Where Men Can Become Better Gentlemen

Men's Underwear

A Brief History of Underpants

In The Beginning

In chapter 3 of Genesis, the first book of the bible, we are told Adam and Eve upon eating from the tree of life realized they were naked and sewed fig leaves together to make coverings/loincloths for themselves. In 1991 an ancient iceman dubbed “Otzi”, was found in the mountainous Alps of Europe and dated to around 3300 BC. Underneath his outer clothing, Otzi was found to be wearing a leather loincloth. The Egyptian King Tutankhamun, who died in 1333 BC, was entombed with 145 loincloths to see him through his afterlife.

Any way you look at this, men have being covering their reproductive parts for many thousands of years. Perhaps for modesty, practical protection or additional warmth, the reasoning for this is not clear. As to when loincloths changed to become underpants we have to look to several thousand years ago.

From Greek to Roman

In Ancient Greek they wore a Tunic, a one-piece garment worn over the body and finished at varying lengths on the body. The tunic was adopted by the Romans around the 3rd century BC and became standard uniform for soldiers, with the length finishing just above the knees. While loincloths were used prior to this time, the first confirmed underpants were a type of shorts or trunks called “Subligaria”, and were worn by the Romans under their tunics (especially short tunics).  These were not always a permanent form of dress, often being replaced by loincloths and even omitted when wearing longer clothing.

Gaulish Bracae

As the Roman Empire increased it's geographically range, it took the soldiers from warmer climates around the Mediterranean to colder climates in the North. Here they encountered the Gauls wearing loose pants. Viewing this form of clothing as effeminate the Romans mocked the Gauls and called these pants “Bracae” (later to be known as “Breeches”) because they formed a “break” between the upper half and lower half of one’s clothing.  These Bracae varied in length often according to how cold the climate was i.e. they were longer the further North one traveled. Typically they were between knee and ankle length and had strings at the waist and at the bottom of the garments legs to tie them tight. Despite their initial reaction, the Romans begun to adopt this style of garment.

It is perhaps interesting to know, Breeches became the standard form of outdoor sporting dress (rather than pants) for men in many European countries (especially in Great Britain) right up until the 1900’s and even beyond. The knee length breeches were worn with hosiery or socks for hunting (shooting), golf (known as “plus 2’s” or “plus 4’s” according to how many inches the breeches went past the knee), horse riding (with long boots covering the socks) etc. and are still worn by traditionalists today. We believe the reasoning for this was one of practicality: the socks took the brunt of mud, dirt etc. (thus easy to change them and still look clean) and damage from thorns etc. (thus easy to repair or discard and replace with new socks). This provided a cost saving with socks being cheaper than the breeches (or if one had been wearing long pants). In Celtic regions, especially the Scottish Highlands, breeches and socks were knitted together to make them a one-piece garment called “Trews”. It is easy to see the term “Trewsers” changing to become “Trousers” and explains why Pants are called Trousers in the UK. To add a little more confusion, the British shorten the term “Underpants” to “Pants” when referring to their underwear.

Mongolian Pants

About 200 hundred years after encountering Bracae, the Romans also came across “Pantaloons”. In the far North East of Europe, Russia, China and surrounding countries, the Mongols had been successfully riding horses in combat (for centuries) and wore tight fitting pants or “Pantaloons” for greater comfort while doing so. The Romans saw the beneficial military uses of such garments, especially in colder weather (when worn over Bracae), and incorporated them into their clothing. In India they wore a similar style of long tight fitting pants called Churiders, often used when riding horses also. This form of clothing spread throughout the Roman world and is how we ended up wearing pants today, and is responsible for the generally applied terms of “Pants” and “Underpants” for men.

However, in terms of the adoption of long pants for clothing, their introduction was not always universally implemented at the same time. Even by as late as 1897, Churiders had only just been successfully introduced into England by the Indian Prince of Jodhpur, when playing Polo. This raised awareness amongst the English and caused them to change from wearing Riding Breeches to using Churiders, or “Jodhpurs” as the Brits called them, for horse riding.

Medieval Saxons

By Medieval Saxon times Bracae (or “Braises” as they had become known) had disappeared under tunics to become confirmed knee length linen underwear. These are perhaps the real birthplace of men’s underpants (as apposed to loincloth’s) and because men had to “draw” each leg into the garment and use “draw” strings to tighten them, they became known as “Drawers”.

