What sort of underwear should the smart man invest in?

Josh Sims finds out why classic boxers are still every boy's best friend

Boxers are back. After some years of being overshadowed by more form-fitting jersey trunks, the classic short has returned. Last year, sales of the boxer short soared by up to 20 per cent, although many companies say that a love for the boxer never really went away. Move over David Beckham – and his briefs

If there is a king of the boxer short it is Sunspel. The British men's lingerie company first imported the boxer-short idea from the US in 1947, and is now seeing its signature crisp underwear (right, about £20) being stocked by the more progressive independent menswear retailers.

"We bought the business convinced that there's a future for the classic boxer short, and we're seeing healthy sales despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that it's a product that essentially hasn't changed for 60 years," says Dominic Hazlehurst, the joint owner of Sunspel.

"The appeal of the boxer short goes in cycles," Hazlehurst continues, "but it's still here because it's cool, because it's a chance to wear beautiful fabrics, and because, while it's a traditional garment, there's a new recognition that a lot of what's best in menswear is traditional."

The boxer short certainly has a long history. It had its first wave of popularity in the late 1920s, after one Jacob Golomb, founder of the sports brand Everlast, provided boxers, of the fighting kind, with new, lighter, more comfortable elastic-waisted shorts to replace the leather-belted variety until then worn by gladiators of the ring. A fashion craze followed, given that the new boxer short was a considerable improvement on the bulky, heavyweight underwear of the time.

But the creation of briefs by Jockey in 1934 – a step on from the company's Kenosha Klosed Krotch, as the then-revolutionary diagonal front opening was called – put paid to that and started the see-sawing of public favour between one style and the other that continues to today.

Nor have mere aesthetics proved the basis for the battleground. The newfangled brief also introduced the notion of "masculine support", as Jockey put it at the time, an idea that prompted rival claims to health benefits that still persist: one has it that it is best to have the lunch box neatly packed up – contrary to human biology's evolution, which still seems quite happy to let it all hang free – and the other that allowing the air to circulate and the temperature to regulate is the healthy option, as recommended to men trying to improve their chances of fathering a baby. Other studies have suggested that men who wear boxers are less likely to develop testicular cancer for the same reason.

However, the boxer short still faces intense competition. Post-Calvin Klein, underwear for men has not only grown into a boom market – worth £674m in the UK alone, according to Mintel – but a heavily branded one to which the classic boxer does not lend itself. "Fashion in men's underwear can change very quickly. But younger men especially have tended to favour jersey trunks, and as new fabrics and styles have been developed, they have been keener to try them out," says Sarah Dolan-Abrahams, a buyer for the underwear website Figleaves.com. "Underwear has also become an acceptable way for men to experiment with patterns, even bold, really wild and wacky prints, and woven underwear offers the designer more flexibility with those."

But the boxer short always bounces back. Fashion's whims have seen it experience times of glory after spells in the darkness before, most famously in 1984, when the Seventies preference for brown nylon Y-fronts gave way to the model Nick Kamen removing his jeans in a Levi's ad to reveal what, to many of the uninitiated, appeared to be a radical new undergarment. Sales of boxer shorts rocketed, thanks also to the designer Paul Smith's championing of the style.

Today, the boxer short, which is more likely to be included in a seasonal collection that reflects catwalk trends in pattern and colour, is receiving similar backing from designers of grown-up menswear, people for whom a branded jersey trunk or posing pouch would be anathema – Richard James, Margaret Howell and Thom Browne, last year's US Menswear Designer of the Year, for instance, all have classic boxers made for them by Sunspel.

"The classic boxer short looks great and feels great next to the skin," says James. "Loud orange pants with some brand name around the top – it's not very sophisticated, is it? So much men's underwear now is about luxury, not fast fashion." Boxer shorts are, as it were, a vestige of a bygone age, when men still dressed as men and anything too reminiscent of "pants" rather than "underwear" was best left to small boys – which is perhaps why James Bond wore boxers for his latest big- screen outing, and Batman will for his next – and when underwear was a largely sober affair. Not for nothing can an American company, Uglies, make novelty boxer shorts with prints so outlandish that its slogans include, "So ugly, she'll beg you to take them off", and, "Boxer shorts you'll want to wear out".

Certainly, the renewed appreciation reflects a more conservative, dressier streak in menswear, and a new-found regard for tailoring and the Savile Row heritage. Indeed, according to Yolanda Unger, export manager for Zimmerli, an upmarket underwear brand, its strongest markets are Switzerland, Germany, France, and the UK – where formality in menswear might be said to have a particular hold – and the Russians are currently buying untold quantities of boxers in silk. "The boxer short tends to be favoured by the classic customer," she adds.

Of course, not just any old boxer shorts will do for those who take the garment seriously. The quality boxer short is a specialist item, as distinguishable from its inferiors as a Jermyn Street shirt is from a street-market buy. "There are a lot of men who are happy with jersey underwear, for whom it's an automatic choice. But the woven boxer short is a connoisseur product that, like shirting, requires a certain understanding to appreciate," says Sacha Rose, MD of the men's pyjama and underwear brand Derek Rose.

Distinguishing characteristics of the best boxers include the right length, so the legs neither restrict movement nor ride up; a covered waistband and a properly concealed fly ("to avoid 'pop out', as they don't call it in the industry," says Rose); twin-needle stitching, to withstand the frequent washing that boxers go through (those of students, resolutely single men and the one-in-four who spend less than £10 a year on new underwear excepted); construction from an especially soft cotton, not simply shirt fabrics, though many shirtmakers make boxers to use up excess fabric; and, above all, a seat panel of extra fabric to provide the necessary comfort when sitting.

"So, any woman who just wants her man's bum to look good in his underwear should perhaps forget decent boxer shorts," says Rose. "But it's the man who must decide what's more important to him: that he's comfortable when walking and sitting, or that he just looks good when he drops his trousers."

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