John Walsh: Pants Nation

For the second time running, a general election campaign has culminated with the media largely preoccupied with what the Prime Minister wears inside (or outside) his trousers. It could only happen in Britain. But how did we become a nation of underwear obsessives?
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The Independent Online

It was the great Bernard Levin who observed that British people have an ambivalent attitude to authority because of a simple linguistic phenomenon ­ they're stuck with a language in which the word "vicars" rhymes with "knickers". The fortuitous convergence of Church elders and saucy undergarments means (goes the argument) that it is impossible for Anglo-Saxons to regard people of spiritual or temporal majesty with the appropriate degree of awe. We cannot, it seems, regard men of the cloth without making the vicars-knickers connection in our heads and instantly wondering what other kinds of cloth (Cotton? Nylon? Acetate-viscose?) they have about their persons.

But it doesn't stop there. We cannot, it seems, regard our political leaders, real or potential, without speculating along the same lines. No sooner had the Prime Minister changed his shirt in front of two lady journalists on Tuesday and revealed that he was wearing Calvin Klein underpants, than the country was in uproar. Word of this earth-shattering revelation made it from the Independent's news desk to the features department in a matter of seconds (and, presumably, was e-mailed off to far-flung foreign stringers inside two minutes).

Gosh, we said. Calvin Kleins? They're the extremely big and extremely white ones, aren't they, with the unfeasibly wide waistband carrying the designer's name in 86-point type? They cost about £18 a pair and clamp your, ah, belongings in a soft but unarguable grip rather like (though in every other respect completely unlike) a Wonderbra, and leave you standing there before your full-length mirror regarding a rather unusual bulge that looks as if a mad Jamaican greengrocer has crept up on you unawares, and rammed a plantain and a selection of sweet potatoes down your front.

One thinks of Marky Mark, posing in his Calvins on the billboards of Manhattan. One thinks of John Cleese doing his little underpants dance to drive Jamie Lee Curtis into a frenzy of desire in A Fish Called Wanda. And one just knows that Tony Blair has spent many hours standing in front of a mirror in his pristine CKs, minutely adjusting himself and murmuring, "Not bad for 48... not bad at all..."

Should we need any help in imagining this heady scenario, the newspapers will be happy to oblige. Galvanised into action, Wednesday's Mirror splashed the word PANTS on the front cover and supplied a mocked-up ad-shot of the PM in his scanties. It was solemnly discussed (with an amused Mr Blair) on GMTV, and on Today by John Humphrys, Piers Morgan (the editor of The Mirror) and Sir Tim Bell, the marketing guru who, after declaring himself appalled to be discussing such trivia, confessed to being a Klein wearer himself. Yesterday, emboldened by success, The Mirror supplied a whole page of undressed Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet ministers, including John Prescott in (ho ho) boxers and Michael Portillo in a PVC jockstrap. Even the serious broadsheet newspapers chose to make Tony's pants a crucial part of their election coverage; some explicitly suggested that the PM's unscheduled disrobing was a cynical bid for the all-important designer-menswear/undergarment fetishists' vote. And Politico's, the serious bookshop in London's Victoria, revealed that even before the Blair strip, they'd been doing a roaring trade for weeks in underpants featuring the faces of the three party leaders, at £7.99 a pair. Parliamentary briefs, you see...

At which point, one cries: Enough already. Joke over. Knock it off with the male knicker stuff. How have we all become obsessed with men's undies? No other nation bangs on about it like we do. The French would never even recognise a pair of Y-fronts, let alone laugh at them. The Italians find it uproarious that we once called garments "unmentionables". The Germans do not find them funny (but then...). The Swiss and Austrians have a jolly time with their curious outergarment-underwear called lederhosen but don't think it especially humorous. Cool Australians, such as the late Michael Hutchence, don't wear any at all. Americans are so relaxed about the subject, they haven't even got a word for it. "Pants" in America are trousers. Their word for underpants is "shorts", the same word as for Bermuda-style over-breeches. When Bart Simpson says "Eat my shorts", it carries nothing of the skid-mark yeech-factor of "Eat my underpants".

