Seismic shifts rarely happen in men's underwear. Many guys spend a lifetime donning the same kind of drawers, day after day, with little interest in switching to some newfangled design. For generations, starting in the 1940s, the American man has focused on two basic options: boxers or briefs. Yet both of these classic undergarments have today been eclipsed by a style that didn't exist 25 years ago.
Boxer briefs—with the length of traditional boxer shorts and the form-fitting profile of briefs—are the overwhelming national favorite, laying claim to nearly 40 percent of the $2.7 billion U.S. men’s underwear market, according to data from NPD Group. The style has continued to gain ground as men abandon loose underwear in favor of slimmer, more secure undies. Boxer briefs have “become the expected product, rather than the experimental one,” says NPD's Marshal Cohen. “It started out as very avant-garde—a statement piece. ... The shock factor of what it was, and why it was, is gone.”
How did the style go from a sexy curiosity to total ubiquity? The biggest reason for the great boxer brief takeover is the desire for comfort. Pants shrunk as fashion trends slimmed silhouettes, driving men away from boxers that risk bunching up underneath tight jeans or chinos. Men are also largely shopping for their own clothes these days, researching fabrics and styles and coming to see even the color of their underwear as an interesting choice. Undergarment styles are more varied than ever before. If snugness is a priority, there are skimpy but supportive styles such as low-, mid-, or high-cut briefs. Boxers exist for those seeking more freedom. The more adventurous can choose jockstraps, bikini-styled underwear, thongs, or even g-strings. All these options have made men more daring—and helped bring boxer briefs to a dominant position inside the national underwear drawer.
Hybrids such as boxer briefs and trunks (with shorter legs than the boxer brief) have hit a happy medium of comfort and coverage that helped sell men on the change. "The advent of the boxer brief really aligns really well with comfort. It tucks in nicely to your jeans and makes you feel like everything is tight and in place," says Brian Berger, chief executive of underwear maker Mack Weldon. "From that perspective it was a really different experience with what people were used to."
Boxer briefs didn't do it alone. The upstart underwear enjoyed years of support from prominent men's style magazines, which routinely warn readers that loyalty to classic undies is out of step with fashion. “If you’re still wearing boxers, it’s time to get with the times,” declared GQ in typical bit of advice. “Boxer briefs do everything underwear should do; they are the height of our undergarment civilization,” proclaimed Esquire in another evergreen underwear buying guide. “If boxers are the London broil of underwear,” explained Details with a strange meat analogy, “boxer briefs are the filet mignon.”
Shoppers noticed and abandoned their boxers. U.S. sales of the looser, baggier style have plummeted 14 percent in the past year, according to NPD, leaving boxers at just 18 percent of the total underwear market.
From street-level boutiques to massive mall department stores, virtually every retailer now puts the boxer brief “front and center” in their underwear sections, says Tom Julian, men’s fashion director at the Doneger Group, a retail and merchandising consulting firm. What was once a commoditized product dominated by basic boxers and straightforward white briefs now boasts elaborate showrooms. Take Macy’s massive flagship store in New York City’s Herald Square: The men's area is peppered with brand-focused minishops by such underwear brands as Under Armour, Diesel, and 2(x)ist.
The modern history of men's underwear is rather brief. Flannel drawers and long johns ruled until the Y-front brief first hit store shelves in 1935. Arthur Kneibler’s simple Jockey briefs, with their heightened level of support, were an instant hit. Boxers designed by Everlast’s Jacob Golomb, which had been around since the mid-1920, caught on after World War II. Boxers and briefs duked it out all the way through the 1990s, evidenced by America’s captivation with President Bill Clinton’s loins when a high school student famously asked him: “Is it boxers or briefs?”
The boxer brief style, as we know it today, originated at Calvin Klein in the early 1990s. Fashion designer John Varvatos was head of the menswear division, and his team started an underwear revolution with a simple flash of inspiration. Varvatos, who would go on to found his own posh fashion house in 1999, recalled the process in an interview two decades later: “We just cut off a pair of long johns and thought, this could be cool.”
