So, Jeremy Paxman has emailed Marks & Spencer to complain of inadequate support from his favourite style of under-crackers, and David Beckham is enjoying more success posing on billboards in his Emporio Armani pants than he's had playing football for LA Galaxy. Even Miuccia Prada decided to put jockstraps in her menswear catwalk show last week in Milan.
Chaps, it turns out, aren't nearly as obsessed with women's pants as they seem to be with their own – whether that be boxer short, brief, Y-front or, the most recent addition to the genus, the "jersey trunk".
"It's quite a selfish thing, but men really do take a lot of pride in what they wear underneath their trousers," says Nick Ede, a lifestyle consultant who, with the American brand Jockey, recently penned Pantology, a men's guide to choosing the right underwear. "Pants accentuate your body."
Elisabeth Eliasson of Bjorn Borg, the brand launched 20 years ago by the tennis star, goes further. "Women have been in corsets, but men don't like to suffer. They can't stand it if the fit is too tight. Everything needs to be elastic enough, but at the same time not be tight. Men are very sensitive about their underpants."
Retailers say women no longer buy the majority of male underwear. And, in the stores, men are getting pickier and demanding hi-tech fabrics that wick away moisture. Ruth Steven, marketing manager at Jockey, talks about innovation in the field of – ew! – "moisture management".
"We're developing a sport line that will help keep men cool," she says, adding that seam-free waistbands, printed logos (rather than itchy labels), bias-cut pants and "new fly options" have all been addressed in the Jockey lab. A lot goes into the contemporary underpant, it seems, and these considerations reflect the technologies, aesthetics and sexual mores of the day. Look through the history books, though, and you'll find it has ever been thus.
In the beginning, there was the loincloth. Well, 7,000 years ago there was, as the remains of leather loincloths have been found by archaeologists. Resembling a nappy, the basic style was a long strip of fabric that prehistoric man passed between his legs and tied around the waist.
King Tut was buried with dozens of fine linen loincloths cut in a natty alternative style – a triangle of fabric with strings on the longer ends. The garment was tied round the hips with the material hanging down the back, and it was then pulled through the legs and tied. The Ancient Greeks had loincloths, although there is speculation that only slaves wore them; citizens went commando under their chitons.
Once the Romans came along, choices began to diversify. Their subligaculum could take the form of shorts or a wrapped loincloth. By the 13th century, loose pull-on underpants were invented. Called "braies", these baggy, calf-length drawers, often made from linen, were worn by peasants and kings. Knights wore them underneath their armour. Richer men also wore "chausses", which only covered the legs.
Come the Renaissance, as the chausses became tight hose, the braies got shorter and were fitted with a convenient flap for urinating through. That buttoned or tied flap – the earliest codpiece – wasn't actually covered by outer layers, so Henry VIII, never one for modesty, began to pad his. Historians have suggested that beneath Henry's appendage may have been hidden the medication-soaked bandages needed to relieve the symptoms of his syphilis. Men free of venereal disease, meanwhile, used the tumescent codpieces as a handy pocket. ("New World cigarette?" "Ah, not for me, my lord, no.")
The cocksure Tudor pants were followed by several centuries of more demure smalls, with men opting for long cotton, silk or linen drawers. The most common were knee-length with a simple button flap at the front. They were the precursors of the "union suit", an all-in-one that would evolve into long johns, the ankle-length skin-tight underpants issued to US soldiers in the Second World War (and named after the 19th-century boxer John L Sullivan, who wore them in the ring).
After the Industrial Revolution, cotton fabrics democratised pants. The invention of the bicycle spurred the development of the jockstrap, first crafted in 1874 by the Chicago sporting goods company Sharp & Smith to provide protection for cycle "jockeys" on cobblestone streets.
In the 20th century, manufacturers patented such earth-shaking innovations as fewer buttons or larger flies. Union suits ruled for the first three decades, and Hanes emerged as the leading manufacturer of this less than erotic jersey jumpsuit. In the 1920s, pants design again borrowed ideas from the boxing ring when Jacob Golomb, founder of the sports brand Everlast, developed a featherweight version of the fighting shorts. But, in the Thirties, what would become its main rival appeared – the brief.
In 1935, the first Jockey briefs went on sale in Chicago. Designed by an "apparel engineer" called Arthur Kneibler (working at the time for Coopers Inc), the arrival of the first underpants denuded of any legs and featuring a Y-shaped opening has been compared with the 1913 invention of the bra, or the 1959 debut of tights. In three months, 30,000 were sold. Coopers, now known as Jockey International, sent its "Mascul-line" plane to make special deliveries of "masculine support" briefs to retailers across the United States. When the Jockeys arrived in Britain in 1938, they sold at the rate of 3,000 per week.
For the rest of the 20th century, the battle of boxer shorts vs briefs swayed back and forth. Both claimed health benefits. Proponents of the tighter brief suggest that it's best to have one's package neatly contained. Boxer fans say it's natural to hang free, allowing air to circulate. From the 1950s, colour and pattern were introduced, and new fabrics such as rayon, Dacron and DuPont Spandex allowed tighter fits – and even briefer briefs.
