On this day in 1935, during a blizzard, the first pair of men’s briefs were sold by Coopers Inc. at Marshall Field’s department store in Chicago Illinois. They were designed by a man called Arthur Kneibler, who got the idea when a friend sent him a postcard showing the tight bathing costumes that were being worn on the French Riviera. Okay, maybe not quite like these ones on the right, but it’s a great picture. Previously men’s underwear was all about boxer shorts. These appeared around 1925 and are so named because they were designed originally for boxers. What was different about the new briefs was that they provided a degree of support similar to that found in a jockstrap. This is an odd garment that was designed to protect the genitals of men whilst they were riding bicycles or playing sports. For this reason, the new underwear became known as ‘jockeys’ in the US, while in the UK they are called Y-fronts because they have Y-shaped opening at the front. They were terribly popular, 30,000 pairs were sold in the first three months alone. When they arrived in the UK in 1938, they sold at an average of 3,000 pairs a week.
So today seems like as good a day as any to have a look at the history of men’s underwear. Back in ancient Egypt, a loin cloth was the favoured garment, a long strip of cloth that was passed between the legs and tied around the waist.. King Tutankhamun was buried with 145 loincloths, so he must have been expecting a bit of trouble in the afterlife. In the middle ages men wore “braies” which were baggy calf-length drawers They had an opening at the front and a drawstring waist. Peasants wore them, kings wore them, knights wore them underneath their armour. It was all there was. But if he was rich, a man might also wear ‘chausses’ over the top that only covered the legs, rather like stockings.
During the Renaissance, the braies became shorter and chausses gave way to tighter ‘hose’. These were still worn like the chausses, one on each leg. In fact, it was quite the thing to wear a different colour on each leg. At the same time tunics became shorter, which left men with a bit of a problem. A gap between the legs of the hose and the bottom of the tunic, resulting in what wikipedia calls ‘under-disguised genitals’. This was when the codpiece was invented. Originally, it was just a small triangular piece of cloth that covered the gap and could be easily unfastened. The word ‘cod’ means scrotum. Then, somehow, the codpiece became larger and shaped to emphasise rather than conceal. It could be that men just wanted to pretend that they had an enormous penis, or it could have been that their codpieces were packed with wads of cotton that were soaked in the medication they hoped would cure their syphilis. Codpieces are extremely visible in paintings from the mid-sixteenth century. Even suits of armour had metal codpieces attached to them.
By the 1590’s ornamental codpieces had rather fallen out of favour. Men’s fashion began to lean more towards big frilly collars and wide, padded trunk hose. People started to think huge codpieces were a bit silly (the frills and massive pants were fine though). After that, things calmed down a bit and men wore simple knee-length underpants with a buttoned flap at the front. This later became an all in one garment with attached vest that had all sorts of convenient flaps so you didn’t have to take them off. The jock-strap came along during the industrial revolution, when men found themselves riding bicycles through cobbled streets. This was followed by boxer shorts and briefs and we’re really back where we started. The new supportive briefs were said to do for men’s genitals what the bra did for women’s breasts, stop them wobbling around. Oddly though, while women are quite happy to have different cup sizes for their bras, there are no different pouch sizes for men’s underpants. I can’t help feeling that men ought to look into this, they could be missing out on a whole world of comfort.