The History of Underwear - Part 7

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Part 1 · Part 2 · Part 3 · Part 4 · Part 5 · Part 6 · Part 7 · Part 8

The Sixties and Seventies

Relatively speaking, things remained somewhat routine with regard to the development of men’s underwear during the 1960’s and 1970’s. But the social conditions of that era were anything but routine.

Flower-powered hippies were rebelling by paying little or no attention to what they wore under their bell-bottoms and tank tops. In many cases it was nothing at all.

This was the time of protest. So while their male counterparts burned their draft card, women libbers gathered together and chanted, “Burn the Bra.”

Given these cries for liberation, when the voice from the megaphone intoned the chant “What do we want?” the men certainly didn’t respond with “Sexy Designer Jockstraps!”

Hey, these were radical people and their underwear was coming off – publicly. This was the era when naked “go go girls” gyrated atop beer stained bar tables to Grateful Dead music. Visitors at some beaches saw women go topless and men go bottomless.

Thongs, bikinis, briefs, jockstraps, t shirts, shorts and other in-day swimsuits were flung off and sent, as Bob Dylan says, “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

City officials in Redondo Beach, California were so offended by this newfound liberation they looked in their books to see if they had an ordinance to arrest the sunbather who dared to violate their public decency laws.

When they found their law they also found more than they bargained for. Their law was written at the turn of the century and stated that “two thirds of the torso of both men and women must be covered at all times while on the beach.” Nothing was said about covering the groin area – it was just understood that it would be done when the law was written in the post Victorian era.

Laughable as it may seem today, they realized their law dated back to the early 1900’s – when people “frolicked by the seaside.” Then women wore “sun suits” or a one-piece “Miss America” style swimsuit and the respectable gentleman with the handlebar mustache would never appear on the seashore without wearing an undershirt above his swimsuit at all times.

The early seventies was a time of mini-skirts and muumuus, rebellion and revolt, power and protest. In 1975, Black Panther leader, Eldridge Cleaver even tried to reintroduce the Renaissance codpiece to contemporary male fashion.

His designer jeans incorporated a combination codpiece/penis sheath that, according to one description, could “accommodate a two-pound Portuguese sausage”

Cleaver’s attempt to market this Renaissance fashion item made some headlines, most notably in the burgeoning underground press of that time. One such newspaper published a photo of a male model wearing a “see through” version.

The jeans were not made out of fabric but a clear plastic similar in thickness to that which your grandmother would choose to cover and preserve her new sofa. Readers were informed that it was designed to be worn without a jockstrap, athletic supporter, shorts or any other form of men’s underwear.

Needless to say, the civil rights activist’s new “jeans” did not catch on with many contemporary shoppers. Eldridge Cleaver may have designed them but Ward or Wally Cleaver’s generation would never consider wearing them. They weren’t ready for that yet.

They would wait, instead, for creative designers to come up with the less ostentatious but more vibrant lines of men’s briefs, swimwear, trunks, shorts and other forms of men’s underwear that is considered to be sexy underwear today.

Few could argue that one of the most celebrated photos of a woman in a swimsuit occurred in the forties with the “head over the shoulder” shot of Betty Grable wearing heels and a white one-piece swimsuit. We are repeatedly told that thousands of GI’s hung it in their lockers as a reminder of home during WWII.

Would there ever be a photo of a man in a swimsuit that would gain an equally noteworthy place in history? And would that photo, like Grable’s, not be created specifically for commercial advertising purposes?

The nation got that photo in the summer of 1972.

Just say the name Mark Spitz to anyone who as around at that time and it conjures up an image of a drop dead gorgeous young man with dark hair, neatly trimmed moustache, winning smile and gleaming pearly whites. Immediately prior to his photo shoot, Spitz had won his seventh gold medal at the Munich Summer Olympics. There they were, all seven medals, hanging around his neck blocking the view of his trim naked torso.

Spitz’s event was Olympic swimming and he won more gold medals in a single Olympic than any other person in history – a record that still stands today.

This was the time when Vietnam was raging and American athletes fiercely competed against their Soviet Union counterparts during the height of the Cold War.

When the band played “Oh, say can you see…” tv viewers thought, “Yes, we see!” him wearing his red, white, and blue trim men’s swimsuit. It was a moment of true national pride.

The Spitz photo was carried on the first page of all the newspapers and on the cover of virtually every news magazine. It was one of the first to be reproduced as a gigantic wall poster that hung in many kids’ bedrooms.

So there we have it, two of the most famous swimsuits in history. One on a woman; the other on a man – both taken during a time of war.

Grable’s may have been motivating to men serving over seas during WWII, but Spitz’s red, white and blue men’s swimsuit was equally attractive to both men and women, not to mention young children and teens, who were at home in 1972.

The t shirt was used for a different purpose in the 1970’s. T shirts still came in white and any imaginable color but they were now beginning to be used for advertising anything from a commercial business to one’s allegiance to a particular rock band.

In short, they were the re-birth of the walking signboard that unemployed men wore during the Great Depression.

Some t shirt slogans contained more innuendo than direct advertising. One creative thinker marketed his t shirts with the then common banking phrase – “Substantial Interest Penalty for Early Withdrawal.” This was obviously not to be interpreted as a loss on a short term financial investment at his local savings and loan but a warning to a potential sex partner that your performance in bed better be good if or when we go home together.

Additionally, the sixties and the seventies also saw the arrival of the “health club” chains, most with pools or saunas and some with masseurs.

They were geared to attract the businessman who knew he needed to exercise. He did this with free weights, run-in-place treadmills and the new Universal pulley machines. These health clubs, most notably the Jack LaLanne “European Health Spas,” were a step up from the YMCA, which was the traditional option up to this point.

Those who had health club memberships during this time will verify that men in the locker room took off their traditional boxers and briefs prior to putting on their jockstraps and shorts in preparation for their workout. After which some would change into their swimsuits and take dip in the pool

The seventies also saw shortages in raw goods. Gasoline, beef, sugar and coffee were in disastrously short supply. But there was no shortage of bad taste in one area.

No examination of this period of men’s fashion would be complete without mentioning the synthetic fabric – polyester. All one has to do to get a peek of this seventies fashion phenomena is to flip to the “Game Show Network” which currently shows endless re-runs of programs such as “The Newlywed Game” and “Hollywood Squares” – both were media creations of the seventies.

It was a period of men’s pastel leisure suits, wide neckties and dress coats with even wider lapels – all made of polyester.

Perhaps the most iconic polyester suit of this period certainly is the white outfit worn by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. Touch dancing was back in vogue by this time. There was his memorable scene at the disco where the famous dance pose was filmed.

This occurred after we see him in his bedroom preparing to go out for the night. In that scene he is combing his hair while looking in the mirror. His only piece of clothing at that moment is a red underwear bikini – clearly the predecessor to the men’s thong which would arrive on the scene a decade later.

The seventies were soon to end and we would soon be introduced to entirely new lines of men’s briefs, jockstraps, trunks, shorts, thongs, shirts and t-shirts



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