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Underwear, in the prehistoric form of the loincloth, was the first garment ever devised. Given that it was also the only piece of clothing around, underwear was, in fact, outerwear.


It all started, anthropologists might reckon, when our early ancestors decided that they didn’t find it all too great to get constantly stabbed viciously in the unmentionables by stray twigs when wading through the forest. As humanity discovered its vanity streak and ornamentation became the new in-thing after fire, the old loincloth was soon relegated under a great heap of shirts, skirts, trousers, scarves… it became under to everything else.


Yes, you may well laugh, we’ve been brought up to believe that there is something inherently naughty about talking about underwear. Well, perhaps not naughty per se, but it’s definitely a private and hidden subject. After all, the terminology itself suggests that there must be something that covers underwear from the public eye.


Underwear is implicitly shameful. Its utilitarian functions, and let’s not beat around the bush, are quite icky; according to a masterly summation from Wikipedia, underwear keeps our precious outer garments from being soiled by ”discharges”. Furthermore, unless you are, say, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, wearer of risqué lingerie for the undies firm Agent Provocateur, we’re usually not all that keen on being seen in our skivvies; wearing underwear alone might leave us feeling quite bare and evoke the wrong sorts of solicitation and morbid fascination that a pair of jeans and a t-shirt might not.


I think before I rush on, you should probably know that I’ve had pretty scant experience with traditionally female undergarments. My fault entirely: this is something I should have rectified in pre-column research and I apologize for any gaping holes in the piece. So I’ll stick to what I know best: boys undies.


The question lies in the way society has come to view underwear. After all, as our dear Rosie shows, underwear can actually be really fascinating and invoke, incredibly, an almost erotic response. I know, I was shocked, too, at finding out Victoria’s secrets.


Underwear are, of course, garments interior to other forms of ornamentation – as jockstrap is followed by track pants, then so, too, is bra followed by t-shirt. It’s a near inescapable rule that if one sees another’s underwear whilst out and about, something is not quite right about that someone. Pop culture is, however, not content with this distinction. Pop culture can invert rules and march to its own drum; so what happens when pop culture takes the underwear paradigm and runs with it?


Kryptonian Dialectics, or Undies as Outies
Superman famously wears his red briefs on the outside of his costume. We’re not able to pin this clothing confusion on his Kryptonian heritage – a Smallville upbringing must certainly have prepared the youngest Kent on the vagaries of human apparel, an aspect he appears perfectly well-versed in as a mild-mannered reporter. Yet Kal-El chooses to flaunt this unspoken rule.


We can understand Superman’s color options and his adoption of the giant ‘S’ in his costume – they are his cultural inheritance from Krypton. His underwear inversion, however, was done by choice, Superman’s choice.


Despite being educated in the ways of humanity, right down to old-fashioned folksy farm wisdom, when Kal-El’s birthright was finally revealed to the young Clark Kent, the lad must have been compelled to re-assess his heritage and his place in the world. The realization must have quickly dawned on him that despite outward similarities, Kryptonians were not human nor could they ever be, so that must have been when he started to re-examine humanity from a unique outsider’s perspective.


The arbitrary distinction between clothing layers must have suddenly seemed inconsequential – why must such silly fashion rules apply to a superbeing? Rules of fashion could be followed for social acceptance but were otherwise they’re mere guidelines rather than strict law.


Superman never made any serious attempt to hide his alien heritage and yet, uncanny convergent evolution meant that he could masquerade as a puny earthling at will. The illusion of humanity might only be broken when he flexes his muscle or when Kal-El appears as Superman, all clad in blue. The costume was meant to herald the arrival of an alien, a super-being, and in some eyes, as near a god as capable of manifestation on Earth.


Indeed, Superman’s clothing inversion was a repudiation of prevailing Earthly trends, a proud symbol of an alien heritage and a subtle nod towards what it meant to be an alien supplicant for society’s attention. His underwear-as-outerwear choice might also be seen as an assertion of alien-superiority.


When Clark Kent becomes Kal-El by donning the red-and-blue, Superman cuts loose from the frail constraints human society emplaces on a superbeing – he inverts all the rules. Man is not meant to be faster than a speeding bullet, but Superman is. Man cannot leap over a building in a single bound, but Superman can. Man does not wear his briefs on the outside, but Superman does.


What mere mortal can stop Superman or tell him otherwise? To fly about in his underwear must feel like a cheeky, nearly mischievous, truly liberating release from the social constraints of mere humans. It must feel… wonderful.


Aaron Wee is Rhode Island-based and relatively happy. The two are not necessarily related. His wandering eye had previously led him to opine on a sex column, political commentary, and lifestyle reviews. This is a story very much in progress; he invites you to help him write it.


Cut of the Cloth
3 Mar 2010
Women have been flaunting their underwear for so long now we raise nary an eyebrow at the sighting of a g-string; but men were displaying their undies long before women even raised their hemlines.
10 Jan 2010
PopMatters debuts our new fashion column. Swinging London’s Mods were at the cutting edge of the fashion world, setting a trend of rebellious dress that altered practically nothing from the standards of contemporary British society.
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