Most guys pull them on every morning when they step out of the shower. In fact, at this very moment, there’s probably nothing closer to you than your underwear. It’s taken thousands of years to perfect the boxers or briefs that you’re wearing right now, though, so here’s a brief and incomplete look at the history of men’s underwear:
The first known underwear dates back almost 7000 years, when prehistoric man used leather to cover and protect his loins while running prehistoric errands. For several millennia, not much changed. Ancient Egyptian art shows everyone from the pharaohs on down the line decked out in loincloths of their own. The pharaohs even wore a sort of specialized kilt/loincloth called a shendoh, and took extra supplies of the garment into their pyramids for use in the afterlife.
Variations on the loincloth seem to have persisted into the Middle Ages, when loose-fitting trousers called braies came into fashion. These linen duds extended from the waist to around mid-calf, and once the wearer stepped into his breeches he had to lace them tight around his waist and shins. Although all of the tying wasn’t so convenient, these braies had the advantage of offering a lot of coverage, so if a laborer got too hot he could strip down to his skivvies while still maintaining some sense of decorum.
On the other hand, all of the lacing and cinching made answering nature’s call a bit of a hassle. Enter the codpiece. A codpiece that opened at the front using buttons, snaps, or laces enabled men to urinate without removing their braies, which really came in handy when you’d had a bit too much mead.
These early codpieces were practical, but as hemlines rose, they started to take on a decorative function, too. When Henry VIII began to pad his codpiece in the 16th century, all of his loyal subjects followed suit. (Nevermind that scholars later speculated that Henry VIII’s bulging codpiece may not have actually been male overcompensation—it may have been oversized to accommodate medication-soaked bandages to alleviate some of the pain from a suspected case of syphilis. It’s worth noting that modern scholars have mostly dismissed this theory.) Codpiece padding and growth continued throughout the mid-sixteenth century before tailing off around 1590.
“Boxers or briefs?” Before the 1920s, this question would have gotten you little more than a blank look, mostly because neither boxers nor briefs had been invented yet. From Victorian times into the 1930s, men had mostly worn tight-fitting knee-length flannel “drawers” beneath their pants and donned similarly snug flannel tops as undershirts.
This state of affairs doesn’t sound too comfy, but things got a little more breathing room in 1925. Jacob Golomb, the founder of the venerable boxing equipment company Everlast, started to tweak designs for the trunks worn by pugilists. Golomb realized that the leather-belted trunks fighters had been wearing weren’t totally ideal, so he replaced the leather with more flexible elastic waistbands.
Boxer shorts weren’t an immediate success as underwear, though. They lacked the support that drawers and union suits had offered, so men weren’t crazy about them. It really wasn’t until after World War II that boxer shorts took off to challenge their younger siblings, the briefs.
Underwear drawers changed forever in 1934 when Arthur Kneibler, an executive and designer at the Wisconsin hosiery company Coopers, Inc., received a postcard from a friend who was visiting the French Riviera.
After some experimentation, Kneibler introduced a new kind of snug, legless underwear with an overlapping Y-front fly. Coopers dubbed the new product “Jockey shorts” because the high level of support the garment offered was reminiscent of jockstraps.
Coopers took its first batch of Jockey briefs to Chicago’s landmark department store Marshall Fields on January 19, 1935. Although the weather was awful—Chicago was in the grip of a blizzard—the entire load of 600 pairs of Jockeys sold out on the first day. Within three months, the company sold 30,000 pairs of Jockey shorts. Coopers kept making and marketing its wildly successful underwear, and in 1971 the company changed its name to Jockey.
Designer underwear became all the rage in the 1970s and 80s as labels like Calvin Klein began to transform our drawers from something we hid under our pants into the sort of fashion and lifestyle choice one could flaunt in a bad music video. Cuts became tighter and sexier, and underwear designs became flashy, loud, and often humorous.
One of the main beneficiaries of this new obsession with snappy underwear was Joe Boxer, which started making skivvies in 1984 when it filled an order for Macy’s that included a design with a Velcro-attached removable raccoon tail. Joe Boxer really jumped into the spotlight in 1985, though, when it made boxers printed with the image of hundred-dollar bills. The Secret Service decided that these duds violated forgery laws and confiscated 1,000 pairs of the offending underwear. Instead of simply hiring lawyers, Joe Boxer turned the seizure into a lighthearted news event, and the image of boxers as a playful alternative to stolid briefs grew.
Although there haven’t been many huge underwear breakthroughs since the introduction of boxer briefs in the early 1990s (and even those are sort of a throwback to the union suits favored by pre-1930s men), boxers and briefs found their way onto the financial pages in early 2008. That’s when former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan revealed that the state of the men’s underwear industry is an important indicator of the economy’s health.
The logic Greenspan outlined regarding underwear was both simple and elegant. Most guys have a drawer full of fairly ratty underwear that they’ll wear until the elastic is dead and the boxers are riddled with holes. Since coworkers and friends generally don’t see a guy’s underwear, replacing these frayed undergarments often seems like a discretionary purchase for men. As such, when men start fearing the economy is in a downturn and need a place to save a little cash, they simply stop replenishing their underwear drawer with fresh Jockeys. Sounds reasonable enough, right? Sure enough, when the economy started to tail off in 2008, annual men’s underwear sales dropped by 12%.
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