What a load of pants: key moments in the evolution of men's underwear

With cult fashion publications featuring white y-fronts and Hollywood actors turning up to awards bashes in little more than their knickers, Simon Chilvers looks at some of the key moments in men’s underwear – pivotal pants, if you will…

Simon Chilvers
Monday 23 May 2016 17:15 BST
A rear view: The Versace Autumn/Winter 2014 collection showed some cheek
A rear view: The Versace Autumn/Winter 2014 collection showed some cheek (Getty)

Here's a sentence to get things fizzing: Rod Stewart wearing Fiorucci briefs. Really quite small ones. This particular visual assault is featured in the brilliantly titled Paula Yates' 1980s book 'Rock Stars In Their Pants'. The image is what I'd call high pant impact, and is very much without the kind of pouch reinforcement that the modern pants world is now in grateful possession of.

Fast forward to circa-right-this-minute and y-fronts are having a fashion moment in bi-annual men’s magazine Man About Town. Shot by the much talked about menswear designer Gosha Rubchinskiy and styled by the equally talked about stylist Lotta Volkova (who works for Balenciaga and Vetements), the pants in question are “stylist’s own” and worn yanked up (very Gosha), teamed with a bronze Paul Smith blazer, Prada socks and Acne chunky heeled zip boots. Modern.

Man About Town magazine featured pants heavily in their spring/summer 2016 issue, photographed by Gosha Rubchinsky and styled by Lotta Volkova
Man About Town magazine featured pants heavily in their spring/summer 2016 issue, photographed by Gosha Rubchinsky and styled by Lotta Volkova (Gosha Rubchinsky)

Visuals of men in their underwear are everywhere: on your social media feeds, on billboards and at awards ceremonies; actor Alexander Skarsgard, star of the upcoming Tarzan remake, recently choose to ditch tuxedo trousers in place of tight white briefs at the MTV awards while last year’s Oscars host Neil Patrick Harris stripped down to his white briefs as part of his comedic patter. Then there’s Justin Bieber as the latest pop star crotch of Calvin Klein, David Gandy for Marks & Spencer and David Beckham for H&M.

And frankly the breadth of choice of underpants on the men’s market is startling. There were 118 different options on the M&S website at the time of writing this piece, including 26 boxers, 25 briefs, 24 hipsters and 11 slips. And while this kind of pant action is not exactly breaking news, it’s not quite as culturally ancient as we might think. "It is only since the 1950s that underwear for men has ceased to be entirely utilitarian and has become an erotic item of dress,” writes fashion historian Colin McDowell in his late nineties book on menswear, 'The Man of Fashion: Peacock Males and Perfect Gentlemen'. It is generally accepted that boxer shorts and y-fronts started to appear in the 1920s and 1930s while Sunspel introduced British men to their classic cotton boxers in 1947. But it wasn’t until after the 1950s when the real pant action got going…

Hollywood pants

One of the best ways to chart the fashions in men's underwear is via film and the A-list actors who have donned them. Two hearty screen hunks relatively early to the pants party were Clint Eastwood who posed in classic white cotton boxers during 1955 and Sean Connery in his role as 007 in a pair of white y-fronts in From Russia With Love in 1963. Both men simply imbued their underwear with a confidence and good old-fashioned masculine heroism. What man didn’t want to copy these leading men’s undergarment choices? The Connery chest wig might have fallen out of favour in an era of glossy torsos but the classicism of their underwear choices remains as relevant as ever.

Clint Eastwood in 1955
Clint Eastwood in 1955 (Getty)

And obviously, no discussion around pivotal silver screen underwear moments can ignore the sass of the 1980s. Think of Richard Gere working out in American Gigolo in tight grey shorts or Tom Cruise prancing about in y-fronts in Risky Business. Surely both gave men everywhere cart blanch to become more experimental in their underwear.

The curveball: Rhys Ifans in Notting Hill in grey y-fronts. The unofficial poster boy for American Apparel’s cult coloured briefs? Kind of.

Pant pin-ups

Connery et al might be legendary bastions of the new era of men showing off their knickers but the pants revolution is also paved with sports pin-ups and 1980s singer Nick Kamen. The role of fashion advertising in the rise of men’s underwear is of course key. Though ironically one of the most influential underwear campaigns was actually an ad for jeans. The 1985 Levis Launderette film starring Kamen stripping down to his cotton boxers is central to one of the biggest shifts in men’s fashion; the rise of men’s magazine and the beginnings of men being targeted to consume with images of other men really not wearing many clothes.

The David Beckham 'bodywear' launch at H&M in Times Square, New York
The David Beckham 'bodywear' launch at H&M in Times Square, New York (Getty)

And then there is David Beckham. On the cover of Arena Homme + in white boxers and a leather bracelet in 2000, shot by Steven Klein, in a series of Armani campaigns (most memorable with slick hair and some rope), and eventually designing his own line for H&M, and modeling them, drenched in tattoos. Yes, there have been other sportsmen who have stripped down to their underwear - Cristiano Ronaldo, Fredrik Ljungberg and Rafael Nadal – but none have been pants ambassadors with quite the gusto of Beckham.

The curveball: Mike Tyson back in the day in y-fronts with his pet tiger. For the LOLS.

Fashion & arty pants

The Calvin Klein campaigns, first shot by Bruce Weber in the early 1980s, are some of the most recognisable fashion images of all time. Steven Meisel’s images of Marky Mark AKA actor Mark Wahlberg in his early incarnation as a rapper have surely been referenced to death? In 2006, then model, now 50 Shades actor, Jamie Dornan was Klein’s hunk of the hour while the latest campaign features a very blonde Bieber alongside the ‘I glow in #mycalvins’ tagline. The fact that the unveiling of a Calvin campaign is still a bit of 'a thing' coupled with the fact that Calvin's are basically regarded by most men as classic as a white shirt says it all.

The catwalk is also obviously no stranger to the lure of a good pair of underwear, specifically in the va-va voom world of Versace. Donatella sent out lace man pants for Autumn/Winter 2013 (cue Daily Mail ‘It’s MAN Summers!’ headline) while a year later the runway was rammed to the rafters with buff boys in bandana print briefs and chaps. Sadly, this latter look didn’t make it to my local Pret.

And it’s not just the guts of fashion industry that has provided top pant impact but also the art world. Robert Mapplethorpe turned his under pants into an art piece (stretched over a frame). You can currently look at them at LACMA in LA as part of a massive retrospective of the artist’s work. Mapplethorpe himself was also photographed in his underwear – photographer Judy Linn’s shots of Mapplethorpe in leather pants and Patti Smith clearly wearing men’s y-fronts perfectly captures the duo’s youthful spirit of the late 1960s, early 1970s. Meanwhile Andy Warhol screen-printed a dollar sign on to a pair of white Jockey shorts in 1981, Keith Haring’s brand of graffiti has appeared on cotton boxers and David Hockney’s 1970 photograph of his then boyfriend the photographer Peter Schlesinger wearing his pants is part of the V&A’s collection.

The curveball: Fashion wins out here thanks to Marc Jacobs in a Comme des Garçons black sheer lace dress with white boxers underneath as sported to the 2012 Met Ball. Basically, mega.

Marc Jacobs in VPL and Comme des Garçons at the Met Gala 2012
Marc Jacobs in VPL and Comme des Garçons at the Met Gala 2012 (Getty)

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