In the UK, the tight jeans of the 1970s pushed briefs back into favour. "If you think about Kevin Keegan's micro shorts when he played for England," says Julian Kilmartin, director of menswear at M&S, "he couldn't have worn boxers under those."
The battle lines were redrawn in the 1980s after what Kilmartin calls "the boxer revolution". Pants were now a statement about sex, fashion and money. A pouting Nick Kamen sat in that launderette in 1985 wearing crisp, cotton shorts, not clingy Y-fronts – causing women to rush out and stockpile boxers for their partners in the hope that their Dave would resemble the pouting model from the Levi's ad.
Designers such as Paul Smith started selling boxers (his were striped, of course) and the garment became synonymous with on-the-up yuppies. Men who wore Y-fronts were dressed by their mothers, and probably still lived with them. "That was the first time that, after football in the dressing rooms, you'd actually care about underpants, have an opinion on them," Kilmartin says.
Previously promoting health and practicality, the men's pants market started getting racy. From the 1970s on, designers such as Calvin Klein started using near-naked models in their ads. The strength of the pink pound made men's underwear not only a booming market but an inventive, diverse one. It wasn't just boxers or briefs, but thongs, slips, trunks... "I told B I needed some socks too and at least 30 pairs of Jockey shorts," Andy Warhol wrote in his Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again). "He suggested I switch to Italian-style briefs, the ones with the T-shaped crotch that tends to build you up. I told him I'd tried them once, in Rome, the day I was walking through a Liz Taylor movie – and I didn't like them because they made me too self-aware. It gave me the feeling girls must have when they wear uplift bras."
Warhol was so enamoured of Jockey briefs that he used a pair as a canvas for one of his dollar-sign painting. "All the underwear trends started in the 1980s with the gay market," Eliasson says. "They wanted to have innovative products."
By the 1990s, you could walk past a hoarding and see Marky Mark, six-pack a-rippling, gripping on to his trophy – a naked Kate Moss – and wearing his Calvins. And the same brand name was peeping above the waistbands of baggy jeans worn by hip-hop acts and their slush-pop imitators (East 17 were nothing without their pants). The hybrid boxer-brief – taking the longer shape of the boxer but maintaining the clingy fit of the brief – also emerged.
Today, the men's underwear market is worth £674m a year in the UK, according to Mintel. Volume sales of men's underpants rose by 24 per cent in 2000-05. And if you believe the manufacturers and retailers, it is "trunks", or short-short-style pants, that British men most want to slip into.
"Trunks provide excellent support," says Adrian Edwards, head of menswear at John Lewis, which sells a style called "Ball Control" by Canterbury. Bjorn Borg say their bestseller in the UK is the "Short Short" style, which has an inside leg of just 25cm. At M&S, which sells 40 million pairs of men's pants a year, boxers are the bestsellers. But only just. "The demand is easing off for boxers, and the hipster trunk – similar in dimension to Daniel Craig's Bond trunks – is the fastest-growing style," says Kilmartin, who's expecting an interrogation with Paxman any day now.
There is one delicate area of pant advancement where men are not yet ready to go – universal package sizing. Stretch fit, says Ruth Steven, is currently essential because the same waist measurement must fit a great variety of crotch dimensions. "There are no actual pouch sizes, as there are with women's bra cup sizes. We have discussed it, but I don't think it will happen. Men are a bit shyer than women. Can you imagine having to ask for a double-A size?'"
Perhaps not. Pants, as Paxo proved this weekend, are a touchy enough subject as it is.
How to buy pants by Gemma Hayward
Plenty of men rely on the yearly supply of pants Santa brings, but there comes a point when any self-respecting alpha male should demand the best. And the main ingredients to look for are, quite simply, quality and comfort.
In most stores, female underwear shoppers are looked after far better than men. Entire departments are devoted to womens' "smalls", while men have to put up with a few racks of cardboard boxes.
Not really fair, is it? But then, according to the underwear brand Jockey, the average British woman will spend £20,350 on underwear in her life, while men shell out just £1,200. "Men have always considered pants a very functional product and will often stick to one type," says Ruth Stevens, Jockey's marketing manager.
For those men who fancy a change, the best bet is to swallow your pride and speak to a sales assistant to explain your individual – ahem – needs. "Buying good underwear is all about individual choice," says Rachel Duffy, men's accessories buyer for Selfridges. "It's always best to experiment to see which style you find comfortable. The most popular style at Selfridges is the tight-fitting trunk, but briefs are becoming popular. We've seen an increase in bright colours and patterns, especially those from Bjorn Borg, but sales of plain white briefs soared after David Beckham's Armani ad."
The top six places to buy your pants (apart from M&S)
Stocks 20 brands, including Calvin Klein, Armani and Bjorn Borg. First port of call for the newest designs and labels.
Perfect for the shy shopper, with a huge selection of brands and styles.
Classic underwear in quality fabrics, for just under £20 a pop.
Brits buy almost a million Jockeys every year, so they're doing something right.
Abercrombie & Fitch
The popular US brand now offers shopping online, or visit the Savile Row store. Full range of styles, but a touch pricey.
