A PEEK AT VINTAGE MEN'S UNDERWEAR
While the old saying, "Every man puts his pants on one leg at a time" may well illustrate that in many respects, all men are the same, we would be well-served to look at what they put on beneath those equality-affirming trousers to see exactly how men differ. And should not be surprised to learn that — as with shaving habits and women's role in the workforce — even undergarments were forever changed with the advent of the Industrial Revolution and two World Wars.
Consider for a moment what you know of men's undergarments. For thousands of years man stumbled about clad in a loincloth, whether he was a prehistoric forebearer hunting and gathering in a leather piece or the young pharaoh King Tut, depicted in painting and sculpture in a more refined linen version. Of course, loincloths only become underwear when they are not outerwear, say when covered by a robe, skirt, or pantaloons.
WHEN MEN BECAME MODEST
But there's a sudden leap in our imaginations from the loincloth to the union suit, isn't there? Men's undergarments have always been primarily functional, that is, to keep a chap warm, dry and clean. The universal loincloth-styled garment served this purpose well, all through the fashions. But during the Victorian era, underwear also became associated with modesty and morality, which dictated that as little skin should be shown as possible. Hence, the union suit, so called because the top and bottom were united into a one-piece garment.
While the soldiers of the Civil War labored under the handmade, enveloping wool union suit, which during that era typically buttoned down the front with a drop seat (it wasn't available in many varying designs of crotch closure for convenience and hygiene until the first half the 20th Century), the mass production in factories during the Reconstruction made men's underwear and industry unto itself. By the beginning of the 20th Century, men, women and children were in drop-seat union suits, wrist to ankle, winter through summer. Likewise, in the early 1900s men, women and children sweated a lot.
Shortly before WWI, undergarments were made of mesh fabrics and sometimes came in two-piece for the more active gent. After the war, convenience and comfort began to take priority — and this design consideration centered around the crotch. Closed-crotch designs achieved through various draping and sewing of fabric eliminated the need for buttons. But still, men couldn't pee standing up without a rather elaborate undressing.
BOXERS OR BRIEFS ... OR BOTH?
In the 1930s, the patented Jockey Y-front with overlapping fly garment was being manufactured in both long and short lengths. Today, we call it the brief. Then along came the boxer short, inspired by the loose, full-fit trunks worn by prize fighters; the elastic waist made buttons unnecessary.
During WWII rubber was in short supply for anything but military purposes, so the woven waistband with two side buttons was introduced. And if you've ever wondered why the army is in olive drab right down to their skivvies, an ad from Jockey explains the logic: A spot of white against coral sand or tropic green makes a bull's eye for the enemy. Patches of white draw gunfire; they show troops are there. Olive drab blends in with its background...
Who wants to attract enemy fire when hanging out their undies to dry?
With the war shortages over, boxers and briefs in the 1950s were now snazzy in a wide variety of colors and prints. Although cotton had been the classic, synthetic blends became popular. Nearer to the 1960s, nylon tricot briefs with a new, no-fly front were introduced in wild animal patterns. (Envision the predecessor of the men's bikini.)
Now that the union suit is relegated to cold-wether sportswear, the debate remains — boxers or briefs? Or, that boxer-brief hybrid, the boxer brief? Traditionally, boys start off with briefs, then graduated to boxers. While this rite of passage persists, the introduction of the boxer brief in the 1990s satisfies men seeking the support of the brief and a no-visible-pantylines aesthetic.
VINTAGE STYLES FOR THE MODERN MAN
An alternate solution to the age-old boxers versus briefs debate may just be to step back in time and reintroduce the idea of elastic-free drawers to a new generation. In 1998, research for a project led graphic designer Eric Baird to peruse back issues of the Sears and JC Penny catalogs, which depicted many of the old styles of men's underwear. What started as a personal interest became a commercial one when Baird realized that it was cheaper to have many pairs reproduced instead of just one, and the Vintage Skivvies was born. Currently manufactured by American Made Apparel in Denver, the line of retro-inspired undergarments features tie-side drawers, which were standard issue to American soldiers during WWII. The appeal is both "comfort and novelty," explains Baird. "They are also something to talk about."
In founding his company. Baird "went on a gut feeling that Internet e-commerce is hot, vintage is hot, men's underwear is hot." And while his initial target demographic is anyone who rides a board — snowboard, wakeboard, skateboard — he believes his products will reach "anyone who wears underwear." Baird sees a potential client in the polished professional, as well as the youth quake with plenty of discretionary cash. He notes that the yoke-front drawers work as well under a suit as under baggy pants, and is quick to point out that the vintage-inspired line is not just for men: the button fly on the tie-side shorts is very accomidating to the ladies.
And that may ultimately be the deciding factor in the great underwear debate: when choosing between boxers, briefs and vintage-inspired styles, pick the ones your honey prefers.