The Joys Of Modern Life

52. Men's Underwear

THE FIRST item of men's underwear with which I ever became intimately acquainted was a pair of Y-fronts. Made out of a white, vaguely transparent fabric, they had long been washed out of shape. The elastic around the waist and leg tops made them hang loosely off the man in question's backside and vital parts. They were, in short, a kind of nappy.

This was in my salad days, the mid-Eighties, when consciousness of men's underwear was just beginning to crank into gear. Why then, in the decade of the boxer short, had I somehow managed to locate the only teenager still sporting the underwear that his dad wore?

Since its inception, women's underwear has been based more on aesthetics than serviceability, or at least a symbiosis of the two. Female underwear has always been designed with titillation in mind. To say that men's has lagged behind in this respect is not so much an understatement as a ridiculous truism.

The aforementioned Y-front held sway for far too long - right through the Seventies, when a few adventurous youngbloods had a foray into the brief. Which was not much of an improvement: true, it didn't have the unattractive reinforced cotton around the genital area, but it seemed to owe an awful lot in design to both the posing pouch and the kind of knickers girls wear when they're five - neither of which is generally a good look for a grown man.

So it was a relief when the boxer short made its debut. Its arrival meant that men suddenly had the opportunity to make sartorial decisions: buttons or flaps? Patterned or plain? True, there was a comedic element to their appearance, their puffiness could infantilise men in a different way to Y-fronts. But they were serviceable, not entirely unappealing, and let the air circulate.

Everything, however, went horribly wrong when manufacturers and a certain section of consumers decided that novelty, humorous patterns were the way forward. Polka dots, Fred Flintstone, the Underground map, items of fruit, pigs - we saw it all. And, worse, those boys in the City began wanting matching ties, pants and cufflinks.

In the early 1990s, Lycra made its first entrance into men's underwear. Women had been pioneering experiments with it for nigh on 10 years in the shape of cycling shorts and "bodies" (those outsized babygros with poppers between your legs, that make your torso look like a sausage).

The effect on men's underwear was revolutionary, and resulted in the trunk: the sexy bastard child of Calvin Klein and an old codger's long johns. It's the biggest seller at M&S today, an uber Y-front with little legs. Fitted, supportive, defining, silky smooth to the touch, the trunk is everything we've all been waiting for. It will be a while before anyone starts printing pigs on these.

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