship between underwear and primary garments was perhaps epitomized in the 1950s when the T-shirt became a popular outer garment for young men (See The T-shirt above). It was also in that decade that patterned briefs became popular. For the first time, underwear was used to express personal style or to make fashion statements. Synthetic fabrics allowed for innovative designs, and color and patterns (some whimsical) became commonplace. The bikini brief, inspired by women’s swimwear of the late 1940s, made its menswear debut in the 1950s—in everything from salacious animal-skin prints to peekaboo mesh fabrics.

Led by Italy’s Peppino Gheduzzi, the 1960s was the decade of overall elasticity in men’s underwear. Rather than using elastic only in waistbands, elasticized fabrics such as Spandex were used to construct entire undergarments, thereby allowing for close-fitting silhouettes and support. The stretchability of such fabrics also enabled smaller, less cumbersome underwear. By the end of the 1960s, however, with the coming of the Hippie Movement and the attendant Sexual Revolution, some men completely eschewed underpants, even if undershirts became evermore popular, being elevated not only to shirt- status, but also to “talking-shirt” status as men used words, symbols, and other graphics on T-shirts to make social and political statements.

If the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s encouraged men to take off their conventional underpants, then the sexy underwear of the ’70s and the designer underwear of the ’80s encouraged them to put their “undies” back on. While the design and marketing of women’s underwear had from decades earlier embraced a sexual component (à la Frederick’s of Hollywood, established in 1947 by Frederick Mellinger, inventor of the push-up bra), it was not until the 1970s that men’s underwear became intentionally sexual. And as the sexual element got bigger, the underwear itself got smaller—and tighter. By the mid-1980s, designers, led by Calvin Klein, were styling sexy underwear and marketing them in sexy packaging typically depicting muscular male models—like Antonio Sabato, Jr., and Mark “Marky Mark” Wahlberg—packing “six-pack” abdomens. In addition to fitted boxer-briefs (a hybrid featuring the length of traditional boxer shorts, but with the close fit of traditional knit briefs), men started wearing thong, jockstrap-inspired, and G-string underwear. And just as women’s underwear offered support and enhancement features, some men’s underwear was designed and constructed to support and enhance the male anatomy.

One of the most appreciated advancements in men’s underwear in the 21st century came from HanesBrands: In a campaign that used basketball legend Michael Jordan as its spokesperson, the company led the way in replacing abrasive, annoying, skin-irritating manufacturers’ labels with labels printed directly onto the inside fabric of underwear—much to the delight of customers. Other major underwear manufacturers immediately followed suit.

The internet has also significantly advanced men’s underwear. During the first half of the 20th century, only a handful of manufacturers were regarded as viable in the underwear industry: Fruit of the Loom, Jockey, Hanes, Zimmerli of Switzerland, and BVD, for example. Then in the 1980s and ’90s, with the rising popularity of “designer underwear,” the market expanded to include such labels as Calvin Klein, 2(x)ist, Pierre Cardin, and Perry Ellis. Still, though, without major financial backing and access to and a presence in major retail establishments, small underwear companies struggled for market share. A few companies such as International Male cultivated niche markets through direct-mail catalog sales. But with the popularity of the internet, beginning in the late 1990s, small, “boutique” underwear manufacturers have been able to cultivate wide-reaching customer bases with their innovative designs, resulting in the commercial success of companies like Andrew Christian, C-IN2, Diesel, Jack Adams, and Good Devil. In addition, hosting sites such as www.UnderGear.com and www.InternationalJock.com serve as umbrellas for a plethora of up-and-coming men’s underwear companies.

And the in-again, out-again relationship between underwear and primary garments appears to be alive and well going into the 21st century. The tank top is now treated as a shirt in the young, well-muscled, Western man’s wardrobe, and the hip-hop tradition of wearing loose-fitting pants low on the hips so as to deliberately display boxer shorts is, for the most part, regarded as a fact (albeit an unfortunate one) of 21st-century life. Even women have embraced the notion of underwear as primary garments. Since the “grunge look” of the 1990s, the daughters and granddaughters of the women who defiantly burned their bras in the 1960s are deliberately showing their bra straps, wearing bras with garments designed to be worn without support.

Care

Undergarments are the first line of defense against bodily odor and soilure and should therefore be laundered with special care—above and beyond that stated on the manufacturers’ care labels. Because undergarments are worn directly against the skin, they are most effectively laundered inside-out after being pre-soaked for about 24 hours. Special care, for example, should be given to the armholes of undershirts, pre-washing them by hand. And men who do not use or have access to bidets or wet-wipes should pay special attention to their underpants to ensure that they emerge stain-free from the laundering process. No lover needs to remove a gentleman’s sexy underwear only to have a head-on collision with skidmarks! Conventional deodorants tend to cause armhole discoloration on white T-shirts; but mineral salts rock deodorants are a good, stain- and residue-free alternative.

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