A Brief History of Men's Underwear

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?

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

Pete Jelliffe, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Pop Culture
Glove Story: The Freezy Freakies Phenomenon of the 1980s
Pete Jelliffe, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Pete Jelliffe, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Kids who grew up in the northeast in the 1980s were pretty invested in a fad that might have gone unnoticed in warmer parts of the country. Cajoling their parents at department stores during shopping trips, hundreds of thousands of them came home sporting a pair of Freezy Freakies—thick winter gloves that came with a built-in parlor trick. When the temperature dipped below 40°F, an image would suddenly appear on the back part of the material.

Swany America Corporation, which made, marketed, and distributed the gloves, released more than 30 original designs beginning in 1980. There was a robot, a unicorn, rocket ships, ballerinas, rainbows, snowflakes, and various sports themes, though the “I Love Snow” image (below) may have been the most popular overall. At the height of Freezy mania, Swany was moving 300,000 pairs of gloves per year, which accounted for about 20 percent of their overall sales.

A Freezy Freakies glove before and after the temperature change
Freezy Freakies

“Boys loved the robot design,” Bruce Weinberg, Swany’s vice president and a former sales director for Freezy Freakies, tells Mental Floss. “Above 40 degrees, the image would disappear.”

The secret to the $13 Freakies was thermochromic ink, a temperature-sensitive dye that's been used in mood rings and heat-sensitive food labels and can appear translucent until it's exposed to warmer temperatures. Swany licensed the ink from Pilot, the Japanese-based pen company, after Swany CEO Etsuo Miyoshi saw the technology and thought it would be a good fit for his glove-focused operation. (Though they experimented with making luggage in the 1990s, Swany has predominantly been a manufacturer of higher-end ski gloves.)

Weinberg isn’t sure how Miyoshi settled on the “Freezy Freakies” name—the president is now retired—but says Miyoshi knew they had a hit early on. “After a few seasons, they could tell they had a winner product,” he says. Swany even put advertising dollars into TV commercials, a rare strategy for glove-makers not named Isotoner.

Pilot was able to adjust the temperature at which the ink would become transparent, or vice versa. If kids were impatient, or if it happened to be during the summer, Weinberg says it wasn’t uncommon to find Freezy Freakies stuck in the freezer so they could materialize their art design. “At trade shows, we’d do something similar with some ice or a cold soda,” he says. “All of a sudden, some ice cubes would make it change, and buyers would think that was really cool.”

The Freakies were such a hit that Swany licensed jackets and considered changing the name of the company to the same name as the glove. It’s probably just as well they didn’t: While Freakies lasted well over a decade, by the 1990s, things had cooled. In the new millennium, Swany was down to selling just a few hundred pairs a year. Color-changing ink for coffee mugs or beer cans was more pervasive, wearing down the novelty; knock-offs had also grabbed licensed cartoon characters, which Swany was never interested in pursuing.

The brand was dormant when a company named Buffoonery approached Swany in 2013 to license Freezy Freakies for a crowdfunded revival. This time, the gloves came in adult sizes for $34. The partnership has been successful, and Weinberg says Buffoonery has just signed an extension to start producing kids’ gloves.

“Parents will probably want matching ones for their kids,” Weinberg says. And both might still wind up in the freezer.

Live Smarter
The Very Disgusting Reason You Should Always Wash New Clothes Before Wearing Them

It’s sometimes assumed that clothing with a price tag still dangling from the sleeve can skip an initial wash. Someone else may have tried it on, sure, but they didn’t run a marathon in it. Why not just throw it in the closet as soon as you get home?

One big reason: lice. As The Independent reports, Donald Belsito, a professor of dermatology at Columbia University Medical Center, told NBC's Today show recently that clothing fresh off store racks can harbor infestations of lice, scabies, or fungus.

You might be familiar with head lice as the dreaded insects that occupy the scalp and give school health monitors cause for concern. Head lice can be transmitted via clothing and other fabrics, and anyone who tried on a shirt or dress before you did can be a carrier. While they only live for one or two days without a blood meal, that’s still enough time to cause problems if something is being tried on frequently.

Scabies is far more insidious. The mites are too small to see, but the allergic reaction they cause by burrowing into your skin to lay eggs will be obvious.

Both scabies and lice can be treated with topical solutions, but it’s better to kill them by washing new clothes in hot water. A good soak can also get rid of formaldehyde, a common chemical used in fabrics to help ward off mold in case stock gets wet in transit. Formaldehyde can cause allergic skin reactions. For all of these reasons, it’s best to hit the washing machine before those new pants ever hit your hanger.

[h/t Independent]


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