Monday, May 11, 2009

The History of Mens Underwear

( or the Unofficial Gentleman’s Guide to the History of Classic Skivvies )

A man’s merit is largely determined by the clothes he wears. So, logically, a man’s undergarments provides the necessary foundation for his outward appearance.

A history lesson…

Underwear, apparently, reflects our society. One can only guess what ancient people wore under their robes and tunics. Throughout early Greece, Rome and Egypt, one rule held: the higher your status in society, the more clothes you wore. Slaves often wore nothing at all. The status-conscious Victorians took underwear to fussy extremes of modesty and functionality. It was the era in which underwear became an “unmentionable” and the term “lingerie” came into use.

Men’s underwear has not always been a fashion statement. Any kind of men undergarment that did not bulge, sag, chafe, gap, bind or shrink in the wash was deemed adequate enough. A man’s needs were generally simpler then, and the classic long-handles with the posterior two-button flap were worn just about anywhere except blatantly out in public. Well, in reference to the modern-day boxer short, have times really changed so dramatically?

Ancient Beginnings

Would it be so wrong to assume that Adam’s legendary fig leaf was the first article of underwear? YES! Why? Well, mostly because it didn’t go under anything. The precise origin of men’s undergarments is very difficult to pinpoint. One thing is certain: the male anatomy has always served as the blueprint for the design of his underclothes. Specially fabricated for the contours of the body and made of resistant, washable fabrics, men’s underwear has always been chiefly practical rather than decorative.

Approximately 5,341 years ago, loin cloths were a common sight. Some mountaineers hiking through the Tyrolean alps in 1991 stumbled upon the frozen corpse of a man believed to be from that era. Among the tattered remains of his clothing was a leather loincloth. The loincloth is without a doubt the primary antecedent to contemporary underwear. Even as recently as World War II, the loincloth had enjoyed continued popularity among the Japanese, who wore something similar under their uniforms.

Men’s underwear, like many of today’s products and technologies, was greatly improved during the course of both World Wars. WWI introduced to soldiers the first shorts with buttons on a yoke. Years later, adjustable tie-side shorts were issued to WWII troops for summer wear. These two types of undergarments were so popular that returning soldiers continued wearing them. Plus, the war years spawned the introduction of new fabrics, such as rayon, to complement cotton. Much of this all but replaced the union suits that entire families wore from ankles to wrists.

Towards 1920, however, convenience and comfort were getting more emphasis. New designs with less buttons and easier accessibility mushroomed during this time period. Some early woven cloth union suits had open crotches, for obvious hygiene reasons, held with buttons. Soon after came the various closed crotch designs: some simply draped over the buttocks and stayed loosely closed due to fabric overlap, others sported a d-shaped flap down the rear crotch seam with a single button to keep it closed.

With the advent of the 20’s, young men who were keen on dancing most likely wore underwear made of sturdy nainsook, a new woven cotton fabric. At the same time, many men and boys were still wearing various union suits. Correct sizing was determined through the measurements of the chest, waist and trunk(a circular measurement over the shoulder and under the crotch).

By the 1930’s, a Vermont-based factory named Cooper’s Inc. patented a y-front man’s undergarment with overlapping fly. Available in both long and short length knitted drawers, these briefs -- as they’re so called today – were introduced under the Jockey trademark. Soon enough, gentlemen everywhere were being advised to shop only at stores that displayed the Jockey statue in the window or at the counter.

Introduced in Chicago in 1935, the Jockey brief sold 600 packages on a day in which one of the worst blizzards of the winter was hitting the city. Thirty thousand pairs were sold in the next three months, a precursor to its enduring popularity that thrives to this day.

Elsewhere in the world of drawers, someone decided to eliminate all the buttons and put in a waist-encircling elastic band, similar to the shorts worn by prize-fighters. Hence, the boxer short emerged and has since enjoyed a massive popularity.

Near the middle of the 20th century, electric knitting machines replaced water-powered equipment to produce more underwear at a vastly quicker pace. During this era of WWII, American troops discovered that the freshly washed white underwear that they hung out to dry attracted enemy fire. A wartime ad for Jockey headlined: “Target: White Underwear” and explained why the armed forces switched from white underwear to OD(Olive Drab), because the latter color blends in with its surroundings more effectively. But more changes were afoot in the underwear business after the war….

Manufacturers of men’s undergarments started putting more and more emphasis on their respective brands’ recognition, each with their own special little feature to entice prospective purchasers. Bauer & Black urged men to “avoid midsection sag” with its “Bracer”, made of two-way stretch latex. Hanes had “Givvies”, made from bias cut broadcloth that “gave” with every movement. Healthknit paired MacDee bottoms with matching Kut-Ups shirts, which had an inverted V-notch to fit snugly around the brief’s pouch with the shirt tucked in. Perhaps the most noteworthy of them all were the briefs with the naughty name “Reis Scandals”. This was to be underwear’s coming of age, to finally be associated with sex appeal.

With the dawn of the 1950’s – along with the end of the war shortages – boxer shorts and briefs were flying off the shelves and puritanical white underwear was overshadowed by a variety of colors and patterns. Manufacturers were experimenting with rayon, Dacron, and the new DuPont nylon during this time, although cotton remained the main constituent.

At the beginning of the last century, whole one-piece union suits cost $1.00 each. For over 50 years, the price of men’s underwear remained at $1.00 or less, per garment. Then in the 60’s, the prices started to creep up. Jockey was selling its Super Briefs for $1.50. Other brands followed the example, and it’s been an upward trend in pricing ever since.

Underwear is a fashion mainstay today. All manner of bikinis, briefs, thongs, strings, boxers and jockstraps are available for the modern man’s tastes and preferences. The vast majority of brands employ young, lean, nearly nude male models as their selling point. Calvin Klein, 2xist, DIM, Punto Blanco, Tommy Hilfiger, Jockey and a myriad of others post their sex-drenched ads in magazines and on billboards everywhere. Today, sex sells just about anything, and it would be more than safe to assume that it all originated with our society’s embracing of underwear.