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The Colorful History of Men's Underwear

From the loin cloth to the boxer-brief, from “tidy whities” to party prints, from buttons to elastic bands, men’s underwear has been through the wringer, literally. What began as a protective, hygenic garment has blossomed into a mega-industry and a fashion statement. 

Underwear has even crept into our popular culture. Nowadays, Captain Underpants stars in a series of children’s fantasy adventure books, The Thong Song trumpets the skimpiness of the sexy garment through the air and a “wifebeater” is the slang name for a sleeveless t-shirt. 

Underwear is so hot that it’s now routinely worn as outerwear. Teenage boys have been wearing their pants low with their boxers sticking out of the waistband since the nineties. Originally called an undershirt, white t-shirts are worn with sports jackets, with jeans or with a V-neck sweater. The V-neck sweater look was epitomized in the 60's with a blue tennis sweater and a grey t-shirt.

T-shirts themselves are reborn every few years as technology allows ever more outrageous printing on the shirts . They’re worn now as a statement of fashion, loyalty and attitude. Every boardwalk has a t-shirt shop every hundred feet or so. Pre-printed briefs, boxers and boxer-briefs are also available for the adventurous fashion-conscious individual.

In fact, underwear is so much a part of our society, it even affects the economy. While the price of an entire union suit was only one dollar for the first half of the 1900’s, now one pair of briefs can run upwards of $75. Underwear sales are considered a barometer of our economic well-being, given that in times of low income, men are more likely to skip buying new underwear, the same way they try to get one more year out of the family car in lean times. 

But how did the custom, indeed, the habit, of wearing underwear begin? What was underwear originally made from and how was it made? When did underwear stop being functional and start being fashionable?

To qualify as underwear, the garment in question must be worn beneath another garment. For that reason, a fig leaf placed for modesty doesn’t qualify. The first true undergarment would be the loincloth, which began as outerwear. The leather loincloth was in use over 5000 years ago. The most common model was comprised of a triangular piece of cloth with strings that were tied across the hips. The cloth was then strung beneath the crotch, around the loins and the strings were intertwined with the strings around the waist. 

The loincloth was easy-on, easy-off. It was eventually worn for hygienic purposes beneath ceremonial robes and skirts. Loincloths were considered so essential that King Tutankhamen of Egypt was entombed in 1352 with 145 loin cloths—plenty for the afterlife. Old habits die hard, as recently as 1835, French shepherds wore loin cloths, probably for their convenience. Japanese pilots in WWII wore loincloths beneath their uniforms. Chinese men traditionally wear a loincloth/diaper hybrid, with two cross-panels tied in the front for the classic, clean look.

The First and Second World Wars saw improvements in men’s underwear with the comfort and safety of the troops in mind. Winter underwear with a buttoned yoke and summer underwear that tied on the side were standard issue for the U.S. troops. Both versions were so beloved, U.S. soldiers continued to wear them after returning from the war, rejecting the once-favored union suit.

The current trend of colored underwear can be traced to World War II and troops who took fire because their underwear could be seen drying by the enemy. Underwear manufacturer Jockey switched to their OD or Olive Drab color for service skivvies, designed to be harder for the enemy to spot from far away because it blended into the surroundings.

The union suit was worn for warmth, mostly. It was named because it was a union of the top and bottom pieces of men’s underwear. Union suits had flaps in the back and a buttoned front so the wearer could relieve himself without having to remove the entire suit. Union suits were popular with men, women and children, who were covered hand to toe in their underwear.

War-time advances were all about comfort. Flaps, pouches and new fabrics made men’s underwear more comfortable than ever. The brief was designed by taking a pair of button drawers, removing the buttons and adding an elastic waist band. Boxer shorts were made by shortening traditional long underwear, called long johns, and adding elastic at the waist.

The 1960’s saw the shift of underwear from function to fashion. Bikini briefs that hung low on the hip and had elastic on the legs were introduced in animal prints and wild colors. Bikini briefs offered no access flap and were available in high and low-sided versions. Boxer shorts were also being offered in solid colors, patterns and prints from abstract to holiday-themed. 

With the diminished size of underwear came a new sexually-charged design—the thong. The thong is barely more than a pouch with a strap and strings to hold it in place. The strings encircle the waist and the strap joins the pouch to the strings through the crack between the buttocks. Thongs have been popular for decades in South America, with both men and women enjoying them. Now they're also common in the U.S. 

Boutique designers like Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein sell their expensive underwear in the same stores as the popular-priced products made by Jockey, Munsingwear and Hanes. The newest form of men’s underwear, the boxer brief, recently burst onto the scene with enormous success, marrying the shape and fit of a brief with the boxer's length.

While originally a protective garment, advances in manufacturing and materials have transformed men's underwear into a fashion statement. Sex appeal is stressed more than service. In the past, your mother might have told you to wear clean underwear in case you get hit by a car, not she might advise that you wear it because you never know when you'll have to make a first impression.
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