The undercover story: A briefs history of Y fronts

Since their invention in 1935, Y-fronts have become a fixture in the underwear drawers of men around the world. Now a 37-year-old pair have been sold on eBay for £127. Terry Kirby reports

Friday 19 May 2006 00:00 BST

To the inhabitants of Chicago, the day had no more significance than being one in which they had to endure the worst blizzard of the winter. What they did not know was that this would become one of the most important days in the history of the male sex. At least in the way they dress.

For men, 19 January, 1935, was their equivalent of the day Mary Jacob patented the first bra in 1913 or the moment in 1959 when Glen Mills had the inspiration for tights - it was when Arthur Kneibler's Jockey briefs first went on sale at a department store.

But it was a nervous launch. Although the briefs had been put on show in the window at the Marshall Field & Co department store, its management thought it ludicrous to try and sell such skimpy items on a cold day that cried out for long johns - then the dominant form of men's underwear - and ordered the display to be removed. They were so wrong. Before their orders could be carried out, 600 packages of Jockey shorts were sold. And 30,000 pairs were sold in the next three months alone.

Mr Kneibler was an "apparel engineer" for a company called Coopers, originally set up to sell socks to lumberjacks, but which had been hit hard by the recession. While searching for an idea to help the company, he received a postcard from a friend on holiday in the south of France, which featured a picture of man wearing an abbreviated swim suit.

At this point, the only serious challenge to the hegemony of long johns had come from the boxer short, a cotton version of the trunks worn by boxers, and first designed in 1925 by a Joseph Golomb, founder of the Everlast company that still makes boxing equipment. But they were slow in finding customers because they did not provide much of what was termed "masculine support".

One thing that did was the "jock strap", a method of protection mostly worn by sportsmen and named after the bi-cycle "jockeys" or messengers who rode penny farthings for whom they were designed. Mr Kneibler's mission was clear - the Jockey brief was born.

They were so popular that the briefs sold out in every store almost immediately. Coopers sent its "Mascu-line" airplane to bring special deliveries of "masculine support" Jockey briefs to desperate retailers around the United States.

After they went on sale in Britain in 1938, at Simpsons in Piccadilly, they sold 3,000 a week. In 1948 every male athlete in the British Olympic team was given a free pair of Y-fronts. Today, Coopers are known as Jockey International and are pretty much the biggest thing in briefs anywhere in the world.

It would no doubt have gladdened the heart of Mr Kneibler to have learnt that this week, a pair of 37-year-old cotton Y-fronts - which is the British colloquialism for briefs - were sold on eBay for £127. Theywere the property of John Clarke, who had bought a selection of string vests and briefs from Marks & Spencer, sometime in 1969 or 1970. They were shoved into the loft when his wife expressed her dislike for them. His daughter felt there might be a market for antique underwear and so put them up for auction on eBay - she was right.

A second pair of briefs sold for £90 to a buyer in Hong Kong. Mr Clarke, a retired taxi-operator from Petersfield, Hants, said: "I can't imagine anyone wanting to buy them. It just doesn't make any sense." His wife was said to be deeply embarrassed about the whole thing.

Traditional briefs, of the type sold by Mr Clarke, are a declining market, according to Neil Ainsworth, male underwear buyer for M&S. "Men tend to stick with the kind of underwear that they have always worn."

Sometime during the 1980's, the market mutated rapidly from being one of purely functional garments into one where a man's choice of underwear amounts to a lifestyle statement. Mr Kneibler's simple brief now faces competition from boxers as well as slips, thongs, trunks and all manner of hybrid versions. Men's underwear is now a designer accessory, marketed with all the blatant sexuality the advertising industry can muster, as well as an empowering personal statement.

Well, up to a point. Mr Ainsworth said: "We launched a range of men's thongs and g-strings - under the slogan "Something For The Weekend" - a while back and it attracted lots of publicity, but they haven't really sold very well and we withdrew them last year. It's more of a European thing. I don't think the British man can get his head around a male thong and I don't think women want to see their men in one."

Unsurprisingly, the store's biggest seller is the woven loose boxer, the style that has, in the past 20 years or so, overtaken the brief as the underwear of choice for younger men. Also popular are the jersey trunks, a closer fitting and - it's that word again - more supportive, version of the boxer. Even the simple slip outsells the brief.

All of these, of course, are just contemporary versions of the lioncloth, which is as old as mankind, was worn by both sexes in Greek and Roman civilisations and still exists as a traditional form of undergarment in many Asian cultures, as well as among primitive peoples. Sometime during the Middle Ages, the loincloth was replaced by a loose, trouser-like garment, called braies, which were laced around the waist and calves; the flap at the front was called the codpiece and allowed men to urinate. It was Henry VIII who began the fashion for padded codpieces.

By the 18th century and the advent of widespread cotton fabrics, the dominant type of undergarment for both sexes was the close fitting union suit, which eventually became long johns.

While women's underclothing spiralled off into all manner of stays, corsets, drawers, chemises and so forth, men were stuck with various types of long johns until well into the 20th century, until Messrs Kneibler, Golomb et al came along.

After their sensational start, Kneibler's Jockey briefs dominated the mens underwear market until the late 1940's, when the popularity of boxers, favoured by US airmen, began to rise.

In Britain, boxers have always had an enthusiastic following, but it was the stylish, retro TV ad in 1985 for Levi's jeans, which featured model Nick Kamen, stripping to his pristine white boxers in a launderette, to a soundtrack of Marvin Gaye's 'I Heard It Through the Grapevine', that made women swoon and young men rush out to buy them by the truck load.

"They became hugely popular," said the fashion writer Iain R Webb. "The early 1980's were the time when men's underwear stopped being merely functional and became fashionable and sexy."

If there is one company that came to epitomise the branding of male underwear, it was Calvin Klein. "It began a trend of highly homoerotic advertising for men's underwear, said Webb

Latterly, Klein and the other designer brands have concentrated on various close-fitted hybrids of boxers and trunks, in this country certainly, briefs, or Y-fronts, have never really recovered in popular culture from their somewhat fusty image - one reinforced by the cartoon image of John Major, as a man who wore his Y-fronts on top of his trousers.

But, according to fashion pundits like Webb, the brief is down, but not out. He said: "Fashion tends to go in swings of the pendulum. I think we are going to a return to traditional conservative, supportive briefs...."

A load of pants?

Stephen Bayley Style Guru

Since Duchamp's urinal, only a fool would under-estimate the cash value of sewage and its helpmates. I tend to dispose of old underwear rather than collect it.

Dylan Jones Editor of GQ

I'm not surprised that these underpants have gone for so much money. M&S make some of the best men's underpants in the world, but there is an exponential market for fashion artefacts of this sort. I think the salient words here are "unopened and unworn".

Kathy Lette Author

Who would ever buy an antiquated pair of underpants on eBay? Why would anyone ever wear them? All that acreage of cotton tends to restrict and shroud a man's assets.

Claire Rayner Agony Aunt

Men always wore their pants up to the waist in the 1960s. The current look is really hipster. Men look much nicer without any underwear at all!

Peter York Broadcaster and Journalist

Eventually everything gains meaning and value. I used to love an ad with the slogan "Sunarama underwear is such a joy to wear". I suppose it's the innocence of 1960s pants that appeals.

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