Remnants of leather loincloths were found with the remains of pre-historic man living 7,000 years ago. The loincloth was the simplest and probably the first undergarment worn by human beings. In warmer climates it was worn uncovered and in colder climates, loincloths were probably covered by outer clothing. The Egyptians (2nd millennium B.C.) used fabric to form an undergarment over which they wore a skirt. In pharaoh’s tombs loincloths were often buried along with their owners.
The Ancient Greeks dressed very simply with a 'chiton', an oblong of woollen cloth large enough to wrap around the body from the neck down to just above the knees. The side left open was fastened by a 'fibulae' a pin or brooch. A girdle was worn round it and the 'chiton' could be pulled through it and worn high by those who were physically active and left long by the older gentlemen. Over this was worn the 'himation', an outer cloak. Slaves wore loincloths. However, the ancient Greeks did not wear underwear.
The closest article of clothing worn by men in ancient Rome was called a subligaculum, which in modern terms means a pair of shorts or a loincloth and was worn under a toga or tunic.
Around the 13th century, pull-on underpants were invented and underwear became an important garment. The loincloth was replaced by large, baggy drawers called 'braies', which were often made from linen and seemed to be worn by men from all classes of society under their normal clothing. Knights wore 'braies' under several layers of clothing topped by their armour. The wearer stepped into them and then laced or tied them around the waist and legs at about mid-calf. Wealthier men wore chausses but these only covered the legs. In Europe underwear played an important role in shaping outerwear. Men’s sartorial developed during this time and this included corsets, cod pieces, stockings, undershirts and drawers.
Cod pieces were the sticky out bit at men’s nethers, as worn by Knights of Old and still to be seen in men’s ballet attire. The practical problem which beset our forefathers was the ability to match upper body clothing with leg attire. Catering for the calls of nature compounded so the upper crust simply flaunted their naughty bits as a fashion statement. In combat the cod piece protected the wobbly bits and was originally a cloth sheath rather like a baby’s nappy. Crossover to mainstream fashion meant the codpiece became highly decorated serving both as a boast and provocation. When amour was invented the cod piece remained.
Even later male clothing included a ‘sex purse’ and men vied with each other in their genital display. The popular sex pocket came to be known by various other names. Latin scholars called them ‘barca’ or ‘breeches’, the French insisted they were brayette or graguette; and the English used the Old English word cod meaning “bag”. Popularity for the cod piece peeked between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries when newer versions were developed. Padding and embroidery became more ornate. A real pocket was added where the wearer had a pocket to keep his purse, handkerchief or pieces of fruit, with little concealed suggestiveness. The latter was offered graciously to good looking ladies.
By the Renaissance, the 'chausses' became form fitting like modern hose, and the braies were worn shorter to accommodate longer styles of chausses. Braies were fitted with a flap in the front that buttoned or tied closed. The early fly front allowed men to urinate without removing their braies. Men's hose were worn snug on the legs and left open at the crotch, leaving the genitalia to hang free under the doublet. As the fashion for shorter doublets prevailed overexposed genitalia, were covered with the codpiece. The fly front of the braies corresponded to the codpiece. Less modest codpieces were shaped to emphasize the male genitalia. Henry VIII padded his codpiece and may well have set the trend for larger and larger codpieces. Cod pieces became passé by the end of the 16th Century. In days before pockets the codpiece was used to carrying valuables other than the crown jewels.
By Victorian times men's undergarments made from cotton, linen and even silk were in two pieces and made by hand. In America woollen flannel drawers were worn from the waist down. Most were knee length with a simple button overlap in front and a drawstring at the waist in the back. The preferred upper garment was a wool flannel shirt worn next to the skin. Mass production followed the invention of water-powered spinning machine and cotton fabrics became widely. For the first time, people no longer made their underwear at home but bought them in stores. The all in one union suit was worn by men and women and covered from the wrists to the ankles. The knitted union suits included a drop flap in the back. Hanes opened several mills producing 'union suits'. Originally made with ankle length legs and long sleeves, later versions were available in knee length versions with or without sleeves. Prior to elasticated waists gentlemen pinned their underpants to the inside of their trousers.
