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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?

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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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25 Things You Didn’t Know You Could Recycle
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According to the EPA, Americans generate 254 million tons of waste each year. Here are a few things you may have been throwing out that, with a little effort, you can actually recycle.

1. DENTURES

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Grandpa's choppers may hold $25 worth of recyclable metals, including gold, silver, and palladium. The Japan Denture Recycling Association is known to collect false teeth, remove and recycle the metals, and discard the rest of the denture (which is illegal to reuse). The program has donated all of its earnings to UNICEF.

2. HOLIDAY LIGHTS

Bundle of holiday string lights

Got burnt out holiday lights? The folks at HolidayLEDs.com will gladly take your old lights, shred them, and sort the remaining PVC, glass, and copper. Those raw materials are taken to another recycling center to be resurrected. (In 2011, the State of Minnesota collected and recycled around 100 tons of dead lights.)

3. SEX TOYS

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The first step in recycling your toy is to send it to a specialty processing plant, where it's sterilized and sorted. There, all "mechanical devices" are salvaged, refurbished, and resold. Silicone and rubber toys, on the other hand, are "ground up, mixed with a binding agent, and remolded into new toys," according to the aptly titled website, Sex Toy Recycling. Metals, plastics, and other leftovers retire from the pleasure industry and are recycled into conventional products.

4. HOTEL SOAP

Hotel bathroom counter with cups, shampoo, and soap

Not all hotels throw out that half-used soap you left in the shower: Some send it to Clean the World. There, soap is soaked in a sanitizing solution, treated to a steam bath, and then tested for infections. Once deemed safe, the soap is distributed to less fortunate people across the globe. So stop stealing soap from hotels—you may be stealing from charity.

5. MATTRESSES

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You don't need to dump your old box spring at the landfill. Equipped with special saws, mattress recycling factories can separate the wood, metal, foam, and cloth. The metal springs are magnetically removed, the wood is chipped, and the cloth and foam are shredded and baled. In its future life, your saggy mattress can become a summer dress or even wallpaper.

6. COOKING OIL

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When you’re finished making French fries at home, it can be tempting to toss the spent frying oil down the drain. But you shouldn’t—approximately 47 percent of all sewer overflows are caused by fat and oil. There are a few curbside programs in the United States that accept used cooking oil, which may send the oil to a biodiesel plant that will transform it into fuel. To see if there’s a collection point near you, check this website.

7. DIRTY DIAPERS

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The average baby soils 6000 diapers before being potty trained—that's one ton of diapers rotting in a landfill per child. But not all poo-packages have to suffer this fate. The company Knowaste collects and recycles dirty diapers at hospitals, nursing facilities, and public restrooms. After sanitizing the diaper with a solution, they mechanically separate the "organic matter" from the diaper's plastic, which is compressed into pellets and recycled into roof shingles. Meanwhile, paper pulp in diapers grows up to become wallpaper and shoe soles.

8. CDS

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CDs are made of polycarbonate and won't decompose at a landfill. But if you send your discs to The CD Recycling Center, they'll shred them into a fine powder that will be later melted down into a plastic perfect for automotive and building materials—even pavement!

9. SHOES

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Send your beat-up sneaks to Nike Grind and you'll help build a running track. Nike's recycling facility rips apart worn shoes, separating the rubber, foam, and fabric. The rubber is melted down for running track surfaces, the foam is converted into tennis court cushioning, and the fabric is used to pad basketball court floorboards. So far, Nike has shredded more than 28 million pairs of shoes.

10. SHEEP POOP

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Why turn sheep poop into fertilizer or manure when you can make it into an air freshener? The folks at Creative Paper Wales do that, plus more—they can transform sheep poop into birthday cards, wedding invitations, bookmarks, and A4 paper! Sheep dung brims with processed cellulose fiber. The poo can be sterilized in a 420 degree pressure cooker, which separates the fiber from a smelly brew of liquid fertilizer, allowing the fiber pulp to be collected and blended with other recycled pulps, creating tree-free paper.

11. TROPHIES

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Is your room full of plastic bowling trophies from fifth grade? If the thrill of victory fades, you can recycle your old trophies at recycling centers like Lamb Awards. They'll break down your retired awards, melting them down or reusing them for new trophies.

12. HUMAN FAT (WARNING: ILLEGAL)

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If it weren't for legal complications, America's obsession with cosmetic surgery could solve its energy problem. In 2008, a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon lost his job when police caught him fueling his car with a biofuel created from his patients' liposuctioned fat. (Convicting him wasn't hard, since he advertised the substance online as "lipodiesel.") That's not the first time fat has powered transportation: In 2007, conservationist Peter Bethune used 2.5 gallons of human fat to fuel his eco-boat, Earthrace.

13. ALUMINUM FOIL

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Foil is probably one of the most thrown away recyclable materials out there. (Americans throw away about 1.5 million tons of aluminum products every year, according to the EPA.) But foil is 100 percent aluminum, and as long as you thoroughly clean it of any food waste, you technically should be able to recycle it with your aluminum cans (but first check with your local recycling plant to ensure they’re equipped to process it; some aren’t).

