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The Twenties and Thirties

The turn of the last century was celebrated with parlor piano and ragtime music. That gave way to the speakeasies and jazz of the Roaring ‘20’s.

Men’s underwear at that time would be made of a nainsook, which is soft muslin fabric, often used to make babies' clothing. Muslin, we are told, got its name from in the Iraqi city of Mosul. There muslin was first discovered by some Europeans at that same time that another group, we now call Pilgrims, were sailing to the new world.

Obviously muslin is a natural fiber, not a synthetic. We would have to wait some time for that invention which would allow designers to create much more vibrant lines of men’s underwear such as the colorful men’s trunks, shorts, thongs and swimwear that we have today.

However, the twenties did see the introduction of pre-shrunk fabrics and that would revolutionize 1930’s men’s underwear. Additionally, the twenties saw the introduction of the boxer brief which was named accordingly because it was an “abbreviated” version of its predecessor – the popular long john. The latter extended down as far as the ankles, whereas the boxer brief ended at mid-thigh.

Despite the fact that America was in the depths of the Great Depression, 1934 was a watershed year in the history of men’s underwear. That was when Jockey introduced their Y vent shorts.

The company began making briefs in 1930’s. Word has it that men’s briefs were inspired by the then popular swimsuits worn on the French Riviera. Those were snugly fitting undergarments and considered to be quite risqué at the time.

Four years later Jockey invented Y-vent diagonal vent. The convenient innovative feature was adapted to their boxers and briefs after it was first applied to both their short and long length knitted drawers.

Today one can buy jockey shorts with access pouch or flap. Traditional high and low cut jockey shorts have vertical or diagonal flaps.

Shortly after New Year’s Day in 1935, a major mid-west department store introduced the new Jockey brief. Management thought the widow designers were nuts in devoting display space to skimpy men’s underwear on a day when the city was being hit with one of the worst blizzards in a long time. “Get those shorts out and put the long johns in that window.” But customers knew a good thing when they saw one and six hundred packages of Jockey briefs were sold before the window dressers were able to dismantle the display.

In 1936 Munsingwear developed their horizontal vent “kangaroo” pouch line of men’s underwear

The Forties and Fifties

For the most part, men’s underwear designs remained static on the home front during the first half of the 1940’s. That was because all American energy went towards the war effort. The war brought shortages and rationings.

One Jockey ad declared – "Uncle Sam needs rubber so Jockey waistbands are no longer all-elastic." At this point the woven waistband with two side buttons was reintroduced to men’s underwear.

However, there was one major change in men’s underwear that was not introduced to provide ease or comfort to the wearer; the following change actually saved the lives of the many American men.

The final scene of Clint Eastwood’s 2006 fall release Flags of Our Fathers showed us a small group of marines raising the U.S. flag atop Mt. Surabachi. Following that celebrated moment the American warriors took a swim in the Pacific Ocean off Iwo Jima.

They were leathernecks and they wore white underwear. Eastwood, the director, and his wardrobe costumer got it wrong. The color of the men’s underwear, that is.

The historical fact is, G.I.’s didn’t wear white underwear during most of World War II – and certainly not at the time this scene took place.

By that time, all G.I.’s wore a military issued olive drab boxer style short. That color was chosen for camouflage purposes after the war began. It was especially important on the occasions when the shorts were drying on make shift clotheslines throughout the battlefronts. American military personnel realized early on that a freshly washed white pair of shorts drying on the line attracted enemy fire.

After that change was made, another wartime ad for Jockey headlined: “Target: White Underwear.” It explained to those at home why the armed forces had switched from white to olive drab undershorts.

Considering everything that was going on at the time, it was hardly vital that the public have that information. But it does show us how American industry, all the way down men’s underwear business, was doing their part in the war effort – not to mention building their positive public relations image with Americans at the same time.

Most of these olive military boxer style shorts came with an elastic waistband that allowed the brief to fit snugly around the waist. Those that had no elastic had two larger than might be expected olive colored buttons at the in the front of the waistband and on the fly.

At home post-war table milk was being pasteurized and homogenized and men’s underwear was being sanforized.

