EXCLUSIVE: The Underwear Expert Talks to Shaun Cole

We caught up with Shaun Cole, lecturer at the London College of Fashion and author of multiple books on the history of men’s fashion including, most interestingly for us, one called The Story of Men’s Underwear. Shaun Cole discussed the history and modernization of men’s underwear and why it’s more popular now than every before.

Underwear Expert: To begin with, why study men’s underwear at all? What does it have to teach us?

Shaun Cole:  Well, there’s very little written in comparison to women’s. It’s either as an aside or in comparison, but barely anyone studies the development of men’s garments. What’s said is that, well, there’s no stylistic change at all. And what my research does is track a kind of change – because there certainly were many. There was a time when men’s underwear was not standardized the way it is now, but now it is an item which conforms to a universal standard – every man wears some variation on the pouch with an elastic band. Some styles of men’s underwear started out as an undergarment and became an outergarment – the undershirt, for example.

Underwear Expert: How has it changed over time? When styles change, what causes that?

Shaun Cole: Modesty, comfort, warmth, protection. The Y-front developed due to use of elastic “masculine support” – previously men’s underwear had been very loose. Jockey were the first to use elastic in men’s underwear. Another change was the fly opening – it was revolutionary. There were Union Suits, which was a combination underwear. There were different styles of opening, various buttons. In the mid 20th century, with rise of modernism, underwear shifted to much lighter fabrics, consonant with ideas of the healthy body. Before, wool underwear was seen as the most healthy, but by the earlier 20th century that opinion had changed. Then came cotton mesh, which allowed the body to breathe.

Style also changed because men’s outergarments changed. Central heating was also a factor – suddenly, you didn’t need heavy, warm, bulky garments.

Underwear Expert: Wool underwear seems unimaginable now. Can you say when the shift to modern underwear occurred?

Shaun Cole: It’s always difficult to take these histories as whole; they are always partial processes. But definitely, in the 1920s there was a move toward the machine age, and this sort of sleek athletic modernism. The international success of jockey Y-fronts was a turning point. This had to do with the development of advertising, the great frugal masculine renunciation and restrained mode of dress, which was a move away from ornamentation in men’s clothing. Changes of fabric production also had a big impact on underwear. Like I mentioned, elastic was a new technology which changed what men wore in a big way. Also, your underwear went from being made by your shirt maker to being mass produced in factories along with other textile goods.

Then of course the introduction of Calvin Klein in1982 changed things again. And so did the introduction of athletic styles around the 2000s. All the big brands started selling specifically branded athletic support – which was partly reaction to increased obesity, I think.  If I move toward a healthier lifestyle simply by buying something that makes me feel sportier and more athletic then I am – advertising has a lot to answer for, then, doesn’t it.

Underwear Expert: What has the role of the manufacturer been in the development of men’s underwear? When and how did it also become the purview of the designer?

Shaun Cole: Well.. there were small instances in the late 1950s/1960s. Small men’s fashion houses making specialist underwear. Following the success of Calvin Klein, it showed that for people already making designer outergarments there was money to be made in producing underwear. In The Evening Standard newspaper, somebody was saying “underwear is the new perfume,” which is to say in the same way that designers were making their money from perfume lines they lent their name to, underwear is being used in the same way. Stella McCartney, for women, but for men, Dolce Gabbana, too. You may not be able to afford their jacket but you can buy a pack of their briefs. It gives you access to the brand.  In the last 10 years there’s been a growth of small manufacturers. The word “designer” gets overused, who knows what that means anymore? There is a massive range in the quality and types of offerings.

Underwear Expert: Are we in a boom time for men’s underwear? Does your research give you any perspective on the number of brands that men have available to them today?

Shaun Cole: There have always been lots of brands. Today there are more than there ever were before. There is an increased interest in men’s underwear. Statistics show that men are now buying their own clothes more than ever. Though, we can’t separate out number of brands from brands inflation generally – there are more brands of everything right now. One of the reasons, I suspect, is web sales. One of the things that’s sort of intimate and embarrassing is made easier by ordering in privacy. I think also we’re moving away from this idea of just boxers or briefs.

Now, men like women, have underwear for all sorts of occasions. Supporting brands, athletic brands, some for work, some for lounging, some dress ones for going out. Having a full underwear wardrobe has become much more acceptable for a man.

Shaun Cole is a curator, writer and lecturer. He is Course Director for MA History and Culture of Fashion and MA Fashion Curation at London College of Fashion. Shawn Cole was formerly Head of Contemporary Programmes at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. He has curated numerous exhibitions including Fashion on Paper (1997), Dressing the Male (1999) and Black British Style (2004-5) as well as the innovative Days of Record series documenting personal identity. Shaun Cole writes and lectures on men’s fashion and gay style. His publications include ‘Don We Now Our Gay Apparel’: Gay Men’s Dress in the Twentieth Century (2000) Dialogue: Relationships in Graphic Design (2005) and The Story of Men’s Underwear (2010). 


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