14. CRAYONS

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Don't toss those stubby Crayolas! Instead, mail them to the National Crayon Recycle Program, which takes unloved, broken crayons to a better place: They're melted in a vat of wax, remade, and resold. So far, the program has saved more than 118,000 pounds of crayons.

15. DEAD PETS

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When Fluffy bites the dust in Germany, you can memorialize your beloved pet by recycling her. In Germany, it's illegal to bury pets in public places. This leaves some pet owners in a bind when their furry friends die. A rendering plant near the town of Neustadt an der Weinstraße accepts deceased pets; animal fat is recycled into glycerin, which is used in cosmetics such as lip balm.

16. SHINGLES

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The EPA estimates that 11 million tons of shingles are disposed each year [PDF]. Most of them are made out of asphalt, which is why more than two dozen states pulverize the old shingles and recycle them into pavement. For every ton of shingles recycled, we save one barrel of oil.

17. PRESCRIPTION DRUGS

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You can—and should—properly dispose of expired prescription drugs. But what about unneeded pills that are still good? Some states let you donate unused drugs back to pharmacies. Some charities also accept leftover HIV medicine from Americans who have switched prescriptions, stopped medicating, or passed away. These drugs are shipped overseas and distributed to HIV victims around the world.

18. FISHING LINE

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Fishing line is made from monofilament, a non-biodegradable plastic that you can't put in your everyday recycling bin. At Berkley Fishing, old fishing line is mixed with other recyclables (like milk cartons and plastic bottles) and transformed into fish-friendly habitats. So far, Berkley has saved and recycled more than 9 million miles of fishing line.

19. WINE CORKS

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Your recycling center probably doesn't accept wine corks, but companies like Terracycle and Yemm & Hart will. They turn cork into flat sheets of tile, which you can use for flooring, walls, and veneer. Another company, ReCORK, has extended the life of over 4 million unloved corks by giving them to SOLE, a Canadian sandal maker.

20. PANTYHOSE

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Most pantyhose are made of nylon, a recyclable thermoplastic that takes more than 40 years to decompose. Companies like No Nonsense save your old stockings by grinding them down and transforming them into park benches, playground equipment, carpets, and even toys.

21. TOOTHBRUSHES

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If you buy a plastic toothbrush from Preserve (which makes its toothbrushes from old Stonyfield Farms yogurt cups and other everyday items), it will take back your used toothbrush and give it a new life—this time as a piece of plastic lumber!

22. TENNIS BALLS

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The company reBounces doesn’t really recycle tennis balls, it resurrects them. If you’ve got at least 200 balls sitting around, the company will send you a prepaid shipping label to help get the box on the road and repressurize the balls.

23. YOGA MATS

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Most yoga mats are made from PVC, the same material in plumbing pipes, heavy-duty tarps, and rain boots. While many local yoga studios will accept well-loved mats and find them a new home, the company Sanuk has an appropriately squishy vision for each mat’s future: It will transform your old yoga mat into flip flops.

24. DEFUNCT CURRENCY

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All governments have a way of dealing with old, worn money. (In 2016, the Indian government shredded old bills and turned them into hardboard.) But what about currency that is no longer legal tender? Ends up you can donate your old French francs, Spanish pesetas, or Dutch guilders to Parkinsons UK, who will recycle the old coins and banknotes.

25. PET FUR

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All of the pet fur on your sweaters, your couches, and your carpet could help save the ocean from oil spills. Hair is excellent at sopping up oil from the environment (hairball booms were used to soak up oil from the 2010 BP Oil Spill), so non-profit organizations such as the San Francisco-based Matter of Trust will accept pet fur to make oil-absorbing mats of Fido's fuzz.

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Move Over, Golden Toilet: Now There’s a $100K Louis Vuitton Potty
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In 2016, the Guggenheim Museum installed a one-of-a-kind, fully functional toilet made of solid gold, created by the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan just for the museum. Now, there’s another insanely luxurious art-toilet to look out for—and this one you can take home.

Made by artist Illma Gore for the luxury resale platform Tradesy, the Loo-Uis Vuitton Toilet is covered in $15,000 worth of monogram leather ripped from Louis Vuitton bags. Everything but the inside of the bowl—which is gold—is covered in that instantly recognizable brown designer leather. It's one way to show your brand loyalty, for sure.

The toilet is fully functional, meaning, yes, you can poop in it—although that would require you (at some point) to clean the leather undersides of the seat, which sounds … gross. But then again, the leather is brown, so do what you will.

A toilet art piece stands under a pink neon sign that reads ‘No Fake Shit.’
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Does sitting on it feel like using those squishy-soft toilet seats your grandma has? Please let us know, because we don’t have the $100,000 it would take to buy it for ourselves. Note that while the site sells used goods, the description makes sure to specify that this one is new.

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