Derived from the loose, full-cut shorts worn by professional boxers in the ring, boxer shorts are cotton or silk underdrawers with an elastic waistband, back panels, and buttoned front closure. The only form of underwear that can still be made to measure, many versions have vents at their sides to allow for ease of motion and to be unobtrusive beneath a well-tailored suit. The term is more often than not, shortened simply to “boxers.”
Boxer shorts trace their heritage back to the long woolen drawers worn by boxers in the nineteenth century. But it was when the heavyweight fighters Jim Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons both abandoned traditional boxers’ tights in favor of loose-fitting trunks, at the turn of the twentieth century, that an icon was born. Shorts of similar cut, made of lightweight fabrics, were soon being produced as underwear. Prior to the twentieth century, most men wore undergarments that were akin to those worn as far back as the Middle Ages. They consisted of tight-fitting linen under-trousers of varying length that, rather than having a fly front, had a buttoned opening at the rear.
Boxers gained popularity when they were issued to United States infantrymen for summer wear during World War I. As with many pieces of functional military clothing issued during both World Wars (the parka, duffle coat, trench coat, and T-shirt) soldiers retained their boxer shorts during peacetime and became instrumental in accelerating their adoption by the general population. Soldiers found their baggy undershorts to be comfortable both because of their loose fit and because they allowed air to circulate in warmer temperatures. The association with military men (as well as with professional prizefighters) may also have helped to make boxer shorts a symbol of manliness. Many men prefer boxer shorts to the more restrictive briefs for those reasons.
Although the underwear market has changed dramatically since the 1940s, with many men opting for tighter-fitting styles such as briefs and bikini shorts, men’s boxer shorts cut loosely and made of cotton or silk (or a mixture of the two) have remained standard men’s wear items. Once made only in white fabrics, boxers are available in every color as well as in novelty prints. Winston Churchill was said to be partial to pink boxer shorts, and Union-Jack boxer shorts were popular at the coronation of George V (they have since been adopted by British football hooligans). Like many other leisure garments, boxer shorts are often heavily branded with conspicuous designer names. Name brand designer versions by Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Armani, Tommy Hilfiger, and many others, of both boxers and briefs have turned the men’s underwear trade into a multimillion-dollar industry. Men’s underwear is no longer just a functional afterthought to completing a wardrobe, but an element in the creation of a casual-wear image. In the mid-1980s Jean Paul Gautier paraded a pair of men’s trousers down the catwalk with a pair of boxer shorts visibly built in, symbolizing their importance to the new male look.
In the twenty-first century, boxer shorts are still as relevant to men’s wear consumers as they have ever been. They have had an entirely new incarnation in hip-hop fashion, which established a trend for wearing them with very low-riding jeans or other trousers, with several inches of cloth (often including a brand-emblazoned waistband) of the boxers clearly visible.
Boxers or Briefs?
Although few custom tailors will take orders for bespoke boxer shorts any longer, neither will be they be impressed with a customer who prefers to wear briefs instead of boxers. Not only have briefs and thongs brought about the tightening of men’s trousers, to the dismay of tailors, they may have had adverse health consequences as well. Medical research points to evidence that tight underwear can lead to a low sperm count brought on by increased temperatures. Boxer shorts on the other hand offer the wearer greater movement of air, which keeps the temperature lower. Thus for medical as well as sartorial reasons, boxer shorts seem likely to remain a staple item of male dress. But ultimately the choice between boxers and briefs is an individual one, subject to the essential goals of cleanliness and comfort.
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