We, on the other hand, jump about the place at the very thought, the very mention, of our smalls. The one scene everyone remembers from Bridget Jones's Diary was the unveiling of her man-sized pants (and, due to some bizarre reverse-marketing effect, there was an instant run on voluminous knickers in lingerie shops). The most mortifying few seconds on any broadcast medium this year was when, for the Red Nose Day charity, Charlotte Green, the English rose of Radio 4, was persuaded to say "Pants to Poverty", you know, out loud and a whole nation cringed on her behalf. Ooh, we are just so wicked. The most ridiculous conversation with the Queen at Buckingham Palace this year came from the author of The Queen's Knickers, who decided to chat to his sovereign about royal bloomers.

What is it about the things that so interests us? We all know that pants are the portals of discovery, the split veil of the temple, the curtains behind which lie the thrilling stage on which our rudest behaviour is conducted. We know they're the floral-patterned wrapping paper around the whole unspeakable cloaca of sex and defecation. "Love has pitched his mansion in/ the place of excrement" wrote WB Yeats with distaste. We are sufficiently grown-up to cope with the dual nature of our equipment ­ but pants offer a reassuring image of containment, of savage impulses reined-in, chained-up, grumbling but dormant.

While female pants (pace Ms B Jones) get ever more G-stringy, more flesh-bisectingly painful, their male equivalents get more sturdy. Far from being a discreet sack in which to house a chap's three-piece suite, they now resemble foundation garments, spreading all over the mid-torso like a colonial raiding party, sneaking their way down the thighs, stealing up as far as the lower abdomen. The selling-point of modern pants is snugness, locked- in-ness, a reassurance that nothing will fall out, hang out or swing about, nothing will happen, nothing will suddenly bulge or leak inappropriately, not while Mr Klein or Monsieur St Laurent is in charge of the class. It's a disciplinarian image. Pants are what stop terrible, ungovernable things happening. Without them, humanity would be in a terrible state of chronic readiness ­ to mate or be mated with, to relieve oneself, to let things fly, like Swift's race of Yahoos, who rained crap onto Gulliver's head as they sat naked in the branches above him. They're a containment (phew) but they're something to be feared too. Without them, Eros is blind and unchained in the boudoir. With them, Eros is a little sheepish, uncertain, faintly ludicrous.

What power they hold. Pants ­ the flimsy jailer, the cork on the volcano, the paisley-patterned prison.

There is, however, a further iconographic stratum to them. When I was young, I used to devour a comic called Valiant, which was full of adventures starring oddballs, unlikely heroes, ordinary people with special powers. One story was called "Kelly's Eye", about an Indiana Jones figure who travelled the world righting wrongs, assisted by a small, eye-shaped diamond amulet that, as long as he was wearing it or clutching it, rendered him invincible. A magnet to mortal danger, Kelly was forever falling out of planes, being blown up by gun-runners or set on fire in the jungle. He always survived but his clothing was often ruined. Sometimes, he would lose every stitch in some arson attack or explosion ­ every stitch, except for a ragged, vestigial pair of shorts. I was mystified. "How is it," I'd ask parents and friends in my adorable childish treble, "that his undies are the only things that weren't blown off by the bomb?" It took ages for the penny to drop. These were not amazingly durable underpants, after all. It was, it seemed, a grown-up modesty thing, a sort of fig-leaf or air-brush.

I thought of "Kelly's Eye" when I later encountered Renaissance pictures of the crucified Christ. Since it was considered both blasphemous and tasteless for artists to paint representations of the phallus dei, the convention was to leave the dying Redeemer with a few (literally) shreds of decency by kitting him out in off-white bandages around the groin. To some atheistic eyes, they made the Son of God look as if he was wearing a gigantic nappy. To others, they were simply underpants, which emphasised his pathetic human-ness, his non-divine frailty and simplicity.

Could this suggest a reason for the iconographical grip these modest garments exert on us ­ that they're the last straw, the last costume worn by Christ, the final shred of civilisation before everything goes to hell? Perhaps. But it's got more to do with the Donald McGill/Johnny Fartpants tradition of English humour, where everything south of the border is in a constant state of commotion, to be reined-in and controlled through sheer force of embarrassment.

What happened with Tony Blair in front of the lady journalists was, in some respects, the opposite of this noble tradition. Here was a man whose life is all about control, whose every movement, every utterance, every behavioural impulse is decided in advance, arranged by committee or communications director ­ and we suddenly get a glimpse of the other life we lead, of life beyond the bedroom and bathroom door, beyond the reach of advisers and diary keepers. It's that combination of sanctimony and sanitation, isn't it? No wonder we all scampered about and turned somersaults of delight. It's not every day you cop a glimpse of the vicar's knickers.