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.
Long Before Superman’s Reds, there was the Codpiece
Long Before Superman’s Reds, there was the Codpiece
The codpiece began as a rather peculiar Renaissance male fashion accessory; a device attached to the front of the trousers to accentuate the genitals. The 16th century saw this particular kind of underwear as outerwear rise to the height of prominence both in size and ubiquity.
It’s rather ridiculous nature was quickly realized, mocked by humorists of the day (Rabelais, Shakespeare, et al) before fading to fashion death by the beginning of the 17th century. This would, however, not be the last the world would see of the codpiece.
Given its incredibly, some might say disturbingly, phallic nature, the codpiece would slip into contemporary fashion trends that sought to emphasize raw masculine sexuality. The heavy eroticization implied in dangling one’s googlies in a sheath found natural affinity in later centuries, in both the leather subculture of fashion and in heavy metal performance, where sexual exaggeration was de rigueur.
The 20th century interpretation of the leather codpiece came into its own in a moment of sexual liberation. The codpiece, so redolent with primeval connections of masculinity, promoted a growing idea of masculine independence and disaffect with societal expectations of men. This was, in a sense, a deliberate overcompensation of one’s masculinity and a subversion of what mainstream society of the day assumed (or expected) a gay man to be.
By adopting the codpiece, ‘70s-era practitioners of the leather subculture broke free from the ’50s/’60s stereotyping of gay men as effeminate. Thanks to the codpiece, gay was now hyper-masculine.
It’s a little known fact that Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver released a line of trousers with built-in codpieces in 1975. A radical social critic and charismatic political leader, Cleaver attempted to reinvigorate heterosexual male fashion – even releasing a clear plastic version of the codpiece. We may also assume this was a deliberate affront to white society’s hyped fear of black male sexuality.
Cleaver’s proposed fashion renaissance of the everyday codpiece fell, mercifully, limp, and he will be remembered for other, more important contributions to American society.
Gene Simmons in protective gear
Soon thereafter, in its efforts to shock the morals and values of Middle America, heavy metal would find the image of the codpiece endlessly exploitable. Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull was perhaps one of the first musical icons to wear a codpiece during concerts, but arguably Judas Priest was the band to really establish the codpiece in the heavy metal repertoire. Borrowing liberally from the leather subculture, and promoting that familiar ‘devil may care’ trope, leather codpieces, further complimented with authoritarian aesthetics of pusedo-militaria and police-style uniforms, created an image both menacing and hedonistic – further exemplifying the heavy metal ethos.
It was only a matter of time before black metal, with its heavy satanic imagery, would take up the notion, as well. Borrowing the strong masculine associations found in leather subculture and the hedonism of heavy metal, black metal transformed the codpiece into an aggressive and petulant symbol of rage, lust, and perversion.
Fortunately, even in Hell, humor yet lives; William Murderface is known to be a codpiece wearer, and black metal band GWAR’s front man calls his headcrab-esque codpiece ‘Cuttlefish of Cthulu’. (See here, if you dare.) Even then, the most terrifying codpiece released would still probably be the John Galliano nightmare of 2008. Assembled in the world after Mad Max, Paris was treated to the sort of devilry only certified geniuses could get away with.
The notion of underwear as outerwear for the average man would not, however, end there.
Lil Wayne demonstrating the double sag
Guys Who Sag
It is hard to find a contemporary underwear trend that is as controversial or sartorially-inelegant as “sagging” — committing one’s pants to such a loose and low level that a creeping boxer-clad ass can be seen — nay, cannot avoid being seen — hanging out the back. This fashion choice is, undoubtedly, amazingly comfortable, providing one doesn’t have to run to catch a bus, or lift one’s legs up the steps of a bus — but so is say, wearing pajamas. Yet there is something just so sloppy, inane and… silly about sagging that mainstream society, including myself, just can’t see the statement for the ridiculousness of its expression.
The practice of appearing in public with one’s jeans nearly down to one’s knees became so repugnant to some that in 2004-2005, state legislatures in Louisiana and Virginia attempted to make the act of deliberately exposing one’s underwear in this manner an offense. The offence was extended to girls and g-strings/thongs but arguably, given its rapid proliferation, this was an attack on saggers. The attempts cited, in their preambles, some vague moral or value based argument meant to preserve the state’s character or dignity. As much as one would like to sartorially criticize sagging as a fashion statement, as a society America might do better to condemn the politicos’ attempts to apply law to fashion.
Nevertheless, it remains that the trend of sagging is a disheartening indictment of the state of some youths’ fashion sense. Yes, it does invert the traditional garment paradigm (whilst negating the caveat about being Superman), and its aesthetic merit is questionable, but it’s also in danger of setting a dangerous new precedent.
Sagging offends the mainstream not only because one’s undies are quite, quite outie, but also because of its widespread adoption amongst the disaffected and disenfranchised. The fashion began in correctional facilities (not as, some might say, a signal of one’s willingness to receive anal sex voluntarily) and, in the early ’90s, quickly spread through the hip hop community by way of glorification of the O.G (original gangster) and became an informal system of social-identification; a glorification of the thug life and a visible commentary on what prisons in America meant for its revolving-door inmates — a way of life.
These young men expressed immense discontent at a society that was failing them (and set up to structurally fail them due to issues of racial profiling and a stilted justice system) in a “politics that does not look like politics” civil, everyday action form of protest: sagging. From rappers like Ice-T, the trend spread nationwide; sagging one’s pants and flashing one’s undies meant expressing one’s solidarity with friends and family incarcerated in prison. It became a statement about one’s musical and socio-economic affiliation, and finally, emerged fully-formed as a purely aesthetic fashion trend.
However, the act of sagging quickly lost its political bite and social commentary through imitation. Sagging has, in other words, gone mainstream and for this reason, it’s a trend that may very well be in its last throes, but the impulse to flaunt one’s undies will live on.
What form men’s undies as outies may take next is anyone’s guess. One thing seems certain, though: underwear is out, now, and it ain’t never going back. Superman and a few others have seen to that.