A brief history of gentlemen’s briefs

If you are planning to build a comprehensive wardrobe of clothing that has got all bases covered, it makes sense to start at the bottom. Historically, the male of the species has neglected to invest in undergarments for himself, perhaps because, with the exception of the occasional subculture (and Superman), it is still considered ungentlemanly to reveal them in public. Therefore, if this bare essential element of clothing is only to be seen by one’s partner, physician or personal tailor - like hole-ridden socks covered by shoes - why bother?

Kirk Alyn as "Superman" (1948)

Attitudes have of course changed, and unmentionables are now openly discussed, branded, marketed and (as companies jockey for position) developed with technical wizardry to suggest that gentlemen's genitalia can now be cosseted like never before. Since the 1990s, consumer ads featuring celebrity abs to endorse products and ensure broadcasts get bums on seats, have helped the market for smalls to become increasingly large. Since men dropped their dreary drawers in favour of more desirable duds, the global market for gent’s underwear has grown from $8bn in 2014 and is estimated to reach $12bn by 2020.

Kate Moss and Mark Wahlberg for Calvin Klein (1992)

Undergarments were created to perform the basic functions of preventing clothes chafing bodies and bodies soiling clothes. With design, production, taste and fashion varying dramatically over time, we decided to investigate the beginning of man covering his end, and explore the evolution of stylish skivvies.

John Richardson with Raquel Welch in leather loincloth (c1,000,000 BC) 

The earliest undies to have been unearthed were discovered by archaeologists and dated to approximately 5,000 years BC. It is assumed that the disintegrated diaper-like leather loincloth would’ve been passed between prehistoric legs and wrapped around the waist in a natty-napper mode. The design became well established and was apparently adopted by Egyptian king Tutankhamun (1341 BC – 1323 BC) whose tomb was found to contain 145 linen loincloths (one can never have too many). The linen used had 200 threads per inch, compared to 50 for the average Egyptian…. Pharaohs demanded quantity AND quality.

A small selection of King Tut's vast underwear collection

Several centuries later, the Ancient Greeks continued to walk like an Egyptian with loincloths covering their nether regions - although there is speculation that this became demoted to slave-wear, with privileged classes going commando underneath their chitons. The Romans mixed it up, using loincloths or drawstring shorts to protect their privates (whenever they were not in use) and by the Middle Ages, men’s bloomers had blossomed into calf-length baggy pants known as “braies”.  

Men of the Middle Ages getting their knickers in a twist

During the Renaissance period, tight fitting doublet and hose became standard garb for men about town, and loose-fitting braies were abandoned in favour of shorter, slimmer models designed with a button or tied flap which could be released for quick relief. The contraption soon evolved into the cod-piece (from Middle-English: "cod", meaning scrotum) which could be padded and shaped to enhance the cut of one's jib. Henry VIII regularly displayed a king-sized cod, but it is suspected that his piece may have contained bandages soaked in ointment to cure syphilis, an epidemic disease which spread throughout Europe in the 16th century.

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein (c1536)

Trussed-up Tudor style was followed, over the next several centuries, by more modest means of covering cods. Underwear, again, became longer and simplified. These far less troublesome trollies were eventually paired with matching undershirts until, in 1868, the two pieces were combined into one with the introduction of the "union suit". Created in Utica, New York, the suits had a button-up front and a buttoned flap around the rear - colloquially known as the "access hatch", "drop seat" and "crap flap". The garment remained popular in North America well into the 20th century.

The "union suit" illustrated by J.C.Leyendecker

Shortly after the introduction of the union suit, a revolution occurred in response to the cries of support needed for the jangling genitals of cyclists riding their bicycles along cobblestone streets. In 1874, the jockstrap was invented by C. F. Bennett of Chicago sporting goods company, Sharp & Smith, to provide comfort and protection to "bike jockeys". 

Neat packaging provided by the Bike Jockey Strap Suspensory

Meanwhile, back in England, Victorian gentlemen continued to wear separate pieces - usually "long johns" combined with a long-sleeved undershirt. Long johns get their name from the venerable British fine-gauge knitwear manufacturer John Smedley, who began producing the original garments in 1825. They were not named, as one would suspect, after the gentleman who founded the business in 1784, but in fact christened with reverence to the sporting legend John L. Sullivan, the first heavyweight champion of gloved boxing, and the last heavyweight champion of bare-knuckle boxing under the London Prize Ring Rules.

John L Sullivan pictured late in his career (1898)

Influence in underwear design continued to be taken from the boxing ring when, in 1925, Jacob Golomb, founder of boxing equipment company Everlast, realised that the leather-belted trunks (worn by pugilists such as Jack Dempsey) would be more comfortable if the leather was replaced with elastic. He further went on to produce a featherweight version, and the boxer short was born.

Jack Dempsey: World Heavyweight Boxing Champion (1919-1926) 

Following on from the development of the jockstrap, the introduction of Y-fronts in 1935 managed to stir loins on both sides of the Atlantic. The product was designed by an "apparel engineer" called Arthur Kneibler (working at the time for Coopers Inc) and marketed under the Jockey International brand. Over 30,000 pairs of "masculine support" briefs were sold across America in the first 3 months of launch. When they arrived in the UK in 1938, they sold at a rate of 3,000 per week, but their arrival was soon to be challenged by a historic British manufacturer.

Jockey Y-Front advertisement (c1940s)

Sunspel was founded in 1860 by Thomas Hill who opened his textile factory in Newdigate, Nottingham. Some of the earliest garments made included tunics and undershirts in fine, lightweight cotton. In 1947, the company decided to introduce American-style boxer shorts to the UK market with the aim of perfecting the product. The first Sunspel boxers were made from Sea Island cotton and designed for comfort. All seams were double turned and felled flat to the fabric (to avoid irritation) and the unique back panel was cut without a centre-seam (to avoid wedgies).

Sunspel boxer short advertisement (1949)

In Post-War Britain, the battle of boxers versus briefs had begun. Whilst some consumers were committed to dressing on one side or the other, many preferred to keep their balls in the air and be free to swing in a particular direction depending upon their mood or market influence. In the mid 1980s, boxers were given a boost by the release of a Levi's television commercial featuring an English model (Nick Kamen) stripping down to his Sunspel shorts in a 1950s-style public laundromat. The ad resulted in a dramatic increase in the sales of Levi's 501s and Sunspel boxers. It also led to the re-release of Marvin Gaye's "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" which reached number 8 in the UK charts.

Levi's "Launderette" television commercial (1985)

In an attempt to call a truce on the battle of the bulges, the underwear industry developed a hybrid solution in the form of a stretch-knit short called the "boxer-brief". This provided the longer length (favoured undoubtedly as a reaction against the ultra-brief briefs of the 1970s) combined with the support of the Y-Front. Technical fibres then entered the mix, and boxer-briefs began (with some irony) to resemble contemporary cycling shorts. More recently, the fashion for low-rise trousers forced underwear design to follow suit, and the shorter "trunk" rose in popularity. Today, following 7,000 years of evolution, there has never been a more comprehensive range of men's underwear available, or a better time for man to be at peace with his piece.