From Breeches to Boxers: The History of Men's Underwear

Submitted by SharpMan Editorial Team on Thursday 14th October 2010
In this article
  • Ever-evolving undergarments.
  • Making a statement.
  • It’s all in the package.

You slip them on every day, but have you ever stopped to think where they came from? We don’t mean Bloomingdale’s or Marshall Field’s. Those ultra-comfy boxers or briefs — whether they’re Calvin Klein, Joe Boxer or Hanes — have quite a history. After all, the smooth fabrics and flexible materials of today are a world away from Adam’s fig leaves or Caesar’s loincloth.

A clever Web site, www.VintageSkivvies.com ®, has dug up the dirt on man’s favorite undergarment. Here, SharpMan.com gives you a glimpse of some of the highlights of the fun, witty world of VintageSkivvies.com®.

Ever-evolving Undergarments

Whether, union suits or loincloths, men’s undergarments have been changing styles, fabrics and looks long before Mark Walberg ever filled out a pair of Calvin Klein’s. But it wasn’t until the World Wars that men’s underwear became a glitter in the eye of the boxers and briefs of today. The Industrial Revolution saw men’s underwear blast off into a full-fledged industry. By this point, Hanes had opened several mills and every man, woman and child was wearing a union suit, a one-piece garment that covers both the upper and lower torso.

By the 1930s, union suits were on the way out and briefs — made popular by a little company called Jockey — were all the rage. In fact, once the Jockey shorts appeared in the window of Marshall Field’s, 30,000 pairs were sold in the first three months. In the meantime, drawers were quickly being revolutionized by the advent of the elastic band. As you might have guessed, the birth of the boxer short soon followed.

Making a Statement

Men’s underwear was held hostage during World War II (advertisements read: Uncle Sam needs rubber so Jockey waste bands are no longer all-elastic). To make matters worse, the troops quickly found that hanging out their "tighty-whities" was a bad idea — it attracted enemy fire. Soon, the military declared olive drab the official men’s underwear color. But changes were on the horizon. The 1950s found a whole new market for skivvies. As war shortages went by the wayside, 1950s men got frisky. Nylon tricot briefs filled the shelves in a variety of colors; "skants," early bikini underwear in animal prints, were introduced; and boxers became "Fancy Pants," playful New Year’s Eve boxers that laid the path for the crazy Joe Boxer types of today.

It’s All in the Package

SharpMen are very proud of their packages. Maybe that’s why men’s underwear packaging has been in a constant state of change. Union suits were once found wrapped in tissue paper, but in the 1920s boxed underwear became a staple, as it was considered a "mark of distinction." Regardless, since increased sales generally translates into more cost-effective packaging, by the 1940s and ‘50s, boxers and briefs came cellophane-wrapped and then plastic-wrapped, per the 1950’s motto "plastics make things better."

What’s Your Skivvies Savvy?

Do you know your Balbriggan from a Gusset? Take this SharpQuiz to find out how well you know your unmentionables. Just match the skivvies-minded word (listed as a number on the RIGHT) to its correct definition (listed as a letter on the LEFT) — and try not to get your boxers in a bundle.

SharpQuiz

Definition Term
  1. A design for men’s drawers in which there is a separate fitted or shaped piece of fabric in front, just below the waistband. Similar to the fitted or shaped piece that can appear at the shoulder, front or back of a man’s shirt.
  2. A fabric’s ability to pull sweat and moisture away from the skin.
  3. A male one-piece (or later two piece) undergarment that covers both the upper and lower torso. Available in many designs of crotch closure for convenience and hygiene in the first half of the 20th century.
  4. An early Celtic garment consisting of loose-fitting breeches and hose, knitted into one piece, and worn by Highlanders as they walked the moors of Scotland.
  5. Term, used as a noun, to indicate an undergarment. Use arose in the Victorian era at the close of the 19th century when it was considered an impropriety to mention an undergarment by its proper name in public.
  6. A tight-fitting garment designed to reduce friction. Used to describe types of shorts worn by runners, or a kind of trunks or briefs worn by swimmers.
  7. The type of long (ankle-length) wool, fitted drawers first worn in public by John L. Sullivan as a boxing outfit.
  8. A process of preshrinking fabric patented by Cluett, Peabody and Co., Inc. The label means permanent fit — fabric shrinkage held to one percent.
  9. A special measuring method copyrighted by Coopers (Jockey). It assured you a perfect fit around the waist, and at the hip and crotch.
  10. A triangular-shaped swatch of fabric often sewed in the crotch area of men’s drawers to create a better fit and more freedom of movement.
  11. A laundry-proof snap fastener.
  12. A name used by Hanes in the 1940s for its unique design for men’s drawers in which the fabric was cut diagonally to the weave of the cloth, which permitted stretch when the wearer stopped, sat or walked.
  13. A design for men’s drawers in which the pattern calls for small tabs at the rear of the waistband, usually secured by buttons, for adjusting the size and fit at the waist.
  14. A knee-length or shorter undergarment, topping out at the waist. So-called because men drew on first one leg, then the other.
  15. Usually associated with women, a form of tight-fitting, body-enhancing undergarment also worn by men for centuries. On men it facilitated the upright, military stance considered masculine.
  16. A loose undergarment resembling a shirt. Often also used as a sleeping garment from the 15th century well into the 20th century.
  17. A term used in the Middle Ages for an undergarment, later refined into breeches, the predecessor of drawers.
  18. A design for men’s drawers in which the pattern calls for additional fabric to be provided in the rear panels. This creates a "balloon" effect over the seat, providing for ease of movement with less strain on fabric and the body.
  19. An Irish place name meaning Brigan’s townland, a town in Ireland. Also a fine jersey knit cotton for men’s underwear.
  20. An athletic (or sleeveless) undershirt, usually made of ribbed or flat-knotted fabric. Also called a tank top.
  1. Unmentionable
  2. Gripper Fasteners
  3. Chemise
  4. A-Shirt
  5. Hip-Tape
  6. Union Suit
  7. Balloon Seat
  8. Yoke Front
  9. Speed Shorts
  10. Gusset
  11. Drawers
  12. Wicking
  13. Balbriggan
  14. Givvies
  15. Corset
  16. Braises
  17. Long Johns
  18. Trews
  19. Sanforized
  20. French Back

Answers: 1, e; 2, k; 3, p; 4, t; 5, i; 6, c; 7, r; 8, m; 9, f; 10, j; 11, n; 12, b; 13, s; 14, l; 15, o; 16, q; 17, g; 18, d; 19, h; 20, a.

*Information courtesy of VintageSkivvies.com®.

Want to read more about underwear? Check out Men’s Underwear 101: A Brief Review of Boxers, Bikinis, Etc.

This article last updated on Thursday 14th October 2010
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