Enter Mark Wahlberg. The actor and producer rose to fame in the 1990s as a rapper named Marky Mark. He appeared in a 1992 Calvin Klein ad wearing nothing more than a pair of boxer briefs and a backwards baseball cap, right hand firmly affixed on his groin. A series of racy ads featuring Wahlberg and supermodel Kate Moss followed, including a famous photo of a topless Moss, then 17 years old and relatively unknown, straddling Wahlberg as he sat on the floor. Both celebrities have since scoffed at those ads—Moss said the risqué shoot drove her to a “nervous breakdown,” Wahlberg calls the ads embarrassing—but the world of underwear would never be the same.
At first, helped by the Calvin Klein ads, the new underwear was regarded as a sexy curiosity—an alternative style for the more intrepid male even though the boxer brief isn’t particularly scanty or revealing. “Men, no matter what their age range is, they associate the boxer brief with being sexy,” says Jason Scarlatti, creative director and vice president for design at 2(x)ist, an underwear brand that’s seen double-digit growth in boxer briefs sales over the past year.
Sexualized marketing continues to play a big role in the public image of boxer briefs, even as consumers embrace the undies for comfort. International soccer star David Beckham has caused a Wahlberg-like fuss modeling underwear for H&M since 2012, two decades after the original Calvin Klein ads. Beckham donned tighty whities and loungewear, too, yet boxer briefs were the main attraction: The Swedish fashion retailer even erected glistening silver statues of Beckham clad in nothing but boxer briefs in New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco as part of the campaign. Justin Bieber had his own Calvin Klein photo shoot in 2015 with supermodel Lara Stone. There was no shortage of swooning over the pop star in boxer briefs.
But baring skin isn’t everything. Adam Dinkes, chief executive of premium underwear maker Tani, believes sexy advertising serves only to capture initial attention. Men stick with boxer brief because they weigh options for themselves and make their own purchases. “There’s a lot more information,” he says. “It’s a more self-educated customer or a more curious customer.” Men have taken a heightened interest in activewear and a recent offshoot dubbed athleisure, which are clothes that can be worn to the gym and in everyday life.
Mack Weldon's Berger agrees shoppers are now looking for a practical base layer that can provide both performance and comfort. “It’s gone beyond sex,” he says. “It’s more about performance and an active lifestyle. Even if you’re not jumping over hurdles or playing basketball, you’re navigating the daily grind.”
The popularity of figure-hugging undergarments is now prompting an explosion of experimentation with fabrics as underwear gets a high-performance makeover. Premium brands have introduced more ambitious designs, while athletic-wear stalwarts such as Lululemon, Under Armour, Nike, and Adidas made moves to slice off the upper-end of the market by promising robust masculinity alongside unmatched functionality. At the top of the underwear market, such companies as Frigo sell $100 micro polyamide and Lycra elastane boxer briefs that feature a netted pouch and a cooling barrier. Another high-priced brand, Tani, sells $50 performance boxer brief made from Superfine Cupro, Japanese polyester, and Spandex. The brand claims the fabric has “almost magical qualities,” with a built-in moisture management system and drying abilities.
Even mass-market boxer briefs are starting to make elevated performance claims. Hanes has X-Temp boxer briefs meant to adapt to body temperature. Japanese retail powerhouse Uniqlo has fabric technology called AIRism, which is supposed to be cool to the touch, wick away perspiration, and control odor. It's not available yet in the U.S. as boxers or briefs—just boxer briefs, even though the company already developed those garments, too. Steven Sare, chief merchandising officer of Uniqlo USA, says there's a simple reason the retailer brought in the boxer brief version first.
"The boxer brief is by far the No. 1 silhouette in men's innerwear bottoms," says Sare. "It is the ubiquitous silhouette."
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