Josh Sims on how the undergarment made its way from the boxing ring into the wardrobe of the discerning male
The world of men’s underwear is a story of dreadful mistakes: the thong, novelty prints, excessive branding… Such supposed advances have seen grown men both regress and/or embarrass themselves at, well, a crucial moment. Boxer shorts, however, may have a certain traditionalism to them, but they do the job of elegantly covering one’s nether regions. They’re sartorial underwear – even if they did originate in a fashion craze themselves.
In the 1920s, Jacob Golomb (founder of the Everlast sports brand) created a lightweight, elastic-waisted style of shorts for boxers to fight in. Men soon also took to the style outside of the ring, unsurprisingly given that underwear up until then – the likes of long johns, themselves inspired by and named after a boxer, one John L Sullivan – tended to be bulky and often woollen. Indeed, boxer shorts sparked interest in a market no-one had previously considered – the following decade, in 1934, the modern brief style was invented, to offer “masculine support” as it delicately put it. Thus began the division of all mankind into those who wear boxer shorts and those who prefer briefs.
Sunspel would say the former are correct, of course, having been the first European manufacturer to import the idea from the US and produce its own line, in 1947 – when boxer shorts soared in popularity in part as a result of having GIs stationed in the UK throughout World War II, boxer shorts being standard-issue kit for the US Army.
But Sunspel had to, as it were, go the full 12 rounds too before boxers found lasting popularity. It would be more than 30 years before a boom in popularity in the 1980s saw boxer shorts become as symbolic of the decade as the Filofax and padded shoulders. Yet, unlike those, boxers also survived the 1980s – sometimes in jersey, sometimes with button fastening, sometimes with a French back, sometimes with various twists on the cut of the fly, but always there.
Why is that? That boxer shorts work brilliantly in crisp cotton is one reason – cotton feels good next to the skin and, somehow, also seems more hygienic. Medicine might even back their cause – the latest research suggests boxers are better for your balls (there’s a campaign line in readiness). But, as Bond and even Batman, might attest, they also just look better. They’re the underwear that makes a man of you, not a boy.
Josh Sims is a journalist and author of Icons of Men’s Style.