A Renaissance

Braises started off baggy but became tighter as time went by, reaching their tightest by the 1600’s. In the 1500’s as the Silk Route was opened up by sea, this expensive material become available in Europe and “drawers” could be made of silk but their impact were restricted to the very rich e.g. Monarch’s.

Going to the bathroom to urinate while in Braises was a clumsy affair and so a flap was developed, positioned in the front of these garments, and usually tied or buttoned closed. Now, all one had to do was untie or unbutton this flap in order to urinate, making it easier to go to the bathroom “on the fly”, without having to remove their Braises. This practical solution became known as the “Codpiece”, in Middle English the word “Cod”, means “bag” or “Scrotum”. As the length of tunics shortened, the codpiece became publically visible and resulted in it gaining decoration and size, reaching its peak in the late 1500’s (around the time of Henry the VIII of England). The codpiece was frequently made of stiff leather, in varying colors and was often used as a receptacle for holding everyday items e.g. snuff, money, snacks etc. Even back then, size did matter, and a large Codpiece was seen as a sign of masculinity. Interestingly, large calf muscles were also seen as a sign of masculinity, and men at this time would increase the size of their calves by the addition of padding to their hosiery or socks.

This enhanced Codpiece is the descendent of today’s athletic support or jockstrap, used by male athletes to protect their genitals e.g. football and hockey players, equestrian riders etc. However, this is not the only example, a dance belt (most commonly worn by male Ballet dancers) is an undergarment similar to a thong and is used by dancers to support their genitals. It also has additional benefit for dancers, acrobats (e.g. trapeze artists) actors (e.g. dressing up in superhero costumes), figure skaters etc. to conceal the contours of their genitalia when wearing what would otherwise be revealing attire (e.g. tights). Just as our Renaissance brethren did, it can also be used to enhance one’s masculinity by displaying a larger than life image, should one be inclined!

The Georgian Period

The material of choice for underwear, up to and including this period, was Linen, and for a while “Linens” was used as the colloquial name for mens underwear. Up until this time wool was too harsh to be worn next to the skin and shrunk when washed and Silk was far too expensive and too delicate to withstand constant cleaning. Linen comes in many different grades, from the thick (cheap) to the almost transparently thin (expensive), it also has many suitable attributes being absorbent, cool, strong and washes well even at higher temperatures. No wonder it was so popular for underwear!

However, at the end of Georgian times, a revolution was to hit – The Industrial Revolution. The invention of the Spinning Jenny machine in 1764, coupled with the invention of the Cotton Gin in 1793, meant faster and cheaper production of many fabrics including cotton. These fabrics could be mass-produced and clothing, including underwear made of cotton, started to be available ready-made for purchase in stores (rather than home made or tailor made).  

Despite these improvements the benefits were slow to be fully realized. At the poorer end of society habits were hard to break e.g. making your own, and most people didn’t have the spare money to spend. While readily adopted by people with spare money, the middle and upper classes, these represented a small proportion of the overall population. It would take a hundred years or more for these ready-made garments to be fully established throughout all levels of society. However by the 1830’s most men were wearing cotton flannel underwear.

The Early Victorians

Best known for the creation of industrialization and increasing world trade, under the expansive British Empire, the Victorian era was also known for its overt conservative style of modesty. It was during this time underwear was unlikely to be referred to in public, as it was considered an impropriety to do so, and thus underwear gained the nickname “Unmentionables”. Even when underwear was referred to they were euphemistically called “Small Clothes” which became abbreviated to “Smalls” across time. 

Underwear became a firm staple in society from this time onwards, as people’s awareness of sanitation benefits and personal hygiene increased. Besides maintaining people’s decency, underwear does perform a sanitary function, namely to protect the outer layers of clothing from the bodies excretions. Also many materials used for the outer layers of clothes underwent a very labor-intensive (and thus costly) method of cleaning. Unfortunately, Dry Cleaning wouldn’t be available (in the format we know today) until the 1920’s, and thus greater care of these clothes was required. Underwear, usually made of much easier to clean material, provided some level of reduction in the overall cleaning of the outer garments.

The Late Victorians

The 1880’s saw the development of closely woven fabrics, causing a significant change for the clothing industry and underwear in particular. These closely woven fabrics provided for softer and stronger material due to the density of the fibers in the knit and the way it is knitted. For underwear this meant cotton could effectively make lightweight, flexible and soft garments (e.g. T-Shirts), plus soft thermal underwear could now be made from soft woollens and woollen mix fabrics.

