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A Brief History of Men's Underwear

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Today is National Underwear Day! It's taken thousands of years to perfect the boxers or briefs that you're wearing right now. Here's a brief and incomplete look at the history of men's underwear.

Loincloths Offer Some Coverage

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.

Codpieces Become All the Rage

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.

Prizefighters Get Stretchy

"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.

A Postcard Inspires Tighty Whities

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.

The postcard depicted a man in a bikini-style bathing suit, and "apparel engineer" Kneibler had an epiphany: couldn't this type of swimsuit be converted into underwear?

early-jockey-shorts
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.

The Secret Service Gives Joe Boxer a Boost

joe-boxerDesigner 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.

Underwear Takes the Nation's Economic Pulse

greenspanAlthough 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%.

See Also:

7 Things Historical Women Wore Under Their Skirts

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11 Classic Facts About Converse Chucks
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iStock

Converse’s Chuck Taylor sneakers have been around since the early 20th century, but they haven’t changed much—until recently. In 2015, The Chuck II—a new line of Converse that looks much the same as the original shoe but with a little more padding and arch support—hit stores. In honor of the kicks' staying power, here are 11 facts about Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars.  

1. They were originally athletic shoes. 

The Converse All-Star debuted in 1917 as an athletic sneaker. It quickly became the number one shoe for basketball, then a relatively new sport (basketball was invented by James Naismith in 1891, but the NBA wasn't founded until 1946). By the late 1940s, most of the NBA sported Chucks. They remain the best-selling basketball shoes of all time, even though very few people wear them for basketball anymore. (Many teams switched to leather Adidas in the late ‘60s.)

2. Converse previously made rain boots.

The company started in 1908 as a rubber shoe company that produced galoshes.  

3. The All-Star design hasn’t really changed since 1917.

The updated Chuck II is Converse’s first real attempt to update its flagship product since the early 20th century. The company is understandably reticent to shake things up: All-Stars make up the majority of the company’s revenue, and like any classic design, its fans can be die-hards. In the 1990s, when the company tried to introduce All-Stars that were more comfortable and had slightly fewer design inconsistencies, hardcore aficionados rebelled. “They missed the imperfections in the rubber tape that lines the base of the shoe,” according to the Washington Post. The company went back to making a slightly imperfect shoe.

4. Chuck Taylor was a basketball player and trainer ...

Chuck Taylor in 1921. Image Credit: North Carolina State University via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Taylor was a Converse salesman and former professional basketball player who traveled around the country teaching basketball clinics (and selling shoes) starting in the 1920s. His name was added onto an ankle patch on the sneaker in 1932

5. ... And though he sold a lot of Chucks, he wasn't always a great coach.

Taylor is in large part responsible for the shoe’s popularity with athletes (the company rewarded him with an unlimited expense account), but his training advice wasn’t always the best. As former University of North Carolina player Larry Brown told Spin in an oral history of the shoe:

My greatest memory of Chuck Taylor—probably ’61 or ’62—is that he told Coach [Dean] Smith that he’d make us special weighted shoes in Carolina blue. The idea was that we’d wear the weighted shoes in practice, and then during the games, we’d run faster and jump higher. Well, we tried them for one practice and everyone pulled a hamstring.

6. Converse didn’t intend for their shoes to be punk.

“We always thought of ourselves as an athletic shoe company,” John O’Neil, who oversaw Converse’s marketing from 1983 to 1997, told Spin. “We wanted to sell a wholesome shoe.” The company was still touting its shoes as basketball sneakers as late as 2012, and some of its non-Chucks sneakers still have pro endorsers.

7. The company owns a recording studio.

Finally embracing its role in the music scene, the company launched Rubber Tracks, a Brooklyn-based recording studio where bands can record for free, in 2011.

8. Not all the Ramones were fans. 

Chuck Taylors are associated with punk rockers, especially the Ramones, but not everyone in the band wore them. “Dee Dee and I switched over to the Chuck Taylors because they stopped making [the style of] U.S. Keds and Pro-Keds [that we liked],” Marky Ramone told Spin. “Joey never wore them. He needed a lot of arch support and Chuck Taylors are bad for that.”

9. Chucks were initially only high tops. 

In 1962, Converse rolled out its first oxford Chuck Taylor All-Stars. Previously, it had just been a high-top shoe. Four years later, the company would introduce the first colors other than black and white.

10. Rocky ran in them.

In 1976, All-Stars were still considered a viable athletic shoe. If you look closely at the training montage from Rocky, you’ll see the boxer is wearing Chucks. 

11. Wiz Khalifa loves them. 

The rapper named his record label Taylor Ganag Records, in part due to his appreciation for Chuck Taylors. In 2013, he launched a shoe collection with Converse featuring 12 styles. 

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Adidas, Mari Orr
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Adidas Collaborates With Artists to Create Sneakers for All 50 States
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Iowa
Adidas, Mari Orr

For a recent project from Adidas and Refinery29, artists were given a women’s running shoe to use as their blank canvas. Their only prompt: Design the sneaker to represent one of the American states. The results are as varied and colorful as the nation itself.

As Adweek reports, the initiative, dubbed BOOST the Nation, takes an all-American look at Adidas’s UltraBOOST X footwear line. Refinery29 selected several artists—all women—to put their regional stamp on the plain white shoe. Some have been decorated with state flora. For instance, the Florida sneaker sports a tropical frond and the shoe for North Carolina is embellished with Venus flytraps. Food is also a popular theme: Wisconsin cheese, Maine lobster, and Tennessee barbecue have all been incorporated into sneaker designs.

Each sneaker is one-of-a kind and only available through auction. All proceeds raised will go directly to Women Win, an organization dedicated to bringing sports to adolescent girls around the world. The auction runs through Tuesday, July 11, with current bids ranging from $110 to $2000. Check out the artists’ handiwork that's for sale below.

Sneaker designed to look like a peach.
Georgia

Checkered running shoe.
Indiana

Adidas, Jen Mussari

Yellow running shoe with cracker tag.
Wisconsin

Sneaker designed to look like a mountain.
South Dakota
Adidas, Mari Orr

Sneaker decorated with wheat.
Oklahoma

Adidas, Jen Mussari

Sneaker embellished with fake roses and leaves.
Kentucky

Pink running shoe with lobster claw.
Maine

[h/t Adweek]

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