It was modesty that saved the day. Thirty-five years ago this year Levi’s launched a TV ad. Set in the 1950s, it featured a male model who goes into a launderette and, in order to wash the clothes he’s wearing, strips down. The ad prompted a reported 800% increase in sales of Levi’s 501s. But it also had an unexpected side effect: it revived the boxer short. That might not have happened. The ad agency behind the promo had originally wanted to put the model in a more nut-hugging, budgie-smuggling pair of pants (that’s underwear for our American readers). But the Advertising Standards Authority said no.
Those decisions spoke to the division between the two kinds of underwear that has long existed and which has been sustained over the years since. On the one hand, loose-fitting, rather traditional, classic but perhaps fuddy-duddy boxer shorts; on the other hand, body-conscious, athletic but perhaps rather adolescent y-fronts and similar styles. If men are separated by their allegiances to sports teams, political policies and tastes in music, so too by what they choose to wear to keep their privates from being on parade.
As the name implies, it’s the boxer short that, historically, has had a touch of machismo about it. Back in 1925 one Jacob Golomb, founder of the Everlast sports company, created a lightweight, elastic-waisted style of shorts for boxers to fight in. The style caught on for everyday wear, not least because men’s underwear up until that point was typically bulky, onesie-like and woolen. Indeed, men demonstrating that they had an active interest in their underwear sparked development. Some nine years later the brief style of underwear was launched by an underwear manufacturer called Cooper - previously inventors of the first male underwear with a front opening. They called their new model Jockey briefs. Its big selling point? Less the new Y-shaped opening, as the fact that it offered what it called “masculine support”. You know what they mean. The Jockey name was chosen because it hinted obliquely at the jockstrap.