Offers everything from core basics to novelties. Best are the classic boxers.
Me and my pants: 10 men name their best supporting act
ALEX JAMES, MUSICIAN
Marks & Spencer takes care of all my needs. On Blur's rider, we used to specify new M&S pants every day, and they were the best perks we got. Asking for things like M&Ms with the green ones taken out is bollocks – a new pair of pants every day is much more useful. Having lots of pants is as good as having a big house; they're one of the best-value luxuries there is. I've got some older ones on now. I find it hard to throw them away because it's nice when they get a bit worn out, even if they do lose a bit of support. I'm quite attached to some pairs – you see them and say, "Oh, look, I remember those ones."
DICKIE BIRD, CRICKET UMPIRE
I wear boxer shorts and have always gone for that style. I don't go for those flimsy, short types. I find boxers comfortable because they don't chafe at your groin, and there's plenty of room. They're tremendous. I get them from good quality shops; Marks & Spencer and places like that. I usually go for black because they don't get dirty as much as other colours, so I can wear a new pair every two days. Sometimes I do change them after one day, mind, but never longer than two. Boxer shorts were tremendous when I was umpiring on really hot days, because you could move around and get a bit of freedom. There was certainly no chafing, which is important.
PAUL DANIELS, MAGICIAN
Years ago, when I was on tour, I used to buy in bulk – a couple of hundred pairs of pants – from a friend of mine in Manchester who worked for a market traders' wholesalers. They were incredibly cheap, so I'd wear a brand new pair every day and then throw them away. These days, I wear whatever Debbie buys me: a vast mixture of Y-fronts and boxers, whatever's on top of the pile, and different brands. I don't have a favourite, or a lucky pair – what's inside is lucky, and that's me.
NICK FERRARI, DISC JOCKEY
Specially for The Independent, I will take my trousers off and tell you that today I'm wearing Fruit of the Loom trunks, bought three months ago in Macy's in New York. I don't feel we have enough choice for the larger man in the UK. When you go for the XL, you're given something that Harry Secombe would have worn in the 1950s. In America, I'll go to Macy's or Bloomingdale's and watch some fat guy from Wisconsin trying to buy an XXXXL, and there's me, a slim-hipped youth by comparison, swanning around buying XLs. I can't remember the last time I bought pants in the UK. Once you've had American, it's difficult to go back.
SIR RANULPH FIENNES, EXPLORER
When you're pulling a sledge for weeks, there are no washing facilities, so crotch rot is a risk. Getting the cloth right to prevent rubbing is important. Some people start by applying a cream, followed by a breathable pair of fitted trunks. Others prefer to put long johns on without pants. Day to day, I just wear a normal pair bought for me by my wife, Louise. I don't have a preferred type – just whatever the shop produces.
BEN FOGLE, TV PRESENTER
I grew up in Marks & Spencer pants, which have accompanied me on many of my assignments over the years. I had just three pairs of white trunks for my year on Taransay [in the TV series Castaway], which became my lucky pants after I survived to the end. I took one of those pairs when I rowed across the Atlantic, and they were the only piece of clothing to survive the voyage. I even had to lend them to James Cracknell after his were washed overboard. I'm currently in Norway training for a trip to the South Pole, and I have them with me. They are beyond wearing, but they are lucky – so when I go to the pole, I plan to fly them from my sled like a flag.
SIR PATRICK MOORE, ASTRONOMER
Underpants are underpants are underpants. Ask me about the Moon and I'll be able to tell you something, but pants aren't my speciality. They are an important part of clothing and that's it. Nobody sees them; well, in my case they don't. I get them from the nearest shop; there are plenty of them down here in Selsey, West Sussex. I wear normal ones.
LEMBIT OPIK, POLITICIAN
I have a lot of respect for Marks & Spencer. At the moment, I'm wearing three M&S items, one of which is a pair of their pants. I've bought many pairs of M&S boxer shorts and have never had any problems, so I couldn't work out whether Paxman had a point when I heard his comments. However, it was certainly a cry for support at a fundamental level. Maybe he's lonely, or just doesn't have the right shape.
PETER STRINGFELLOW, NIGHT CLUB OWNER
I was pictured in a leopard-skin thong once, and have lived with that ever since. But my favourite brand is actually Christian Dior Homme. I like the material, and generally wear white. I occasionally wear Calvin Klein. My girlfriend has a preference for pants made of a camouflaged material, which I invariably get from gay shops around Soho. As a rule, I don't like anything too skimpy – but they've got to be interesting.
PETER YORK, COMMENTATOR
Like any decent person, I buy my pants in white, in those packs of four or five from M&S, and don't think about it further. I can't remember exactly the name of the kind I buy, and even if I knew I'm not sure I should tell you. I think fancy pants can only be a bad thing. I'm not sure what impression elaborate pants have on women, but I suppose very horrible pants aren't good either. I have noticed also that the elastic on the waistbands of my M&S pants doesn't last as long as it used to. I suspect that might be to do with the outsourcing of manufacturing – they have had to do that to keep their prices down.
Interviews by Simon Usborne, Rob Sharpe & Esther Walker