The style, color and material of a person’s underwear can give away a lot about them as a person, and that is nothing new. The history and evolution of men’s underwear is fascinating, and often extremely telling of the way society saw men and how things like their undergarments were viewed.
Of course, a lot of fashion (including that of underwear) changed from culture to culture: the ancient Egyptian loincloths, called Schenti, were made with linen and tied toward the front. Knee-length Braies worn by Celtic aristocrats were loose-fitting linen trousers, later fitted with a frontal flap (called the codpiece) which could be unfastened, allowing men to go to the bathroom without having to remove the trousers entirely. The jockstrap of the late 19th century protected the family jewels from the uneven cobblestone surfaces of Boston.
But what about the advertising that was used to sell them? What features or qualities did the men of those times want to (or were perceived to) enhance? There are so many eras to look at, so let’s start with the roaring twenties:
Men’s Underwear Ads in the 1920s
In this decade, men’s underwear ads strangely contain images of men standing around, talking to each other with “manly” objects such as weights, riding crops, and even spears. Many ads emphasized the “health” benefits or ability for underwear to conceal extra weight. The development of lighter fabrics like cotton, linen, silk, and breathable rayon were advertised as healthier and more versatile. Men continued to wear what were referred to as “union suits”- these were often long sleeved and covered the full leg.
Boxer shorts were slow to catch on. Popular colors were blue, mauve, and peach in silk or cotton. In 1929, clothing companies introduced rubber in the waistband of loose undershorts rather than a tie string. These companies later introduced a fly that opened to the side, which was quite modern for those days!
Men’s Underwear Ads in the 1930s
Around this time, companies began selling buttonless drawers fitted with an elastic waistband. These were the first true boxer shorts, which were named for their resemblance to the shorts worn by professional fighters. This new modern underwear and athletic style was emphasized in the ads, with modern, busy men in suits and athletic young men – still talking to one another in their underwear in locker rooms and living rooms.
In 1935, Coopers Inc. sold the world's first briefs in Chicago. Designed by an apparel engineer named Arthur Kneibler, briefs no longer featured leg sections and had a Y-shaped overlapping fly. Coopers Inc. later changed their company name to Jockey, which led to underwear being colloquially referred to as “jocks”.
Men’s Underwear Ads in the 1940s
The 1940s brought about photos and images of men pointing at other men in “old-fashioned” loose boxers, and laughing at them. There’s also some rather suggestive imagery of men on old fashioned boxers pillow-fighting in a dorm room, as well as images that suggest buyers will feel super human in their new shorts. “Look good… feel good… be twice them an in Y-FRONT,” reads one Lyle and Scott add.
Interestingly, the Second World War seemed to color of men’s underwear in this decade. Shorts (not called boxers yet) were worn by soldiers in summertime, and though they were at first white, were quickly changed to olive instead. A wartime advert featured the headline “Target: White Underwear”. It warned “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.”
Aside from the wartime element, other ads of the 1940s featured men having conversations, drinking tea and even hanging out with an extra-terrestrial friend, all in their briefs.
Men’s Underwear Ads in the 1950s
The 1950s man had been through a lot and was ready for a bright future. All ads were now in color, and there was a sharp incline in the number of underwear adverts featuring adolescent boys - one with a group of boys attending some kind of business school and one boy putting a gun in his waistband.
It’s likely that this bizarre turn in the taste for advertising came from a post-war generation that wanted boys to grow into men quickly. This new air of domesticity was likely designed to appeal more to the female reader, as most wives chose and bought their husbands’ underwear for them. This perhaps compensatory emphasis on heterosexual marriages may have come from advertisers’ realisation of the ambiguity of relationships that were depicted in pre-war adverts.
Men’s Underwear Ads in the 1960sThe new styles of men’s underwear coincided with a sexual revolution and a second rise of feminism in American society in the 1960s. People in general were becoming more liberal (in comparison to the previous generation) and this was certainly reflected in the adverts of the time. Men's underwear was regularly printed in loud patterns, or with messages or images such as cartoon characters. In some ads, men with long hair stand in their underwear with handfuls of flowers – reflecting the hippy movement, while straight-laced brands have well-groomed men stand grinning with their sons.
Men’s Underwear Ads in the 1970sAnd suddenly men are just as sexualized as women! The sexual revolution and second rise of feminism the decade before changed the way men’s underwear was sold. According to Daniel Delis Hill’s Advertising to the American Woman, 1900-1999, “deriving from these two social changes was the launch of the beefcake magazine for women in the 1970s, which in turn paved paths for advertisers to objectify the male figure into a sexual prop.” The tight jeans of the 1970s pushed briefs back into favor, which was just as well, because the main selling point of underwear across the board, was sex appeal! In these ads, there are plenty of tighty-whities and 70s ‘stashes that must have given Tom Selleck inspiration.
Men’s Underwear Ads in the 1980sThis decade saw bigger hair and smaller undies! The sexual undertones of the ‘70s ads was still prevalent, and the clean, boy-next-door look became fashionable. Most underwear was colorful by now, and that can be seen in the ads. There’s a return here to the ads of the 20s, 30s, and 40s, with men standing around talking in their underwear and leaning on one another. One ad even featured a man shaving outside in his matching orange underwear and t-shirt set with a pure white cowboy hat and read, “The Great American Fit for the Great American Male.” Who wouldn’t rush out to buy a pair after seeing that ad?
Men’s Underwear Ads in the 1990s
Underwear manufacturers like Calvin Klein produced highly sexualized adverts, with male models’ hands on their crotches and female models standing topless with them. This level of sexuality was nothing new, and the world was a much more liberal place, but the odd heteronormative idea of women buying men’s underwear for them remained. A Jockey ad from 1994 featured the slogan “If a woman buys you the Jockey pouch, take it as a compliment”. If there wasn’t a woman in these ads, the men stood alone against a plain background or with a towel.
It’s clear that the advertising of men’s underwear has been hugely affected by societal changes: updating of how women and men interact, wartime necessities, the definition of a new “normal” relationship and the introduction of feminism all played a part in the gradual changing of fashion in men’s underwear. It’s interesting that large-name brands like Armani still aim their ads at women – or at least anyone who wants a piece of (or to look like) a soccer star!
Feeling inspired to buy yourself some new underwear? If your underwear drawer is looking drab and boring, it’s time to treat yourself or your partner – see my full range of handmade underwear here. If your whites are looking grey after just a few runs in the washer, you need to read 3 Reasons You Should Hand Wash Your Underwear next!