A brief history of men's underwear

From 19th-century ruffle-fronted shirts to 1990s Calvin Kleins, Shaun Cole, Associate Professor in Fashion at Winchester School of Art, explores the hidden history of men's underwear in this edited extract from the V&A book, 'Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear'.

Underwear is the most intimate of garments, pressed close to the body, whether it is exposed publicly or kept privately hidden beneath an outer layer. A person wearing underwear is "simultaneously dressed and undressed" (Valerie Steele, ‘Clothing and Sexuality’). Historically, those garments we now popularly understand as underwear were predominantly publicly unseen, in keeping with the prevailing attitude of 'out of sight, out of mind'. Today, while still primarily private, men's underwear has become increasingly visible and public, particularly through advertising and in popular visual culture.

Men's underwear has performed multiple purposes: for protection, modesty and adornment; as an indicator of social status; and for support and for sexual or erotic purposes. Underwear protects the body from the environment and abrasion from outer clothes, as well as those garments from the body. It preserves modesty, by keeping the body covered in socially and morally acceptable forms. The visible parts of undergarments offer opportunities for decoration and adornment. The number of garments owned and visibly displayed beneath outerwear can give an indication of the wearer's social status. Men's underwear has supported the genitals as well as shaping the waist, torso and legs. It reflects and enhances sexuality and sensuousness, particularly when considered in the context of the role that concealment plays in the eroticism of clothing, calling attention to the body beneath the clothes.

'Keep Your Shirt On!': From under to outer – shirts and T-shirts

Until the early 20th century, shirts were regarded as undergarments, serving the purposes of protection and modesty, and as indicators of wealth or social status. From the mid-16th century, clean white linen had increasingly been seen as the marker of the courtier and changing the shirt daily became normal for men in court circles. At the beginning of the 19th century, ruffle-fronted shirts had become the general fashion for both day and evening, and indicated that a man was not a manual worker. During the 1820s these frill-fronted shirts began to lose their popularity for daywear and were replaced by a front panel with vertical pleats or tucks. By the 1840s the daywear shirt front had become increasingly plain and, with the combination of a high-cut waistcoat and cravat, was practically hidden. The high buttoning of waistcoats and coats continued throughout the 19th century for formal day wear, leaving just the collar and cuffs showing. By the early 20th century, with a change to a less formal outerwear, the shirt had lost its status as underwear to become a key component of a man's outerwear wardrobe.

Ruffle-fronted shirt, 1800 – 1810, Britain. Museum no. T.16-2019 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The 1840s saw the introduction of the woollen vest or 'under-vest', which was "generally made of fine calico" (The Workwoman's Guide, 1840). Even though this 'undershirt' was worn next to the skin and under the shirt, it retained the name given to flannel under-waistcoats that had previously been worn for extra warmth. Knitted or flannel undershirts were worn by labouring men because, as well as keeping them warm in winter, they absorbed sweat and were easily washable. Such undershirts were also worn by sailors, and their transformation to the T-shirt has been attributed to naval adoption and adaption. In the years after the Second World War, most men still wore their T-shirts underneath their shirts. Enhanced by popular cinema-screen portrayals by Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and The Wild One (1953), and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), the T-shirt became part of the uniform of a rebellious teenager, and was transformed into outerwear. Fashion historian Valerie Steele described the T-shirt as, "the most significant and pervasive example of underwear as outerwear", which "flaunted rules about hidden clothing" and challenged "taboos ... against male sexual display".

'So comfortable, So smooth to the skin': Health, hygiene and comfort

The 19th century saw great developments in the approach to personal cleanliness, reflected in theories about 'hygienic dress'. German doctor and zoologist Hans Gustav Jaeger argued that it was crucial to wear wool next to the skin in order to encourage perspiration. As Jaeger objected to dyes, his woollen garments were all undyed and available in creamy white, a variety of light browns and dark brown. Most of the customers for Jaeger's designs were enlightened, upper-class puritans, or else progressive intellectuals such as playwright George Bernard Shaw, who embraced Jaeger's principles and ordered his first Jaeger suit on 19 June 1885.

Woollen shirt, worn by George Bernard Shaw, manufactured by Dr Jaeger's Co. Ltd., about 1884 – 1900, Britain. Museum no. S.1417-1984. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

By the early 20th century, opinions about the health properties of fabrics were changing to reflect general ideas about health and fitness. Alongside this demand for comfort, leading companies saw the benefit of patenting their innovations and promoting their brands through advertising. In 1937 the British clothes manufacturer Sunspel developed and patented a lightweight, breathable, woven, open (mesh-like) fabric, known as Quality 14 (Q14), and other companies also produced garments in similar fabrics. In addition to knitted cellular cottons, new manmade fibres such as rayon (developed in 1905) offered a lighter-weight and more comfortable alternative to the traditional heavier fabrics and were promoted in quasi-scientific terms. These particularly appealed to younger men, who were casting off outdated forms of outerwear. The increasing desire for comfort in men's underwear led to changes in the full-body, often cumbersome, one-piece woollen union suit. In 1914 the American underwear company B.V.D. introduced a sleeveless union suit with quarter-length legs, and by the 1920s this athletic union suit (so called because it resembled athletes' shorts and vests) was available in a variety of lighter-weight fabrics such as cotton, silk and poplin.

