Men's underwear is a garment that has evolved over thousands of years, from simple leather loincloths to modern boxers and briefs. Men's underwear has served various purposes, such as protection, modesty, adornment, status, support and eroticism. In this article, we will trace the development of men's underwear from ancient times to the present day.
Loincloths: The earliest form of underwear
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 loincloth was also common in other ancient civilizations, such as Greece, Rome, India and China. The loincloth was a simple and practical garment that allowed freedom of movement and ventilation.
Codpieces: A Renaissance fashion statement
In the Middle Ages, men wore loose-fitting trousers called braies that extended from the waist to around mid-calf. These trousers were laced tight around the waist and shins and had a flap in the front for convenience. However, as hemlines rose in the 15th and 16th centuries, the flap became more prominent and evolved into a codpiece. A codpiece was a pouch that attached to the front of the trousers and covered the genitals. It served both functional and decorative purposes. It enabled men to urinate without removing their trousers and also enhanced their virility and status. Some codpieces were padded, embroidered or even fitted with bells. The most famous wearer of codpieces was King Henry VIII of England, who allegedly used them to conceal his syphilitic sores.
Shirts and T-shirts: From under to outer
Until the early 20th century, shirts were regarded as undergarments, serving the purposes of protection and modesty, and as indicators of wealth or social status³. From the mid-16th century, clean white linen shirts were seen as a mark of refinement and elegance among courtiers and gentlemen. Only the collar and cuffs were visible beneath the outerwear. In the 19th century, shirts became more plain and simple, with a front panel with vertical pleats or tucks. By the early 20th century, with a change to a less formal outerwear, the shirt had lost its status as underwear and became a key component of a man's outerwear wardrobe.
The shirt also gave rise to another type of underwear: the T-shirt. The T-shirt was originally a short-sleeved undershirt made of cotton or wool that was worn by soldiers and sailors in World War I. It was comfortable, easy to wash and dry, and could be worn alone in hot weather. After the war, many veterans continued to wear T-shirts as casual clothing. In the 1930s, T-shirts became popular among athletes, workers and students. In the 1950s, T-shirts became a symbol of youth rebellion and counterculture, thanks to icons like James Dean and Marlon Brando who wore them on screen.
Boxers and briefs: The modern underwear
Before the 1920s, 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 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. These trunks became known as boxers and soon caught on as underwear for men who preferred more roominess.
In 1934, Arthur Kneibler, an executive at Coopers Inc., a hosiery company in Wisconsin, received a postcard from a friend in France that showed a man wearing a bikini-style swimsuit. Kneibler had an epiphany: why not make an underwear for men that was similar to this swimsuit? He designed a snug-fitting garment with an Y-shaped front fly and named it the Jockey, because it offered support similar to a jockstrap. The Jockey was the first brief, and it was an instant hit. In 1935, Coopers sold 30,000 pairs of Jockeys in three months. The briefs offered a sleek and modern alternative to the boxers.
Since then, boxers and briefs have been the main choices for men's underwear, with variations such as boxer briefs, trunks, bikinis and thongs. Men's underwear has also become more visible and public, especially through advertising and popular culture. Brands such as Calvin Klein, Hanes, Fruit of the Loom and Victoria's Secret have used celebrities, models and athletes to promote their underwear products. Men's underwear has also reflected and enhanced sexuality and sensuousness, with different styles, colors, fabrics and prints catering to different tastes and preferences.
Men's underwear is a fascinating topic that reveals a lot about the history of fashion, culture and society. From loincloths to codpieces, from shirts to T-shirts, from boxers to briefs, men's underwear has changed and adapted to the needs and desires of different times and places. Men's underwear is not only a garment that covers and protects the body, but also a garment that expresses and impresses the self.