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.
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.
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.
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.
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.