In addressing men’s underwear advertising, a number of problems are posed, associated particularly with the fact that its visual representation falls into the interstice between the fully clothed man and the male nude. Fashion historian and curator Richard Martin noted these problems were specifically centred around “masculine cultural identity, definitions of male discretion, and the engineering principles of the underwear garments vis-à-vis the human body.”
Prior to the nineteenth century when men’s underwear was discussed, it was done so in terms of humour or ribaldry, being associated with notions of nudity and embarrassment. With the cultural changes of the nineteenth, century underwear became something that was rarely discussed, the body became more private, and those garments that had direct contact with the body were usually hidden from public observance and, when they were discussed, spoken of in terms of euphemisms.
The late nineteenth century also saw changes in the production of men’s underwear with a decrease in numbers of homemade garments and small-time manufacture by tailors and shirt makers, and a significant increase in factory made garments. Such changes along with developments in men’s consumption habits, led commercial manufacturers, of which Paul Jobling identifies over 50 in the UK and USA 1900 and 1939, to consider how best to promote their wares to their customers by taking advantage of the development of the advertising industry to promote their individual lines of underwear. By emphasising new and innovative styles, the benefits of certain fabrics and the quality of their products, each manufacturer hoped to win new and retain existing customers.
In America in 1901, Root’s Underwear asked buyers to “see that the trade-mark ‘Roots Tivoli Standard Underwear’ is on every garment before purchasing”. Similarly B.V.D. and Chalmers Knitting Company drew attention to their brands and labels in their advertising. Chalmers Knitting Company recommended buyers “look for the label ‘porosknit’” for their patented trademarked fabric undergarments, while all B.V.D garments were “identified by B.V.D. label which consists of white letters B.V.D on a red woven background.” They asked buyers to ‘accept no imitations’ as ‘no substitute is as good as B.V.D.’ and continued pushing their quality, marked by this label, until the late 1930s.
Following the success of the 1935 Chicago Marshall Fields department store window installation of their Jockey briefs, Coopers Inc. cooperated with retailers to help them promote and sell their underwear. Coopers paid for half of retailers’ advertising of Jockey underwear and paid for in-store display fixtures. Advertising and marketing played an important role in the success of Coopers and Jockey. In 1939, Coopers’ salesman Peter Pfarr invented a countertop dispenser which was distributed to retailers across the United States, and allowed them to organise and promote different sizes and styles of Coopers’ underwear. Pfarr’s invention was inspired by the neat organisation of the index files in his office: “I began to wonder why we couldn’t arrange Jockey garments in the stores in order by sizes and possibly by styles in the same way as the file has been arranged.”
In 1940, Coopers commissioned sculptor and painter Frank Hoffman to create the Jockey Boy image that was to become the symbol of the brand, and the company’s trademark for around fifty years. The original bronze figure was just under twelve inches high, and it was reproduced as the point-of-sale figure distributed to licensed retailers. In 1947, Coopers again made history by stitching the Jockey brand into the waistband of the underwear for the first time. Proud of this industry first, Coopers promoted the fact with advertisements stating, “Look for the Brand on the Band”, “Brands are back” and pointed out the two now famous trademarks – “Jockey®” and “Y-Front®.”
The advertisements that were produced for men’s underwear in the first years of the twentieth century concentrated on the style and fabrication of the garments, something that continued to play an important role until late into the century. The earliest depictions were simple representations of the garments being worn that drew heavily on the style of garment depiction in manufacturers’ and retailers’ catalogues. The images were frequently secondary to the text that described the garments and highlighted special features such as cut, fit, comfort and fabric. Notions of cultural modesty and social insecurities about displaying the semi-clothed male form led to a series of techniques which underplayed the body upon which these garments would be worn.
Whilst many advertisements showed the garments, and the text highlighted the innovative construction or fabric, there was often little insight into actual construction of the garments featured in the advert. In 1918, a series of advertisements for Hanes “elastic knit” underwear featured dressed men casting large shadows behind then in which underwear details such as seams at the crotch and shoulder, elasticised ribbing at the wrists and ankles and button fastening at the collar were highlighted in circles. Similar devices were used again by Hanes into the 1920s, and were focused upon as the “5 famous points” in 1924, where each of the selling points was listed and explained in detail.
Coopers and Imperial both used this technique. In the former case, it appeared in a selling guide that was issued for Coopers’ sales personnel to assist in promoting the underwear, and by Imperial to highlight the fastenings of their drop seat union suits. A 1927 advertisement that demonstrated “the secret of Rockinchair fit,” shows their garment completely deconstructed to demonstrate the attention to detail and construction to allow their garments to comfortably fit men of all body sizes. This is emphasised in a series of line illustrations of average, large and slim sized men in their Union suits…
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