Underwear as Outerwear

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.

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.

Next Page

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.