How men's underwear briefs came to be

Men like that pulled-together, protected feel

Jockey-style underwear and other types of briefs still far outsell boxers.
  • Jockey-style underwear and other types of briefs still far outsell boxers.
  • Image by Rick Geary

Dear Matthew Alice: We have been taking a survey among our male relatives, friends, lovers, and boss and have been unable to ascertain why men’s briefs are made with that crazy “tunnel” sewn into the front. It seems like a lot of extra fabric, labor, and engineering for something nobody seems to use. We understand the double-thickness theory, but isn’t it just too much trouble to weave “it” through the hole? Everyone, with the exception of my father, seems to think so. Then why do the manufacturers bother? — The Gals at SCHI, somewhere in Faxville

Thanks, gals. It’s been a while since I’ve been asked to take a peek into the nation’s underwear. I appreciate the opportunity. Though, all in all, the men’s variety isn’t quite as lively as women’s — historywise, anyway. Women were late bloomers, if you will, in the unmentionables derby, but once they got going, they certainly made up for lost time. So here it is, another Matt Al undie-cover expose.

For the most part, nobody much worried about below-the-waist underclothes until the Middle Ages. And even then, women must have been off doing something else, because only men adopted the practical idea of wrapping everything up in a sort of loincloth and securing it all with a string. The invention of scratchy metal-threaded brocade fabrics seems to have had something to do with it. All this applied only to the upper classes. The proles went undie-less.

Actually, medieval men wore linen underclothes, of a sort, under every part of their outer clothes. This was as much to save on the dry cleaning bills as for comfort. Bathing fell out of fashion for a couple of centuries in Europe, and the linen absorbed sweat and put a barrier between a man’s grubby body and his expensive clothes. It was easier to clean the linen than the brocade and fur.

Gradually the diaper look disappeared, replaced by two separate cloth tubes, one for each leg, that were tied around the waist, leaving a significant gap in the middle. Since their breeches, too, were front-gapped, you can bet that 15th-century life became breezier and more interesting as fashion dictated shorter and shorter jackets. For a while in the early Renaissance, it was not unusual to see men otherwise stylishly covered in layers of cloth, but with their genitals fully exposed. The separate tubes then became leotard-like stockings that still left little to the public imagination. As a corrective measure in the middle of the 1500s, the fur-lined leather codpiece was fashionable for comfort, protection, and a sort of silent bragging. It was inspired by similar devices on suits of armor.

By the 1800s, when thin was in, men took to wearing what we’d call union suits or longjohns—a close-fitting, one-piece top and bottom, button-up-the-front style. And that was pretty much it until the 1920s. As a side note, the “hourglass figure” rage of the mid-1800s that squashed women into crushing corsets was so influential that even some men adopted it. The fashion-conscious Victorian male was lured with ads showing carefully coiffed and mustachioed gents wearing (over their union suits) pecs-to-navel boned corsets that gave them perfect 36-24-36 figures, according to the accompanying diagrams.

Oh, by the way, women in Europe didn’t wear underpants until the early 1800s. Just thought I’d throw that in.

As we broke out of the Victorian grip, the world of sports (boxing and swimming) began to influence underwear. The Army issued “boxer” shorts as summer underclothes for infantrymen, and they carried over to civilian wear. But Jockey International led the briefs breakthrough in the early 1930s, when they stole a fashion trend from the French Riviera — men’s short elastic-knit bathing suits (bottoms only) — and offered them as the newest thing in men’s underwear. These briefs had no fly at all. When Jockey patented its so-called inverted-Y-front design in 1936, the fly and the mysterious “tunnel” were born. Other companies immediately offered their own versions, and the boxer-versus-briefs competition was launched, the psychological split between the grippies and the loosies.

Which is a long way around to say, the seemingly odd overlap of fabric is there partly for extra “absorption,” as the industry coyly puts it, and as added coverage and control. Jockey’s Y-front design, touted as the first “support” underwear, resulted in this large double thickness. Men who wear briefs seem to like that pulled-together, protected feel. (As the Jockey-wearing Kramer put it on Seinfeld recently, “My boys need a home!”) The weakest point in this armor, the fly, shouldn’t gap as the man moves around. The boxer brigade, on the other hand, likes things looser, freer. Their personalities are generally less “uptight,” the industry says. The resulting tunnel in the briefs is a small if irritating price to pay for the feel of safety and reassurance.

Jockey-style underwear and other types of briefs still far outsell boxers, though the trend toward boxers as men’s and women’s outerwear, the baggy-pants style in jeans, and the more liberated attitude of the 20s generation finds boxers slugging their way to the forefront. But whatever the style, it’s still true that women do the shopping for their men’s scanties. Which probably accounts for the proliferation of leopard-print G-strings on the rack next to the sensible Munsingwear grippies.

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