A brief history of underwear

A brief history of underwear

From the fig leaf to the modern man’s boxer brief, it is clear that male underwear has had a long journey. And in spite of being relatively hidden from the eyes of the world, over the past centuries, its presence behind the scenes (or more accurately, underneath our clothing) has been a direct subject and product of critical changes within our civilisation and its history - whether this be within the fashion industry, ancient activities, modern sports, or current global economies. Even London’s highly acclaimed Victoria and Albert Museum held its own exhibition in celebration of the subject: ‘Undressed: A History of Underwear’ in 2017. Male underwear is possibly the most underestimated and powerful item of clothing to have existed since the start of mankind, and it is no wonder it is now worth £674 million pounds in the UK per year. Here’s its brief history….

7000 years ago, the loincloth appeared. Resembling a nappy, the basic style was a long strip of fabric that prehistoric man passed between his legs and tied around his waist. Although simple in design, the loincloth interestingly denotes that man was already keen to cover himself as early as this. Nature was a thing of the past, and fashion had begun.

Once the Romans came along, choices began to diversify. Their ‘subligaculum’ could take the form of shorts or a wrapped loincloth (and was said to help ease the painful symptoms of the problematic Syphilis) however with the fall and decline of the Empire came the correlated fall and decline in underwear, and there is no trace of any underwear being worn again until the 13th century, when loose pull-on underpants were invented. Called "braies", these baggy, calf-length drawers, often made from linen, were worn by peasants, Knights and Kings alike. Linen proved to be agreeably soft to the touch and a welcome layer of protection against the rough and scratchy outer garments customary at the time.

Come the Renaissance, as the chausses became tighter, the braies got shorter and were fitted with a convenient flap for urinating through. Tudor pants were followed by several centuries of more demure smalls, with men opting for long cotton, silk or linen drawers. The most common were knee-length, with a simple button flap at the front. They were the precursors of the "union suit", an all-in-one that would evolve into long johns, the ankle-length skin-tight underpants issued to US soldiers in the Second World War. As with many pieces of functional military clothing issued during both World Wars (the parka, duffle coat, trench coat, and T-shirt), soldiers retained their boxer shorts during peacetime and became instrumental in accelerating their adoption by the general population. Soldiers found their baggy undershorts to be comfortable both because of their loose fit and because they allowed air to circulate in warmer temperatures. The association with military men may also have helped to make boxer shorts a symbol of ‘manliness’. Many men prefer boxer shorts to the more restrictive briefs for those reasons; and Winston Churchill himself was reported to be partial to pink boxer shorts.

After the Industrial Revolution, cotton fabrics democratised pants. The invention of the bicycle spurred the development of the jockstrap, first crafted in 1874 by a Chicago sporting goods company to provide protection for cycle "jockeys" on cobblestone streets. In the 1920s, pants design again borrowed ideas from the boxing ring and in the 1930s, its main rival appeared – the brief.

In 1935, the first Jockey briefs went on sale in Chicago. The arrival of the first underpants denuded of any legs and featuring a Y-shaped opening has been compared with the 1913 invention of the bra, or the 1959 debut of tights. In three months, 30,000 were sold. When the Jockeys arrived in Britain in 1938, they sold at the rate of 3,000 per week. For the rest of the 20th century, the battle of boxer shorts vs briefs swayed back and forth. Both claimed health benefits. Proponents of the tighter brief suggest that it's best to have one's package neatly contained. Boxer fans say it's natural to hang free, allowing air to circulate. From the 1950s, colour and pattern were introduced, and new fabrics such as rayon, Dacron and DuPont Spandex allowed tighter fits – and even briefer briefs.

According to a 1933 issue of the trade journal Men’s Wear, a man’s underwear “should have the grace of Apollo, the romance of Byron, the distinction of Lord Chesterfield, and the ease, coolness, and comfort of Mahatma Gandhi.” Whether you achieve this goal or not, it is clear that men's underwear is no longer just a functional afterthought to completing a wardrobe.