The very first Jockstrap was invented in 1874 by CF Bennett of Sharp and Smith, for cyclists in Boston having to contend with cobble-stone streets. The company became The Bike Web Company, was renamed Bike Athletic, and in 2006 produced their 350 millionth Jockstrap.

The Roaring 20's

By the 1920’s underpants made of soft and comfortable cotton had become the staple material to use for men’s underwear. A favorite fine cotton of this time came from Brigan’s Townland in Ireland and is known as Balbriggan Cotton.

Advertising for underwear had, until this time, predominantly been kept to discreet low key written descriptions. It now started to become bolder and include pictures, as the culture in society became more relaxed, following the end of the austere Victorian era.

A new development occurred during this time where the tied “drawcords” were replaced with self-supporting elastic banded waists. These were the forerunners of the underwear we know and recognize, and have brought about the different styles of underpants for the modern man to choose from today. In 1925, Jacob Golomb (the founder of boxing equipment company Everlast) used this new material to make elastic waist boxer trunks, replacing the leather-belt of the existing trunks used by boxers. By the 1930’s these were being replicated by other manufacturers, as underwear, and called “Boxer Shorts”.

The Not So Dirty 30's

By this time the wealthy middle classes and up, had centrally heated homes thus having less need for long thick underwear. Washing machines, of some description were also employed and it became generally expected a gentleman would be changing his underwear on a daily basis.

This decade saw great leaps forward in men’s underwear design, with numerous new developments: In 1930 Cluett, Peabody and Co. Inc. develop a technique called Sanforization, which preshrinks fabric, so underwear remains the same size when washed. Cooper Inc. (now called Jockey’s) introduced the Y-front yoke in 1934 and in 1935 launched the highly successful Jockey Briefs, the first briefs ever produced. In 1936 Munsingwear developed their horizontal vent “kangaroo” pouch line for men’s underwear, suitable for both right and lefthanders (unlike Cooper’s Y-fronts).

Freedom of the 1950's and 60's

During World War II, the army changed the color of the troops underwear from white to olive green, as part of their ever-evolving improvements for camouflage. Taking a leaf from their book, manufacturers started producing underwear in other colors besides white. By the 1960’s underwear was being made using synthetic man made fibers and were available in a wide range of colors and patterns including, spots, strips and small motifs or geometric designs – underpants had become fashionable!

Slimline briefs, similar to bikini briefs called “Skants”, were introduced in the late 1950’s. They came in a wide range of designs including animal prints (e.g. tiger, leopard and zebra styles), perhaps to bring out a man’s wild side. For the first time men’s underwear had moved away from being functional items of comfort, to being considered fun and for some, racy.

The Sexy 80's

As economies boomed and actor Tom Cruise danced around in his underpants in the film “Risky Business”, manufacturers of underpants decided to up their game. Underpants, with the exception of “Skants”, had been advertised with comfort in mind, now sex would be used to sell underpants. This was led by Calvin Klein who in 1982 started using sculptured male models, lounging in just their underpants, in sun-drenched locations. Interestingly, although not necessarily intended, it is thought this advertising appealed to male homosexual’s who started purchasing this underwear. This in turn, we believe, prompted their platonic girlfriends to purchase this underwear for the men in their lives. True or not, this advertising increased sales and has led to a continued marketing boom in underpants for men today.

End of the Century - 1990's

Tight fitting boxer shorts made of the same materials as briefs, and called Boxer Briefs, were successfully introduced during the late 1990’s. However, these are not new and it is perhaps correct to say they were reintroduced. Benjamin Joseph Clark of the Bossier Company originally introduced Boxer Briefs in the 1800’s. Unfortunately the Bossier Company went bankrupt in the early 1900’s and we had to wait nearly a hundred years before seeing them again!

The Noughties

In 2006 actor Daniel Craig played fictional character James Bond in the film Casino Royale. In one scene, Daniel Craig emerges from the surf on a Nassau based beach in the Bahamas, wearing a pair of tight short-legged swimming trunks. This caused quite a stir as females swooned and wanted to know where they could get them for their men. Manufacturers took advantage of this and started producing Trunks, not only for swimming but as underwear too. These underwear trunks bridge the gap between briefs and boxer briefs and continue to sell well today.

Since the beginning of the noughties, there has been significant research into man-made technical clothing, including synthetic material with odor reduction, wicking and breathable properties. These have been successfully used in making underwear, helping to keep a man’s crotch area cool and dry. One such improvement has been the introduction of compression underwear for athletes, which provides increased support for the genitalia and reduced chaffing, while preventing injury by keeping muscles warm and aiding recovery following exercise.

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