Table of Contents
I. A Firm Foundation 11
II. Unmentionables 1800-1899 31
III. Under Fashion 1900-1980 57
IV. Tighty-Whities and Beyond 1980 – Today 101
V. Best Foot Forward: Hose, Stockings and Socks 153
VI. The Big Sell: Underwear Advertising 187
There have been many books on the history and significance of underclothes, some concentrating on particular aspects of underwear and others offering a historic overview. However, men’s underwear has frequently been relegated to a back seat in such works. When it is addressed, it is often in relation to the technical or social development and aspects of women’s underwear. Histories of both men’s and women’s fashion tend to marginalise or ignore the development of men’s underwear. One of the chief reasons for this is the comparative simplicity (in comparison to women’s) and almost utilitarian aspects of men’s underwear.
Publications that have been dedicated exclusively to men’s underwear have often addressed the subject as a humorous exercise, reflecting the way in which images of men in popular culture are presented for comic effect, such as Rhys Ifans opening the front door in baggy grey Y-fronts in the film English romantic comedy film Notting Hill (1999). However, as Gaetano Savini-Brioni, of the Italian tailoring company Brioni, asked in 1961, “Why should a man look a figure of fun in his underclothes?…
A man should be dressed with as much care as a woman down to his vest and pants.” 1 Men’s underwear deserves to be viewed less comically and with attention to its importance in fashion and cultural history, and as a key item in any man’s wardrobe. As trade journal Men’s Wear noted in April 1933 “Underwear should have the grace of Apollo, the romance of Byron, the distinction of Lord Chesterfield and the ease, coolness and comfort of Mahatma Gandhi.” 2
Histories of women’s underwear have discussed the role of underwear in the seduction of men and its role as a prop in the spectacle of men looking at women. Curator and fashion historian Richard Martin, meanwhile, noted that men’s clothing was a “sign and register of the modern”. 3 Considering both of these points leads to a number of questions in relation to men’s underwear. How and why do men choose their underwear? Is it for comfort and practicality or for the moment when it is revealed or exposed? Do men choose and buy their own underwear for themselves, or do mothers, wives and girlfriends undertake this? (Addressed in cultural historian Jennifer Craik’s “set of denials” – “that women dress men and buy clothes for men” and “that men dress for comfort and fit rather than style”.) 4 Does men’s underwear reflect modernity and the changes in masculinity? Is underwear in fact private? Is men’s underwear related to the seduction of the opposite sex (or the same sex?) In an age when the male body is an object of sexual and social spectatorship, is the presentation of the underwear clad body for women, or is it homoerotic or homosocial?
Clothing both hides and draws attention to the body. The part of the body that is usually first to be covered (for reasons of protection or modesty) is the genitals but, as anthropologists have demonstrated, cache-sexe garments are often used to draw attention to the body beneath. In his study of the loincloth, Otto Steinmayer recorded that “Usually people have felt that they ought to render the genitals symbolically harmless with some covering or decoration … to ornament it, humanize it and socialize it” 5 and fashion historian Valerie Steele believed that such ornamentation “preceded – and takes precedence over – considerations of warmth, protection and sexual modesty.” 6
Underclothing comprises of all garments that are worn either completely or mainly concealed by an outer layer of clothing: covered as the body is covered. Just as a person wearing underwear is “simultaneously dressed and undressed” 7 so underwear can be both private and secret, or a public form of clothing. Until the twentieth century the development of men’s underwear was predominantly unseen and the prevailing attitude was “out of sight, out of mind.” It was, Jennifer Craik wrote, as if “keeping men’s underclothes plain and functional could secure male bodies as a bulwark against unrestrained sexuality.” 8 This does, however, belie the dynamics of technological and stylistic change.
Over the last one hundred years, men’s underwear has become increasingly visible and public, something not all men have been happy about, as demonstrated by journalist Rodney Bennet-England in 1967: “what he wears – or doesn’t wear – under his trousers is largely his own affair.” 9 Men’s (and women’s) underwear has served a number of purposes: for protection; for cleanliness; for modesty and morality; to support the shape of the outer clothes; as an indicator of social status and; for erotic or sexual appeal. Underwear has offered protection to the body it covers in two ways.
The additional layer acts as a temperature moderator, providing extra warmth and protecting the body from cold or keeping the body cool. It also minimises irritation and abrasion from rough fabrics. At the same time, underwear protects outer garments from bodily dirt and odours by providing a hygienic and more easily cleaned layer. Frequent changing of underwear offered a means of personal hygiene when bathing was not regularly possible or encouraged. Concepts of “clean” and “dirty” “inside” and “outside” played a part in the role assigned to underwear in (particularly religious) teachings on morality and the body. Related to notions of morality are those of modesty. The naked body was often deemed unacceptable, and so underwear acted as a means of covering certain areas and preventing embarrassment on the part of the wearer and any spectators. Whilst women’s underwear played an often vital role in supporting the shape of outer clothes, this has been less important for men’s underwear. Prior to the late nineteenth-century, padding and corsetry was employed by men to create an ideal fashionable body shape beneath outer layers. Although men’s underwear has been predominantly invisible, certain sections have been on view and the visible fabric and its cleanliness was used as an indicator of the class and social status of the wearer. Historically, men’s underwear was not considered to be erotic or sexually alluring in the same way as women’s underwear. However, in addressing the British costume historian James Laver’s theory of the shifting erogenous zone, Valerie Steele determined that male sexuality was centred on the genitals. 10 Men’s underwear can, therefore, be seen to reflect and enhance sexuality and sensuousness, especially when considered alongside the idea that concealment plays a part in the eroticism of clothing: calling attention to what is beneath those clothes. Men’s underwear and the increasing public representation of underwear-clad men’s bodies played a part in sexual attractiveness and sexual attraction, ensuring that men’s underwear was not enjoyed by the wearer alone.
The history of the writing and documenting of men’s underclothes has seen a shift in disciplines over the past fifty years. Initially it was studied as a part of costume history, as in the cases of C. Willet and Phillis Cunnington’s 1951 The History of Underclothes and Jeremy Farrell’s 1992 Socks and Stockings (both crucial to the research of this book), but in recent years the approach shifted towards Cultural Studies with a much broader understanding and analysis of the garments and their social and cultural contexts, including the presentation and merchandising of men’s underwear. Therefore, the history of men’s underwear could be characterised, as Richard Martin noted “as a progression in technology, invention, and cultural definition”. 11