The Deadbolt, c. 1777, Shaun Cole

The Story of Men’s Underwear

The text below is the excerpt of the book The Story of Men’s Underwear (ASIN: B07C2JVB14), written by Shaun Cole, published by Parkstone International.

There have been many books on the history and significance of underclothes, some concentrating on particular aspects of underwear and others offering a historic overview. However, men’s underwear has frequently been relegated to a back seat in such works. When it is addressed, it is often in relation to the technical or social development and aspects of women’s underwear. Histories of both men’s and women’s fashion tend to marginalise or ignore the development of men’s underwear. One of the chief reasons for this is the comparative simplicity (in comparison to women’s) and almost utilitarian aspects of men’s underwear.

Paris Underflair, 1973, The story of men's underwear, Shaun Cole
Paris Underflair, 1973. Private collection, London.

Histories of women’s underwear have discussed the role of underwear in the seduction of men and its role as a prop in the spectacle of men looking at women. Curator and fashion historian Richard Martin, meanwhile, noted that men’s clothing was a “sign and register of the modern”. Considering both of these points leads to a number of questions in relation to men’s underwear. How and why do men choose their underwear? Is it for comfort and practicality or for the moment when it is revealed or exposed? Do men choose and buy their own underwear for themselves, or do mothers, wives and girlfriends undertake this? (Addressed in cultural historian Jennifer Craik’s “set of denials” – “that women dress men and buy clothes for men” and “that men dress for comfort and fit rather than style”.)  Does men’s underwear reflect modernity and the changes in masculinity? Is underwear in fact private? Is men’s underwear related to the seduction of the opposite sex (or the same sex?) In an age when the male body is an object of sexual and social spectatorship, is the presentation of the underwear clad body for women, or is it homoerotic or homosocial?

Clothing both hides and draws attention to the body. The part of the body that is usually first to be covered (for reasons of protection or modesty) is the genitals but, as anthropologists have demonstrated, cache-sexe garments are often used to draw attention to the body beneath. In his study of the loincloth, Otto Steinmayer recorded that “Usually people have felt that they ought to render the genitals symbolically harmless with some covering or decoration … to ornament it, humanize it and socialize it” and fashion historian Valerie Steele believed that such ornamentation “preceded – and takes precedence over – considerations of warmth, protection and sexual modesty.”

Emperor Charles V with a Hound, 1532, The story of men's underwear, Shaun Cole
Jakob Seisenegger, Emperor Charles V with a Hound, 1532.
Oil on canvas, 203.5 x 123 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Underclothing comprises of all garments that are worn either completely or mainly concealed by an outer layer of clothing: covered as the body is covered. Just as a person wearing underwear is “simultaneously dressed and undressed” so underwear can be both private and secret, or a public form of clothing.

Men’s (and women’s) underwear has served a number of purposes: for protection; for cleanliness; for modesty and morality; to support the shape of the outer clothes; as an indicator of social status and; for erotic or sexual appeal. Underwear has offered protection to the body it covers in two ways. The additional layer acts as a temperature moderator, providing extra warmth and protecting the body from cold or keeping the body cool. It also minimises irritation and abrasion from rough fabrics. At the same time, underwear protects outer garments from bodily dirt and odours by providing a hygienic and more easily cleaned layer.

Ichikawa Omezō in the Role of Tomita Heitarō and Ōtani Oniji III in the Role of Kawashima Jubugorō, 1794, The story of men's underwear, Shaun Cole
Tōshusai Sharakū, Ichikawa Omezō in the Role of Tomita Heitarō and Ōtani Oniji III in the Role of Kawashima Jubugorō, 1794. Colour woodblock print, 38.8 x 25.8 cm. Honolulu Academy of Arts, Honolulu.

Men’s underwear can, therefore, be seen to reflect and enhance sexuality and sensuousness, especially when considered alongside the idea that concealment plays a part in the eroticism of clothing: calling attention to what is beneath those clothes. Men’s underwear and the increasing public representation of underwear-clad men’s bodies played a part in sexual attractiveness and sexual attraction, ensuring that men’s underwear was not enjoyed by the wearer alone. This book covers all types of garments that have at some stage been considered an under garment, including some, such as socks and hosiery, which are often excluded from histories of underclothes. The main focus of the book is on underwear in Western countries, but considers undergarments in non-western dress where they are pertinent to the story. During the history of underclothes, particular garments such as men’s shirts, waistcoats and T-shirts have risen to the surface and become outerwear. Other garments have followed the reverse path, as was the case with early Saxon breeches, which were concealed by tunics and became drawers…

Grands Magasins du Louvre, catalogue 1905-1906, 1905, The story of men's underwear, Shaun Cole
Grands Magasins du Louvre, catalogue 1905-1906, 1905.
Musée Galliera, Paris.

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Parkstone International is an international publishing house specializing in art books. Our books are published in 23 languages and distributed worldwide. In addition to printed material, Parkstone has started distributing its titles in digital format through e-book platforms all over the world as well as through applications for iOS and Android. Our titles include a large range of subjects such as: Religion in Art, Architecture, Asian Art, Fine Arts, Erotic Art, Famous Artists, Fashion, Photography, Art Movements, Art for Children.

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