In achieving its protective function, the materiality of men's underwear was, and is, key. As a garment that sits directly upon the body, its physical contact with the skin was undeniable in its relevance. As, what sociologist Elizabeth Shove has called a 'boundary object', underwear creates a protective layer, both between the delicate corporeal surface and outer garments and from a cultural discomfort associated with nudity or nakedness. The choice of fabric, determined by scales of economy or fashionability, was key to the sense of comfort, an element emphasised in many underwear advertisements.

Mirroring the interest in athletic underwear of the 1920s and 1930s, the last decade of the 20th century saw a revival of interest in underwear designed to embrace healthy lifestyles, personal fitness and exercise. The inclusion of Lycra and new polyamide microfibres with moisture-wicking qualities, as well as seamless knitting technologies, reduced the build-up of sweat and minimised chafing. The continuing rise of sportswear impacted the design and presentation of underwear, and the language used to promote it emphasised the importance of the body as the site for which the garments are designed. This led to a preference for the use of the term 'bodywear'.

Shaping the male body

Prior to the late 19th century, padding and corsetry were employed by men to create an ideal fashionable body shape beneath outer layers. Stays or corsets were occasionally worn by army officers, fops and dandies to promote a smart appearance, as well as attain the correct and fashionable posture. A pinched-in waist and high collar was a staple of the fashionable dandy image in the early 19th century, caricatured in the etching The Acme of Fashion, showing 'y'r honor' lying on a table having his collar and cravat ironed to make it "as stiff and smooth as a Billiard table". This rigidity is reflected in the visible laced corset the nobleman wears over his shirt. The Workwoman's Guide of 1840 noted that corsets were worn by men during athletic activities such as horseback riding and hunting and 'violent exercise' echoing the servants' concern in The Acme of Fashion that 'y'r honor don't suffer much fatigue'.

The Acme of Fashion, or the secrets of the toilet discover'd, satirical print, 1820, Ireland. Museum no. E.467-1955 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The early 21st century has seen a return to underwear that enhances or 'constructs' the idealised male physique. In 2008 Andrew Christian released underpants with 'Anti-Muffin Top elastic' designed to help reduce the appearance of love handles. Such 'compression' technology was also used in undershirts and vests to 'transform the torso and chest', making the wearer "look sharper, stand taller and feel stronger", as claimed on the packaging for Spanx's 2010 shapewear T-shirt. Many compression garments (for both upper and lower body) were designed to support muscles and reduce injury during exercise, move moisture away from the body and provide anti-bacterial qualities, as well as body shaping.

(Left) Mens Zoned Performance V Neck "Manx", shapewear, designed by Sara Blakely for, Spanx, 2010, US. Museum no. T.214:1-2016. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. (Right) Packaging for Spanx Zoned Performance V-Neck T-shirt. 2010, US. Museum no. T.214:2-2016. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

New developments in the design of underpants enhanced the male body particularly the crotch. In 2007 Australian brand aussieBum introduced the 'Wonderjock', developed in response to customers who "expressed an interest in looking bigger, just like women using the Wonderbra". The Wonderjock used seams around the pouch and an additional pocket within the pouch front to 'push up' the genitals. Garments from Gregg Homme and C-IN2 included padding built into the pouch front, or integrated 'rings' that encircled the genitals pushing them upwards and forwards. This emphasis on the crotch and male virility in underwear was not new in the early 2000s. Comparisons can clearly be made to codpieces of the 15th and early 16th centuries that drew attention to the genital area and were often highly decorated. Codpieces were noteworthy not as sexual invitations to women but rather as symbols for social, temporal and territorial power. Writing in the 1960s about the new crotch-hugging trousers of that decade, and the skimpier underwear required for a good fit, journalist Rodney Bennett-England observed that "once again, we have a codpiece, albeit a concealed one, to give a fellow self-assurance" and produce "an overt bulge of masculinity". The recent trend for enhancement underwear demonstrates the concern that men have about their crotches, and references the supposed power that is associated with a large penis as a signifier of a more masculine man.