During the reign of Queen Victoria it was quite common for young boys to be dressed in frilly lace and short trousers. Boys wore bows on their shoes, shaved their legs and sported girlie underwear. Our great, great grandmothers were not lamenting not having female offspring by dressing their ‘laddies’ in ‘lassies’ clothes,’ instead the Victorian mothers wanted to discourage unhealthy flirting with teenage girls. The London Times published in its letters column the following endorsement from a concerned mother.
“I have found an effective cure for my 20-year-old son’s flirting with young ladies. When in mixed company, I dress him in corsets and a short kilt. Dressed as a Nancy boy, he is unable to look at a girl full in the eyes, let alone ogle her. I heartily recommend this form of correction.”
For this to appear in the letter column would confirm adolescence had its challenges then too.
Victorians were most inventive and during this Dark Age, some boys were fitted with a penal cage. The leather apparatus, sometimes covered with spikes, was worn to stop young men, day and night from doing what comes naturally. Later the cage appeared in 1885 and was a metal penis container which humanely allowed erection but prevented boys from touching them. A Scot’s physician Dr. John Moodie, developed an Apparatus for Boys which was truss-and-shield like device in 1848. It included a penis tube with a slot on the side for the boy to push his penis out in order to pass water. Before the Russian Revolution young conscripts had wire pushed through their foreskin and sealed with a picture of the Tsar. No much wonder there was a Revolution. The habit caught on however, and was soon imitated by parents unable to afford a penis cage. They just used a needle and thread. Now we know why children rebel.
Men’s underwear was revolutionized when US company, Coopers Inc of Kenosha, Wisconsin, introduced the X-front in 1910. These were sold as the Kenosha Klosed Krotch undergarment but because the overlying flaps were considered too fiddly the X-front flopped. In the 1920s, modelling underwear was thought to be morally wrong and early advertising shots showed models in black face-masks to hide their identities.
In the 1930s, union suits went out of favour and boxers and briefs became the 'vogue'. The first boxer shorts were button less drawers fitted with an elastic waistband. The name came from the shorts worn by professional fighters. The word "underpants" also entered the dictionary at this time. 'Jockey' began making briefs in 1930 but it was not until 1934 with the advent of 'Jockey' Y-vent briefs the design of men’s underwear took a leap forward. Traditional high and lox cut jockey shorts had vertical flaps or diagonal flaps.
Inspiration for the Y-front was the Jock Strap (sports strap). The tackle support was an instant success and is still going strong, sold in over 120 countries. JOCKEY Y-fronts were the first underwear ever to be displayed in a store. Before 1935 all pants were bought discreetly from a salesman who retrieved the required size from a hidden store-room.
In 1936, Munsingwear developed the 'kangaroo pouch' underwear which used a horizontal vent. When managers at the Marshall Field store in Chicago banned Y Fronts from a window display on the pretext it was ridiculous to flaunt such a skimpy design in the middle of winter. Before the display could be removed, 600 pairs had been sold. The same frenzy crossed the Atlantic in 1938 and soon there were 3,000 pairs of pants being sold per year in the UK.
Serving men in the US were issued with ‘Long Johns', i.e. long skin-tight underpants. The name was derived from the old boxing gear worn by John L. Sullivan, who was a boxer in the late 1880s, the height of his career being 1882-92. Colour became a practical option by troops eager to avoid target practice when they were hung out their ‘smalls’ to dry. In Civvy Street, Second World War rationing meant underwear was in short supply. Y-front factories stopped production and started to make parachutes for troops. Shortages forced the Jockey company to appeal to underpants wearers everywhere to send back the elastic from old pairs to help with the war effort. Button fastening returned because rubber and metal were no longer available. Knitted briefs, broadcloth shorts with buttons, and the union suit were popular during the war years.
Ingenious French backs were used to adjust fit. These were small tabs at the rear of the waistband, usually secured by buttons. Post war innovations included pre-shrunk materials prior to this, people bought underwear a size larger to allow for shrinkage in the wash. By the late 40s the introduction of synthetics with better elastic memory meant tighter fitting underwear. In 1948 every male athlete in the British Olympic team was given a free pair of Y-fronts.
