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An Underwear History

Today, when anthropologists visit the remote highland areas of western New Guinea, they find underwear history in the form of native males of various ethnic groups wearing only a single and unique body covering.

That sole covering is an extremely hard and durable, sometimes colorful, gourd that has been dried out and hollowed. It covers the menís genital area Ė specifically the penis. These men wear nothing else.

Anthropologists call it a koteka, which, they say, is a phallocrypt or penis shaft. The fact that it is worn without other clothing indicates that it is not specifically a form of menís underwear. But it does indicate to us that covering and protecting the maleís genital area speaks to the most primitive and basic of manís needs Ė food, shelter and, in this case, clothing.

The koteka is basic, and essential, to men in this region and the rest of the world has a modern equivalent of it today Ė although it is now hidden from view.

The kotekaís antecedent is the hard cup, a vital and essential accessory in todayís sports apparel line. Like its name indicates, the cup is extremely hard and more durable than a gourd.

It provides protection from severe injury to the groin area for a specific group of athletes. No professional baseball catcher, hockey goalie or rugby player would ever think to enter the playing arena without fastidiously securing his koteka, his hard cup, within his jockstrap.

In this examination we will take a brief look at the historical evolution of menís underwear. In addition, we will take a look at how many of the items within the historical line of menís underwear are familiar to us today. They are, in many cases, direct or indirect antecedents of those worn throughout the ages.

In a nutshell, weíll take a look as to how loincloths, codpieces, long johns and doublets evolved into briefs, boxers, shorts, trunks, thongs, athletic supporters, jockstraps, t-shirts and all the other items of menís underwear that are available to us today.

Here we go.

In the animal kingdom, the male is usually more ostentatiously colorful than the female, presumably to validate his masculinity and, thus, make him more attractive to potential mates.

Male humans, up until the last two centuries, dressed with as much brio as women. But then their clothes, and their underwear in particular, developed on singularly colorless lines. The present and future, however, would seem to offer considerably wider options.

Differences in anatomy have always dictated basic differences between women and menís undergarments. Womenís underwear has been more about form, often to the point of distortion. It was an attractive covering featuring lace, ruffles, handiwork, and sheer fabrics. This emphasized sexuality rather than serving practicality.

Menís underwear, on the other hand, whether they are briefs or boxers, shorts or trunks, athletic supporters or jock straps have always been primarily functional in that they conform to the contours of the male body, and are made with sturdy and protective fabrics.

In the BeginningÖ

The oldest example of menís underwear, the loincloth, dates back to the cave man. We know this because in 1991 a leather loincloth was discovered in the Alps along with the remains of Otzi, the iceman, who lived around 3300 B.C. Scientists discovered that Otzi wore a leather loincloth under his woven grass cloak.

The fact that he wore it under his cloak provides us with the earliest documentation of menís underwear. Abel Hugo, brother of the noted French writer Victor, reported that this basic ancient loincloth continued to be worn by shepherds of the Landes area of southern France all the way up to 1835.

Egyptís King Tut wore loincloths that were described by experts who studied them in 1979 Ė some fifty years after the discovery in his tomb. We are told that they were a long piece of linen shaped like an isosceles triangle with strings coming off the long ends.

These were tied around the hips and the length of cloth hanging down in back was brought forward between the legs and tucked over the tied strings from the outside in.

That being the case, the most visible and enduring artistic representation of the ancient timesí loincloth is apparent when viewing any of the multitudinous artistic renderings of Christís Crucifixion. And that event, Christians are told, occurred shortly after Jesus was ďstripped of his garments.Ē

Thus Christís loincloth was indeed a form of menís underwear. Almost without exception, every artistic rendering of the Crucifixion displays this sole visible article, which was Christís only clothing at that moment Ė his loincloth.

It is significant to note that the artistís interpretation of the style of Christís loin covering was derived from his knowledge of waist coverings and undergarments that were contemporary to the time the portrait or sculpture was created.

To that end, we will sometimes see Christís midsection covered by a loincloth thatís joined together by ties or strings. Or maybe it will more closely resemble a bulky modern day bath towel with multiple folds that cover the entire groin area. Or it may appear to be a standard piece of white linen with a side tail flapping like a flag in the wind.

The latter was a favorite and important ďinterpretationĒ utilized by artists during the period of the Crusades. At that time, some artists portrayed the cuts at the ends of the ďtail flapĒ of Christís loincloth to be identical to the cuts or shape on the flags of heraldry of a specific group of Crusaders.

Thus the masters were capable of, and indeed did, stylize the crucified Christís crucifixion garment, both to the political reality of the time as well as the designs of the undergarments that they were familiar with at that time the masterpiece was created.

Thus, it would be historically inaccurate, but artistically consistent, for a modern day rendering of the Crucifixion to depict the body of Christ wearing a pair of boxers or briefs, a thong, or even an athletic supporter.

As jarring and offensive as that would appear to the traditionalist (who would surely shout blasphemy), it would be traditionally acceptable in that todayís painter or sculptor would be adhering to the centuries old tradition of covering the midsection of the crucified Christ in a style of menís undergarment that was contemporary to the time the image was being created.