Full Circle: The Unmentionables
A brief history of men’s underwear
By Maury Z. Levy

This was all my mother’s fault. It always was. My mother bought my underwear. That’s what mothers do. Fruit of the Loom was my favorite. But Hanes is what she bought me. I think it was an economic decision. Certainly not a fashion one. I mean, tighty-whiteys were tighty-whiteys.

When I became old enough to appreciate the aesthetics of men’s underwear, I made a conscious decision to stay with the whiteys. Why? Simple enough. I was a rebel. If you told me the sun was shining, I’d argue against it. So I stayed with Hanes for one simple reason. My father wore boxers. And the last thing I wanted to do as a kid was look like my father.

When I was very young, my mother would police the wearing of my underwear. “I’m throwing these out,” she’d say, holding a pair of tattered whiteys in her fist. “Why?” I asked. “What’s wrong with them?”

“They’re coming apart at the seams,” she said. “You can’t wear underwear that looks like this. What if you’re in an accident?”

“What’s the problem, officer?”

“This young boy’s been hit by a car. I already called for an ambulance.”

“Is there anything I can do?”

“Yes, pull down his corduroys, I want to see the condition of his underwear. We will not take him to the hospital if he’s wearing shabby underwear. And what kind of mother would allow that?”

People don’t think much about underwear anymore. It’s been the same old, same old for years. Most people don’t even know about the greatest invention of the 20th century — the Kenosa Klosed Krotch.

But first, a little history. Man first started wearing underwear about 7,000 years ago. A man would use leather, taken from the animals he ate, to cover his loins. Before that? Commando.

Different takes on the loincloth took most men through the Middle Ages. That’s when loose-fitting trousers became the rage. They were usually linen and often worn after Labor Day. They went from the waist to the middle of the calf. And they were laced at the waist by a ribbon.

The lacing made it a bit of a hassle when you needed to see a man about a dog. And so, the codpiece was invented. It opened in the front, using buttons, snaps or laces.

From the Age of Victoria until less than 100 years ago, men wore “drawers,” under their pants. Knee-length, flannel and very tight-fitting.

In 1926, things loosened up a bit when the founder of Everlast, the boxing equipment company, came out with boxer shorts for the everyday man. Only one problem: no support.

This takes us to Kenosha, Wisconsin. Arthur Kneibler, a designer for the Coopers hosiery company got a postcard from a friend in France, where men were wearing slim-fit bathing trunks on the beach. That was Kneibler’s eureka moment. He came up with a design for snug, legless underwear. To solve the access problem in the front, he developed an overlapping fly front, which he called the Kenosha Klosed Krotch. The shorts would later be named Jockey, because they offered the same support as jockstraps.

In 1934, when Jockeys hit the market, there was no turning back. Men loved them. And women loved men in them. So, bye-bye boxers. After a few flirtations with boxers, most men these days wear profile-hugging boxer briefs. Very fashion-forward, because you never know when someone might see them.

A few years back, I got slammed in a car accident. When the paramedics got there, they had to strap me to a backboard and lift me through the car window to get me out. On the trip to the hospital, they kept taking my vital signs. As we pulled into the emergency bay, one of them turned to me and said, “Don’t worry, everything’s going to be OK.”

I shook my head and smiled. Of course everything was going to be OK. I was wearing clean underwear.

January 2017
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