New fabrics and a multitude of colours gave greater range to products for the post war generation. Underpants were more comfortable to wear and the long john lost out to the shorter Y front pants. A successful marketing ploy in the early 50s was to sell Y-fronts in sets of seven. Each set of briefs was labelled Monday to Sunday. Unlike T shirts however, men’s’ underpants were still unmentionable and not for public display. The first public demonstration of men’s underwear in this decade was the risqué Top 10 US hit "Short Shorts", by The Royal Teens (1958). The novelty record, so typical of the teen music of the time, made good use of shocking burlesque (a dying art form) with public reference to men’s underwear, and shorts at that.
In 1958 when they began to be advertised y Fronts on television, The Tonight Show host Jack Paar became so amused by the undergarments for men that his laughter strung a Y-front endorsement out for two minutes instead of the allowed 30 seconds. The next day Y Fronts sold out across the country. All this at a time when Elvis’s pelvic area could not be show on public television for the sake of decency.
Despite the availability of printed fabric and a rainbow of colours, white cotton remained popular with the conservative. Young people started to wear boxer shorts around the time of the Cassius Clay Vs Sonny Liston World Heavyweight Boxing Championship (1964).
By the time Freddy and the Dreamers reprised the Royal Teens hits ‘Shorts shorts’ they probably sold more boxer shorts than they did copies of their record.
The sixties saw a boom in package holidays and bikini style briefs (The 'bikini' was invented in 1946 by two Frenchmen, Jacques Heim and Louis Reard, who named it after the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, the site of atomic bomb testing) became a strong challenge to boxers.
New fabric technology continued to offer better comfort in men's underwear, particularly with the introduction of Lycra and Spandex. Low slung hipster style trousers meant less obvious undergarments were preferred. Underwear became smaller with far more variety designed for specific age groups and purposes. Adverts for Y Fronts urged men to change their underpants every day, boasting of nine different styles at "rock bottom" prices. Contemporary research showed men wearing tight fitting briefs were more likely to suffer infertility due to the increased temperatures surrounding the genitals. Y-fronts countered their product provided much need aeration. Research published by the company showed the average man's private parts had increased in size over the past 20 years.
1970s and 1980s
Commercial interest in sport meant men’s underpants became body enhancing and like women's designs, the newest and hottest styles were almost totally seamless. The thong was very popular in Brazil and worn by the beach Adonis crowd. Fashion crossover into underwear meant the thong became popular as underwear not only for its erotic appeal, but because it gave a smooth and rounded finish to bottoms encased under tight trousers.
In ‘Saturday Night’s Fever’, John Travolta’s physique was enhanced with no visible panty line and this resulted in briefs and thongs being worn by the disco generation. Meantime men’s briefs got briefer and became the preserve of designers such as Calvin Klein. Underwear was a fashion statement available in unusual fabrics and wonderful colours and combinations. Sex appeal was the main selling point for major advertising campaigns.
When in the 80s Nick Kamen unbuttoned his Levi 501s revealing a pair of white boxers to the tune of ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’, it was thought by many to be the end for the Y-front. Not a lot of people know the Kamen’s Levi commercial would have featured the model in a pair of Y-fronts but the advertising censors decreed them indecent.
Again medical scares of impotency due to tight underpants may well have influenced some, but certainly boxer shorts made a comeback into fashion in the 90’s. No longer baggy the new boxers maintained the tightness of briefs. Pouch boxer briefs had a pocket for the genitals rather than an access flap and athletic and bike-style boxers were generally skin-tight, usually with no access pouch or flap. These were like short tights.
Now anything goes from boxers to G-strings. The anti-fashion crowd have started to go commando or going without underwear, a practice also known as free balling. Ironically the trend emphasizes how far underwear has come from its beginnings as a hygienic aide. When modern people bathe every day, underwear is not nearly as necessary, and with underwear as the final barrier to sex, not wearing it at all is a powerful turn-on for many people. Traditionally there is nothing worn under the kilt - everything is in perfect working condition.
Daniela A 1995 The phallus: Sacred symbol of male creative power Rochester: Inner Traditions (translated by Graham J.)
Norman P 1997 Sexxxx London: MQ Publications