Part of: Boned

Essay: Men’s Underwear

by Shaun Cole on 28 September 2007

Fashion historian and cultural theorist Shaun Cole considers the male undergarment - from boxer shorts through to Beckham's thong.

Fashion historian and cultural theorist Shaun Cole considers the male undergarment - from boxer shorts through to Beckham's thong.

In their comprehensive history of underwear, dress historians C. Willet and P. Cunnington noted ‘man has never used provocative underclothing; its plain prose has been singular in contrast to the poetic allurements worn by women’ [1]. Unlike women’s underwear, men’s undergarments have always been utilitarian, chosen for their sanitary and protective qualities. As a result, men’s underwear has not been considered with the same attention as women’s. This may be attributed to the fact that women’s underwear has, historically, been structurally more ingenious and interesting as the foundation for the many changes in women’s fashion, as well the secret fetishistic qualities it has been imbued with, or as Australian sociologist and dress historian Jennifer Craik argues ‘keeping men’s underclothes plain and functional could secure male bodies as a bulwark against unrestrained sexuality’ [2].

From the Middle Ages onwards men’s underwear has consisted of three main types: garments for upper torso, lower torso and feet and legs These remained essentially the same with small stylistic changes reflecting changes in fashion and developments in production and attitudes to cleanliness. The nineteenth century saw major developments in the manufacture of underwear, with new industrial weaving methods and an increased use of cotton alongside wool and linen. By the end of the century, new ideas about health and cleanliness had impacted upon fabrics and construction. The invention of synthetic fibres in the early twentieth century had a major impact on undergarments and increasingly traditional undergarments, such as shirts, became regarded as outer garments. Developments in advertising and marketing increased sales of the rising variety of types of men’s underwear, from union suits to long-johns to boxer shorts in ‘pale blue, silver grey, pale pink and green.’ [3]

With the fashion revolution of the 1960s men’s underwear underwent a process of heterosexualisation. It became more acceptable for men to wear underwear other than conventional white Y-fronts or boxer shorts. Skimpier, brightly coloured and patterned briefs began to be produced by the major underwear companies and were overtly promoted for their erotic connotations, as what Valerie Steele calls ‘a prelude to sexual intimacy, the attraction of concealment, and the libido for looking (and touching)’. [4]

Was it the boring unexciting white brief that drove Britain’s premier Metrosexual, David Beckham to famously and controversially wear his ex-Spice Girl wife’s thong?

The twentieth century saw two key moments for men’s underwear with regard to its representation in imagery. In 1934 Coopers Inc. introduced the Y-front which provided men with 'masculine support', previously only available through wearing a athletic support. To reinforce the idea of support it was discretely called the Jockey (JOCK-ey). The display of Jockey shorts in the window of the Marshall Fields department store in Chicago on 19 January 1935 revolutionised the men’s underwear market and over the following three months thirty thousand pairs were sold. In 1982 Calvin Klein erected an enormous billboard in New York’s Times Square advertising his men’s white briefs. This overtly sexual image of a perfectly formed muscular man wearing nothing but white underwear has been credited with a heralding a new era in the imagery of men in advertising and with precipitating a new fashion in men’s underwear. However, both of these moments focused around simple white briefs. Even today new developments in underwear are centred around improvements to the basic simple shape, such as AussieBum’s Wonderjock (which offers lift and support for men’s genitals just as the Wonderbra did for women’s breasts) and Jockey’s 3D Innovations, a technological development offering an 8-way stretch to fit like a ‘second skin.’

The sight of a man in his underwear is traditionally ludicrous and has been a staple of farce for generations. Baggy and all-concealing underwear robbed man of his dignity by making him comical. One only has to think of the runty henpecked husband in seaside postcards, the skinny geek in Mr Muscle cleaning product advertisements or Rhys Ifans opening his front door wearing baggy greying Y-fronts in the 1999 film Notting Hill. Since the late 1980s the objectification and sexualisation of men (and men’s bodies) in advertising has meant that we are much more likely to picture a man in his underwear as a muscle bound hairless hunk or Olympian god often of the sporting variety - think of footballer Freddie Ljungberg in Calvin Klein, or rugby players Ben Cohen and Dan Carter in Sloggi and Jockey respectively – staring at the viewer in a decidedly non-embarrassed fashion and inviting back an admiring gaze. However the underwear depicted is almost without fail a form of the simple white brief.

'Men have always considered pants a very functional product and will often stick to one type -Y-fronts, boxers etc for their whole lives,' says Ruth Stevens, marketing manager for Jockey. [5] A survey conducted in 2006 revealed that men will keep a pair of underpants for between five and twelve years, over 60% of men expect their partner to buy their underwear and 90% of men expect to receive underwear as Christmas presents. [6] The range of underwear for men, while still not as great as for women, has grown considerably at the beginning of the twenty-first century. However, despite the many new brands, the exotically constructed garments available in silk, leather rubber and PVC available from specialist mail order companies and the fact that most fashion design houses and high street retailers have a range of men’s underwear, the choice isn’t as broad as it could be. Was it the boring unexciting white brief that drove Britain’s premier Metrosexual, David Beckham to famously and controversially wear his ex-Spice Girl wife’s thong? At the end of the day, the choice of underwear for men still essentially boils down to a choice between briefs and boxers!

1 C. Willet and P. Cunnington, The History of Underclothes, London: Faber and Faber, 1981, p.41

2 Jennifer Craik (1994) The Face of Fashion, pp121-2

3 G Albermarle, ‘Flashes of Fashion’, MAN and his Clothes, February 1931

4 Valerie Steele (1989), ‘Clothing and Sexuality’, in C. Kidwell and V. Steele, eds, Men and Women: Dressing the Part, Washington DC, p56

5 Retail Therapy / Shopping: Underneath Our Clothes; Emma Johnson Discovers More about an Essential Part of Our Wardrobes Daily Post February 16, 2006

6 ibid




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