A History of Men’s Underwear in Pop Culture
Men’s underwear has gone through many transformations in pop culture. In the history of men’s underwear, men first wore a simple leather loincloth around their waist 7,000 years ago. It was something resembling a diaper. Loincloths were also worn by men in ancient Egypt and by the Aztecs.
Men’s underwear was then refined and diversified during different time periods throughout history. Let’s examine these changes in pop culture, how men’s underwear became what it is today, and highlight current trends in men’s underwear.
Men’s Underwear in Pop Culture
In ancient Roman times, men started to have more choice when it came to underwear design. Men could either have underwear in the form of shorts or as a wrapped loincloth. When the 13th century rolled around, we saw the invention of loose-fitting pull-on underwear. These were known as ‘braies’. Made from linen, these calf-length drawers were worn by peasants, knights, and kings alike.
During the Renaissance, braies evolved. They became shorter and were made with a flap in the crotch area for urinating through. In the several centuries that followed, men opted for long drawers made of cotton, silk, or linen. They were knee length and had a button flap at the front, keeping that practical element of the braies.
These drawers were the precursor to the ‘union suit’, which was first patented in 1868. This is a type of one-piece long underwear. It became a highly popular alternative to more constricting garments. But after the Industrial Revolution, we also started to see the precursors of both briefs and boxers.
When the bicycle was invented, this was followed by the development of the jockstrap in 1874, as this undergarment was intended to provide protection for cycle ‘jockeys’. In 1935, the jockstrap was refined and went on sale in Chicago as the Jockey brief, featuring the classic Y-shaped opening. Many people compare the introduction of Jockey Y-front briefs with the invention of the bra in 1913 or the 1959 invention of the tights. This type of men’s underwear became an instant hit.
In the 1920s, Jacob Colomb, who founded the sports brand Everlast, created a lighter version of boxing shorts, to be worn as underwear. And here we had the first boxer shorts. In the 20th century, we saw a constant battle between boxers and briefs. Men who preferred boxers say it’s more natural to wear looser-fitting underwear, as it allows air to circulate and prevents constriction and chafing. Nonetheless, in the mid-20th century, ‘tighty-whities’ were extremely popular. And in the UK in the 70s, tight jeans became fashionable for men, which made briefs the underwear of choice.
Trends changed again in the 80s when various models were seen sporting boxer shorts in ads by brands like Levi’s. Boxers were seen as for grown men, while briefs were seen as childish. This was highlighted in the film Risky Business (1983) featuring a young Tom Cruise, who famously danced in briefs to Bob Seger’s ‘Old Time Rock’n’Roll’. Cruise’s underwear was viewed as indicative of his dorkiness. By the 1990s, we saw a hybrid of boxers and briefs, which maintained the longer shape of the boxer but retained the snug fit of briefs.
Current Trends in Men’s Underwear
So where does pop culture stand today in terms of boxers versus briefs? Well, in the UK and US, it seems that the most popular choice of underwear for men is ‘trunks’, which are a short-short-style undergarment. This boxer-brief hybrid is able to provide the support of briefs while avoiding their negative connotations. At the same time, the demand is decreasing for boxers and increasing for briefs; although the popularity of boxers and briefs sometimes depends on which retailer you’re looking at.
The men’s underwear market is booming and at the moment, it looks like most men are opting for trunks over boxers and briefs. It will be interesting to see how trends in men’s underwear change again in the near future.
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I'm a freelance writer who is interested in mindfulness, mental health and the evolving concept of masculinity.