Sex talk
Speaking of Underwear

Simon Sheppard,

Underwear's not what it used to be. Simon Sheppard looks at the recent history of this, sometimes optional, garment.

Until World War I brought the idea of two-piece underwear to the troops, most men wore one-piece "union suits" that covered the body from neck to thighs. And it wasn't until the 1930s that the cotton brief as we know it was born.

For decades, underwear was strictly functional, keeping outer clothes from getting too funky too fast. It's wasn't till the 1950s, when Marlon Brando and James Dean made wearing T-shirts fashionable, that underwear started to become outerwear, though boxers and briefs remained unseen and uncelebrated.

Then the rise of the 1960s gave men permission to wear stuff that previously had been largely worn by, well, flamboyant gay men: colored briefs, bikini underwear, the thong. Progress marched on beneath the pants. But it took Calvin Klein and Joe Boxer to make men's underwear the full-fledged superstar it is today. Klein's advertising, showing wildly homoerotic images of hunky young guys in briefs, revolutionized the underwear trade; now just about every designer puts his John Hancock on underpants. And Joe Boxer took the stodgy boxer short and made it sexy with outrageous, suggestive graphics. Meanwhile, the "boxers or briefs" dichotomy was bridged by the rise of boxer-brief hybrids. Underwear became thoroughly visible - even hip-hop fashion, with its shape-distorting baggy pants that hide everything south of the navel, keeps things sexy with a generous glimpse of a brand-named underwear waistband.

While just about every item of clothing has been fetishized, underpants are near the top of the heap. Their revealing-but-concealing function just screams sex. The standard white brief (or "tighty whitey") is still the all-time sexiness champ, but every sort of underwear on every sort of man, from Daddy types in boxers to sleazy sexpots in barely-there sheer bikinis, gets somebody's glands going. It may be a cliche that the nearly nude is hotter than the thoroughly naked, but when you see a hot guy gift-wrapped in underwear, it's easy to believe.

And like every good sex toy, underpants are even more fun if you play with 'em. At a basic level, they're a main ingredient in stripping, cock-teasingly, for your partner. And, as fans of Tales of the City know, wet jockey shorts, soaked down and nearly see-through, have been a mainstay of queer iconography for decades. Speaking of icons, the handsome businessman in an office chair, the fly of his boxer shorts gapped to show a glimpse of his assets, can keep you up even when the stock market falls.

Once off the body, already-worn underwear has an attraction as powerful as the scent of the guy who wore 'em; used underwear has been an income-producing souvenir for pornstars and Webcam boys for years.

Underwear scenes are lots of fun for the devotedly kinky. A pair of funky briefs stuffed in a bottom's mouth makes for an impromptu gag with porn video overtones. And things can get even more theatrical. "I remember playing with this clean-cut type," says a bondage enthusiast. "Once I tied him to a chair, I took out a big pair of scissors and, as prearranged, slowly cut away his boxer shorts till the last bit was gone. They were respectable Brooks Brothers whites, I remember, which made it even sweeter."

There are still those die-hard bohemian souls who think it's cool, if chafing, not to wear underpants. But for the rest of us, undershorts have morphed from that boring necessity Mom bought in three-packs to a full-blown signifier of sex. In brief, underwear's not underrated any more.

Simon Sheppard is the co-editor of Rough Stuff: Tales of Gay Men, Sex, and Power (Alyson Books)

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