Let’s talk about men and their underwear. Not in the context that we’ve often broached the subject with our friends, the “I can’t understand why he has to wear such ratty briefs! I throw them away and the next thing I know, he’s dragging them out of the trash telling me they’re his favorites!” rant. The scenario is the same when their favorite shirt, jeans, and falling apart sneakers are past any hope of restoration. It’s an inborn response. Nothing we do will change this behavior…men have been rescuing their tattered clothes from destruction for centuries.
It all started with the loin cloth, consisting of fabric, bark, or leather drawn up between the legs and tied around the waist. Examples are still worn by men and women living in tropical climates. Loin cloths evolved into braies, an outer garment worn by Celts and Germanic tribes that by the late Middle Ages evolved into baggy drawers worn under normal clothing. They became shorter by the end of the 15th Century, resembled swimming trunks. The wearing of braies, also known as “breeches,” was considered good manners because they prevented male genitals from being on display under the short tunics popular at the time.
Lower class families made all of their own clothing, while upper classes utilized tailors and/or seamstresses, some of whom were live-in employees. Advent of the first sewing machine in 1820 (before Elias Howe and Singer) made drawers more available to the general public. Although elastic was first used in the garment’s waistband during the 1840s, it did not gain popularity for many years. Cotton, calico and flannel were the fabrics of choice, in addition to silk for the elite. Patterns for the period show “oylet” holes for laces in the back, as well as buttons for the front.
Just as the “sanitary” movement introduced combinations for women during the late 19th Century, the Jaeger Sanitary Woolen Underwear made one for men. Union suits, although they were not yet called that, were born. There hasn’t been a Western filmed that hasn’t had a character wearing a union suit.
Not many researchers focused on men’s clothing. There have been male portraits painted throughout the ages showing opulent styles and beautiful fabrics. However, we’re not able to see the underwear beneath that finery. There have been illustrations of the working class, but it is hard to see detail. Fortunately, men’s drawers have not gone through extensive changes over the years.