What’s The History Of Men’s Underwear?

We are living in an age in which guys can get a curated selection of luxe, fashionable underpants in their favorite styles delivered to their doorstep once a month. In the storied evolution of men's underwear, the current level of ease and discretion available to underwear lovers, haters, and regular consumers is unprecedented.

The men of yesteryear were not so fortunate. Bulky leather underpants were pinned and tied onto their person, and their archaic codpieces bulged and scraped against bare skin. They had to harvest the leather, their wives spun the wool, and going to the bathroom was pure hell. 

This is not to say the history of male underwear is all bad. The long john, almost 200 years old, is an esteemed and highly respected garment that still looks and feels similar to its original form. 

In order to truly appreciate the comfort of our favorite form-fitting, rayon-blend novelty boxer briefs, we must remember the humble beginnings from whence they came.

Photo: Eugen Nosko/Deutsche Fotothek / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

  • Vertical Loincloths Were The First Known Form Of Men’s Underwear

    The first known male undergarment was the humble but practical loincloth. Worn by countless men throughout antiquity, the loincloth was simply a piece of fabric (or sometimes leather) that adhered to the wearer’s nether regions by a waist tie. 

    The oldest known loincloth was discovered in the Alps in 1991, near the mummified remains of Ötzi the Iceman. He is the oldest known European mummy, and his body was naturally preserved and mummified by the frigid environment. Ötzi lived during the Copper Age, estimated around 3300 BC. Scientists believe he wore the garment underneath a woven grass cloak - which confirms that it was, in fact, an “under” garment. 

    While other forms of archaic underwear were invented throughout the years, many Europeans, notably shepherds and laborers, favored the loincloth well into the 19th century. 

  • In Ancient Egypt, King Tut Was Buried With Triangular Fabric Loincloths

    Another proponent of the classic loincloth was Egyptian King Tutankhamun, who lived around the same time as Ötzi the Iceman. 

    As underpants are not the most exciting archeological find, King Tutankhamun’s skivvies were not mentioned in any studies or reports until 50 years after his discovery. During a 1979 study of King Tut’s well-preserved tomb, experts recovered long, triangular pieces of linen with strings attached at the ends. The strings would be tied around the waist, and the hanging portion in the back would be pulled to the front between the legs and tucked into the waist tie. 

  • Ancient Romans Wore The Subligaculum, An Undergarment Resembling Shorts Or A Loincloth

    Looking vaguely like a fabric diaper, the subligaculum was one step up from the loincloth. It adhered to the body in a similar way, but was tied more intricately and resembled a pair of shorts.

    While the “sub” prefix in Latin means “under,” some men wore them as outwear "for the sake of decency." Athletes often wore just the subligaculum. 

  • Baggy, Calf-Length Underpants Called 'Braies' Were Invented  In The 13th Century

    As the Romans came to power, new shapes and forms of underwear began to emerge. One notable example are the proto-yoga pants, "braies." These drawers were light and baggy, and went all the way down to the mid-calf. Over time, they became tighter and more form-fitting, more closely resembling tights or hose. 

    "Braies" is the archaic term for “breeches” or “britches.” They were not exclusively worn under other clothing, as they worked just as well as normal pants. 

  • Rich Men In The 13th Century Wore Chausses, Which Covered Only The Legs

    Those who found braies too pedestrian wore the more elegant version, "chausses." Held up by a garter belt, chausses were braies that covered just the legs and left the crotch area open for a variety of purposes. This would later be coupled with a codpiece, which would button, snap, or lace shut. 

    One major logistical benefit of chausses was the ease of access when using the restroom. Fussing with all of those knots and ties while keeping oneself decent was probably laborious.

  • During The Renaissance, A Flap Was Added To Braies, Creating The First Codpiece

    During The Renaissance, A Flap Was Added To Braies, Creating The First Codpiece
    Photo: Pieter Brueghel the Younger / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The original codpiece was just a flap, not unlike the button fly on a modern pair of jeans. It did not become the pronounced accessory observed in paintings of Renaissance men until Henry VIII began to pad his. His vanity was a likely explanation for this, but some historians believe his spacious codpiece concealed the medicated bandages he used to treat his syphilis. 

    A common way to posture while wearing chausses was to heavily emphasize the groin area with a large and shapely codpiece. Part of this was a masculinity performance, but the rest of it was convenience - the codpiece was often used to store snuff, coins, and other small items.