From private to public – designing and promoting men's underpants

Until the 1930s men's underwear was generally concealing of the body beneath. 19th-century underpants were of two lengths: short to be worn under breeches, and long for wearing under pantaloons and trousers. Variously made of knitted or woven linen, cotton, wool or silk, these followed shapes that had been developed in previous centuries to accommodate the fashionable styles of men's outer clothing. Of course, not all men wore such garments; those from lower classes often used their shirt tails pulled between their legs for protection and cleanliness. Changes in production and the increase in commercial manufacture resulted in innovations for front fastenings, back openings, ribbing for ankles and loops on the waistband for braces to pass through. Around the end of the 19th century, commercial manufacturers began to advertise their new, often patented, undergarments, highlighting their fit, comfort and construction. Sometimes these advertisements used the idealised male bodies of classical sculpture rather than real men's bodies, to avoid concerns about representation of the semi-clothed male body.

(Front and back views): Underpants, mid 19th century, England. Museum no. T.56-1959. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The American hosiery and underwear company Cooper's launched the Jockey Y-front in 1935, which marked a significant moment of change in men's underwear. The Y-front was based on the style of French briefs, or 'slips', and swimwear that Cooper's vice president Arthur Kneibler had seen on a postcard. Unlike many previous styles, Y-fronts provided 'masculine support' through the lastex (a form of elastic) leg openings and waistband (with the name woven into it), and knitted cotton fabric. Such support had previously only been available in an athletic supporter or 'jock strap', hence the name Jockey. Patented in 1887 by C.F. Bennett's Bike Web Company to provide support to bicycle riders on the cobbled streets of Boston, the jock strap comprised a cup of fabric with a waistband and straps which ran across the buttocks. As well as providing comfort and support, Cooper's jockey short had a patented overlapping inverted Y-shaped seamed fly opening. This was revolutionary in that it drew attention to the male genitals through its innovatively shaped seams around the fly.

Left to right: Bub, jockstrap, manufactured by Duribilknit, about 1947, US. Museum no. T.139-2015. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Y-front underpants, Jockey, 1986 – 7, England. Museum no. T.44-1987 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

To promote their garments, Cooper's (who changed their name to Jockey Menswear Inc. in 1971) licensed their designs in the United Kingdom and Australia, and produced advertisements that combined illustrations and photographs with witty straplines. Although many other brands produced versions of briefs and patented various cuts and fly openings, Jockey remained a leading international producer until fashion designer Calvin Klein launched his own version of briefs in 1982. The design of Klein's underpants was almost identical to Jockey's classic brief, but differed through the closer fit, lower rise and name woven into the waistband. Klein intended that it should be sexier and less practical than existing American men's styles, believing that 'underwear was pure sex'.

In 1992 Calvin Klein produced a set of controversial underwear advertisements with photographer Herb Ritts, advertising boxer briefs worn by rapper, later actor 'Marky' Mark Wahlberg. Marky Mark was offered the contract to appear in Calvin Klein adverts following his inadvertent promotion of Calvin Klein underwear in stage shows and magazine photo shoots, where the waistband of his branded underpants showed above his low-slung jeans and below his perfectly formed six-pack. The Ritts adverts included images with model Kate Moss, and controversially, with Marky Mark grabbing his crotch through his white cotton boxer briefs. This hybrid between boxer shorts and briefs combined the leg length of boxer shorts with the fit and support of the brief to create a hybrid trunk. The style of low-slung jeans worn by Marky Mark was popular amongst American rap stars and as an inner city African American style. Believed to have originated amongst prisoners, where jeans hung below the waist because of the ban on belts, the style quickly became an international trend amongst young urban men. Visibly branded waistbands had a marked impact upon designs for men's underpants and became a form of advertisement. Following Klein's success, other underwear brands and designers followed his lead and added their name or logo to the outside of their garments.

Brixton Boyz, photograph, by Jennie Baptiste, England, 2001. Museum no. E.971-2010. © Jennie Baptiste

'An overt bulge': Underwear and archetypal masculinities

Fashion writer Iain R. Webb noted that the 1980s "were the time when men's underwear stopped being merely functional and became fashionable and sexy". This is attributable not only to the innovations in fabric and cut of men's underwear, but also to a cultural change in how men's bodies were portrayed and consumed through advertising and other popular culture representations. Contemporary underwear advertising has a direct relation to sexual attraction and the attractiveness of the male body. Garments are frequently portrayed as being designed to highlight the wearer's genitals, rather than being a focus on innovation or fit and comfort. This led art critic Melody Davis to argue that the penis "is even more present if it is concealed or disguised" and "transforms to the phallus". This, she continues, in turn becomes the man, who in turn "represent[s] both the 'power of the product' and that of the purchaser of that product". Despite historic associations of men's underwear as plain and functional, the innovation, design and stylistic changes that have occurred, as well as the profusion of advertising images that present particular forms of masculinity through semi-clothed models, demonstrates the relevance and enduring influence of underpinnings.

Adapted from the essay 'Underpinnings: The Next Best Thing to Naked', by Shaun Cole, Associate Professor in Fashion at Winchester School of Art. The full essay appears in the V&A book, Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear, accompanying the exhibition.

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Y-front underpants, Jockey, 1986 – 7, England. Museum no. T.44-1987 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London