The history of men’s underwear & boxer shorts / briefs

SANVT Journal

Men’s underwear has always been an interesting topic. There’s an endless variety of different kinds to wear and frankly, people have strong opinions about each of them. There are differences in not only conceptions of men’s underwear, but also functionality, fabric, comfort, and fit. But how did we get here? At SANVT, we’re doing a deep dive into men’s underwear to uncover the history!

5000 BC: Primitive loincloths were ‘in’ for centuries

Loincloths were the first and primary form of men’s underwear dating back 7,000 years ago. Prehistoric men used a single piece of cloth wrapped around their waist to cover their bits. They came in all different shapes and sizes as it was worn by various cultures, for example in India, Central America, and Japan, who had their own influence. For millennia, nothing changed.

Ancient Egyptian loincloths (Source: Fashion History Timeline)

Many say the first loincloths were worn by ancient Egyptians and were called ‘schenti’, primarily made from cotton and flax. The people who were considered low class and the enslaved people owned little clothing, so for them this was considered outerwear. But Egyptian art from 1189 BC to to 1077 BC shows pharaohs wearing sheer outer garments, implying the loincloth was an undergarment for them. Nevertheless, depending on the culture, some loincloths were worn as underwear or as outerwear.

The loincloth is in fact still worn until this day. In Japan, the loincloth - better known as the traditional fundoshi - made a comeback in 2017, becoming the hottest underwear trend. Amazonian indigeneous people, some cultures in Africa, and other cultures also still wear ancestral loincloths as traditional garments.

500 - 1500 AD: The Middle Ages brought the revolutionary codpiece

The loincloths persisted, but developed in even more variations, introducing the ‘braies’: knee- or calf-length baggy pants made out of linen or wool. This was when men’s underwear emerged to incorporate leg holes. Soon after, a codpiece that could be opened at the front was added to make it more efficient for men to go to the loo without removing their braies.

During the Renaissance, Henry VIII of England started displaying a padded, bulging codpiece, but it was suspected that it may have been oversized due to bandages soaked in ointment to cure a form of syphilis. This theory has been debunked by many scholars. Nevertheless, he started a padded codpiece trend that reached its peak around 1540 and continued for half a century until around 1590.

The codpiece originated due to efficiency, support, and modesty. But it quickly became high fashion, used by the rich and royal. It gained a symbol of sexual prowess and virility as masculinity became big in the 16th century.

18th - 19th century: All about comfort

Up until 1868, underwear started to become more modest, with codpieces being covered. They became longer and more simplified, and eventually came with matching shirts until they were combined into one to create the ‘union suit’ - more popularly known as ‘long johns’. Fun fact: it started as a woman’s garment, but ended up taking off as menswear instead.

1898 Ad for Lewis Union Suits (Source: Period Paper)

Aimed at comfort, the buttoned suit also featured a set of buttons around the buttocks for easy access to the toilet - obtaining some interesting nicknames like “crap flap”.

After cyclists who had to painfully ride their bicycles on cobblestone streets complained, C.F. Bennett of a Chicago sporting goods company, Sharp & Smith, invented the ‘jockstrap’ in 1874. It featured an elastic waistband and a supportive pouch, perfect for any high impact sport.

1900s: The emergence of now recognizable underwear - boxers, then briefs

In 1925, the founder of the boxing company Everlast, Jacob Golomb, started to tweak underwear design to include an elastic waistband instead of a leather one. This is where ‘boxer shorts’ got its name. But they didn’t emerge as popular attire due to the lack of comfort and support, relative to earlier forms of underwear.

In 1935, the jockstrap influenced the introduction of the Y-front flaps, a snug fit, and a higher level of support into a new, leg-less underwear designed by Arthur Kneibler from Chicago’s Cooper Inc. Due to its reminiscence of jockstraps, the first briefs were named ‘jockeys’ or ‘jockey shorts’. Unlike boxers, these quickly became successful.

1940s: The battle of boxers vs briefs began

The battle of boxers vs briefs which still exists today can actually be traced back to the 1940s, with ads perpetuating the divide and even medical authorities weighing in their arguments.

But in 1985, Levi’s unintentionally gave boxers a huge boost through an ad set to promote sales of their jeans, which featured a male model in underwear. Interestingly, the ad agency wanted a tighter pair of underwear, but the Advertising Standards Authority said no - so it was thanks to them that boxers received a dramatic increase in sales.

Early 1990s to present day: Boxer briefs & an endless range of men’s underwear

In comes the hybrid boxer briefs during the 1990s, as a means of finding truce - thanks to John Varvatos, a designer at Calvin Klein. Boxer briefs fit more snug, and got the length of boxers but the Y-front support of briefs. They’re meant to be more comfortable, breathable, flexible, and adequate for sports. Still, they come with an array of variations - from size, to style, to fabrics used.

The perfect boxer briefs by SANVT

Of course, today there’s never been a wider range of underwear to choose from for men. But if boxer briefs are your thing, here at SANVT we’ve developed the perfect pair. How the perfect boxer briefs should fit depend on the waistband, the length, the width, and the material. They should be soft, cosy, and feel like a second skin - all while being functional and stylish.

And we shouldn’t forget about sustainability, as modern day underwear is responsible for choosing eco-friendly materials and incorporating ethical production processes. By using Lyocell - which is made from naturally grown beech wood - and organic cotton for 94% of our boxer briefs and only 6% elastane, we make sure this is the case. And all our products are produced in factories in Europe with commitment to high labour standards.