This was a factory process that guaranteed the item would not shrink more than 1% after being washed. Prior to sanforization those that sewed had to estimate how much a finished garment would shrink after its first wash, the results were sometimes tragic.

The sanforization process was invented by Sanford L. Cluett. It came to its height in the 1940’s. When Sanford died in 1968, Sanforized was licensed for manufacture by 448 mills in fifty-eight countries. Today the trademarks Sanfor (Europe), Sanforizado (Latin America) and Sanforized (rest of the world) are registered in more than a hundred countries worldwide for cotton and cotton blend fabrics.

Despite the squeaky clean Ozzie and Harriet image that was being portrayed by the then new medium of television, post war men and boys of the 1950s took some daring-do with the look of their underwear.

New print patterns were now available following the war shortages. The traditional solid white underwear suddenly began becoming more colorful with the availability of thousands of print patterns.

It started with simple geometric shapes – vertical lines, simple squares and triangles. Those gave way to various assemblages of floating dice, wild animals, cupids and playing cards. Basically, any theme that crossed the mind was ok.

While the basic shorts and boxers were still the standard, the creativity of their over-all print patterns was unlimited. This creatively would continue but would have severe consequence for one manufacturer some time later.

Specifically, on one occasion, United States Secret Service agents made a surprise visit to a manufacturer in order to confiscated a thousand pairs of men’s undershorts. They did this on the grounds that they violated U.S. forgery laws.

The agents observed that the colorful pattern on that particular line depicted a series of floating one hundred dollar bills and federal currency cannot be duplicated for any reason. This was probably the first time in history that Uncle Sam fulfilled the age-old taxpayer’s complaint “the government would even take your shorts, if they could.”

The 1950’s also saw the introduction of synthetic fibers to many clothing lines. Men’s underwear manufacturers began experimenting with such fabrics as rayon, dacron and the new DuPont nylon and would eventually create the early predecessors of the new lines of athletic supporters and men’s swimwear, men’s trunks, shorts and thongs that we have today .

The t-shirt graduated from an “under” article to outer wear in the 1950’s. Up until a point, some men would wear a t shirt as a visible torso covering primarily around the house –perhaps while doing yard work or repairs.

On some occasions he would be restricted to that area by his wife who might say, “Honey, you’re not going to the store wearing that – put on a shirt.” (She meant a shirt that buttoned up the front.) The t shirt was still considered an undershirt and some wives wouldn’t let their husbands be seen in “public” without covering it up. The media, specifically the movie industry, just as it does today, would change that dramatically.

The ‘50’s saw the entry of Marlon Brando, and James Dean – teen idols who were portrayed as rebels. Most notably by the former in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and the latter in “Rebel Without a Cause.”

Brando and Dean wore t-shirts as “outerwear” throughout those movies. The former, in particular, displayed a sensual torso dripping with humid Louisiana sweat in some scenes of Desire, while the youthful Dean went through his trials and tribulations in a t shirt in the hot Southern California sun. This was nothing new to the teenage boys of the nation. They wore t shits to school and one that was Purex white in their ”gym class.”

There, it was a part of the standard American high school gym uniform – in addition to their jockstrap and solid colored pair of gym shorts that declared the school’s colors.

On a Saturday night, some of these guys would take their dates to any one of the numerous “sword and sandal” movies. Most notably, those starring muscular Steve Reeves as “Hercules.” The teen couple shared popcorn and kisses while watching the mythical hero romp around ancient Europe clothed only in a loincloth under which, undoubtedly, was a jockstrap, thong or traditional men’s swimsuit.

The next day would find the couple enjoying the sand, sun and surf while listening to a transistor radio that told them who wore “Short Shorts” and an “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.” This all took place while Gidget and Moondogie surfed the shores in their swimsuits.

A few years later, Annette and Frankie would do the same in their numerous Beach Party movies. Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, wearing Pendleton shirts and sexy swimsuits on their album covers, would soon carry these images into the next decade.

Pop music critics still say their “Surfer and California Girls” and the soon to arrive Mommas and Pappas’s “California Dreamin’” would be partly responsible for the nation's greatest land migration from the East to West coast since the 1849 gold rush.

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