An ode to underpants


We need to talk underpants.

Sean-Connery y fronts

More specifically male underpants, boxers – Y-fronts, boxer shorts, bikini briefs, sports supports, jock straps, under-crackers, budgie smugglers. The unloved and unlovable section of the wardrobe.

It all started yesterday. I was blogging about a hotel in Lincolnshire and casually mentioned the ironing board thoughtfully provided by the hotel management. This led inevitably to visions of decades of travelling salesmen standing in their underpants whilst pressing their suit trousers.

That was it. A throwaway reference to male underwear in an otherwise thoughtful and wide-ranging philosophical discussion. And yet that is what my good friends Patti and Gingerlily chose to focus on. I offered them musings on life, the importance of little details and the meaning of a counter-top bell that doesn’t work. And all they could see was my underwear.

So be it, ladies. For you (and as a special treat for me on my 51st birthday), here is my ode to underpants.

I suppose we have to start with the conundrum of the name. There is an inbuilt contradiction to the word “underpants”. For centuries we Brits have been trying to persuade Americans that the things we wear over our legs are called trousers and not pants.

The naming convention goes something like this:

Pants – nether garments mostly worn by children

Knickers – a generic term for any female pants

Panties – a subset of knickers tending towards the flimsy and lacy

Drawers/ bloomers – a subset of knickers tending towards the other end of the scale

Thongs – dental floss creations, and what short-tongued thingers thing.

Underpants – male underwear

That’s the problem. If pants are male knickers then “underpants” must go underneath those pants. Or we would have to do something that we hate and admit that the Americans are right. We would have to admit that trousers are pants which would then allow our underpants to go underneath them.

To add to the confusion, the word “pants” also means “rubbish” in some sections of male society. It’s all a bit pants, we would say. Which is odd as there are occasions when we would consider pants to be anything other than rubbish. For example, who can resist a little thrill of anticipation when the object of your affection offers to go upstairs and slip into something uncomfortable? And still we call that pants?

The plain fact of the matter is that male underpants do not fulfil the same function as female panties. They may be worn on a similar part of the anatomy (adjusting for local topographical differences), but they do a different job.

y fronts

It is part of male folklore that women used to throw their knickers at Tom Jones’ concerts. This has always intrigued me. First, it isn’t something we could imagine happening to a lady singer. I can’t imagine Shirley Bassey, Madonna or Taylor Swift being accosted by male boxer shorts. And anyway that would be more “ew” than “aw”.

A flag shaped liked giant knickers with the slogan 'I love Tom Jones' flies amongst other flags during singer Tom Jones' performance at the Glastonbury Festival 2009  June 28, 2009.   REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

But the practicalities of knicker-throwing are a little unclear. First we have the question of aerodynamics. Just how far could you throw one of the more string and lace creations? I have never tried this in stadium conditions, but from personal experience I know that hand-propelled lacy scraps can barely manage a flightpath to the other side of the bed.

Does this mean that the knicker-flinging is confined to ladies in the front row of the concert? But what do ladies in the cheap seats do? John Lennon once famously said:

“For those of you in the cheap seats I’d like ya to clap your hands to this one; the rest of you can just rattle your jewellery!”

He might have offered advice to those in the cheap seats about how to get your knickers to reach the stage. Perhaps a relay system where the underwear cascades in short hops from back to front?

Or maybe the underwear needs to be specially chosen for its aerodynamic qualities? We’re talking heavy duty corsetry rather than pared-down racing thongs.

Or maybe the idea is to wrap your knickers around something which is itself more suited to flight, such as a tennis ball or a remote controlled quadcopter?

And just how does the underwear throwing thing work? Do the ladies whip off their scanties mid-concert and chuck those? Do they bring along a second pair? Or perhaps nip off to the ladies to rearrange the foundations? We need to know.

Ahem. We digress. The point is that female knicker-throwing is cute. The male equivalent would be gross. One has sexual connotations – the promise of excitement to come. The other has laundry connotations and a mental image of a fast spin cycle at 40 degrees.

There is another thing. Men are more defined by their underwear than women.

I had better explain that. There was an occasion when a room full of women saw my underpants. And no it wasn’t during my brief career as a male stripper.

The year was 1983 and I was in the first year of my University course reading English Literature and Language. My Mum decided to send me the parental equivalent of a Red Cross parcel. Fool that I was, I somehow contrived to open the parcel whilst sitting with a group of friends.

First out of the parcel was a letter from home. No-one could object to that.

Next was a packet of jelly babies. My standing amongst my peers was instantly elevated as I handed these around, prompting the usual discussion about head-biting, leg-biting or whole-swallowing.

But then, horror of horrors, a bundle of blue cloth neatly folded at the bottom (ho, ho) of the parcel. I tried to hide them but my friend Kay pounced on them like a hawk eviscerating a rabbit. She held the offending underpants aloft for all to see.

I can remember it to this day. They were bright blue briefs with a little sporting motif around the left testicle area. A little motif of a chequered flag. Of all the things to put on your underpants. If you were ahead in the race to the point where someone was about to see your undercrackers, you would probably be disqualified when she saw that little chequered flag.

These dreadful items were duly passed around the ladies in the room to much merriment. And no matter how much I protested, everyone assumed that these underpants were what I wore all the time. I had become associated with Marks and Spencer briefs with a racing motif. I was labelled for all time. I was chequered flag man.

At some point in every man’s life he makes The Choice. Boxer shorts or Y-fronts? Briefs or thongs? Calvin Klein huggy jobs or going commando?

The Choice defines us, but the good news is that we only need to make it once. After that, we don’t really need to worry because mothers, wives, girlfriends or boyfriends will mostly buy them for us. And if we do need to buy our own, then again the choice is easy. We either go down to Marks and Sparks and buy new pants exactly like the ones we always get. Or if we are label obsessed we buy clothes with someone else’s name in them.

The sad fact is that few men look good in their underwear. The female form is enhanced by suitable underpinnings, but for men it is largely a pass/fail moment when they are either clean enough or you hit the square marked Go to directly Jail/ do not pass Go.

To represent the Mem’s opinions (the lovely woman who buys my underwear), I should accept them some men do look good in their underwear. If you like that sort of thing.

calvin klein

But I would contend that these Adonises (Adoni?) would look good in anything. Or nothing.

For most of us, male underwear is not a destination in itself. It is a waypoint, an in between stage. Underpants are the Newport Pagnell motorway services of your wardrobe. You pass through them on the way to something else – either fully clothed or fully nude. There will be few occasions in your life when it will be either appropriate or helpful to leave those underpants on, and only those underpants.

She can get away with it, but we can’t. Unfair and sexist, I know, but that’s just how it is.

And in case you are wondering, boxer shorts, Marks and Sparks, plain.


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