As we all well know from the MySpace photos that keep resurfacing, actor Tom Hardy is quite a fan of tighty-whities—or as he more specifically referred to the undergarment in a recent Sky News interview, “my tighty-whitey budgie smugglers.”
“I might not be an Adonis, but I like to think of myself as an Adonis in that photo,” the Mad Max star said of an especially (in)famous shot of him clothed only in a very, very baggy pair of white briefs, leaning to the side as an endearing paunch hangs over the band.
All the power to Hardy for embracing his tighty-whities look with full force. And he looks quite good.
But that’s the thing, he’s in tighty-whities--one of the most stigmatized, maligned articles of clothing a man can own. Short of the mock turtleneck and the sweater vest, is there any male garment that codes faster for clueless dweeb?
Certainly, there are some very sexy exceptions. Tom Cruise has never been more attractive than when he was rocking tighty-whities while grooving out to “Old Time Rock and Roll” in 1983’s Risky Business.
Matt Bomer more than pulled off the tighty-whities look in his very gruesome turn on American Horror Story.
When he hosted the 2015 Oscars Neil Patrick Harris was nothing short of perfection in a tighty-whities get-up meant to spoof the scene in Birdman when Michael Keaton goes running around in his underwear.
But the washed-up middle-aged has-been that Keaton plays in Birdman is closer to the type we usually think of as wearing tighty-whities. Or, there’s Seinfeld’s Kramer (played by Michael Richards) strutting into an underwear model audition in tighty-whities, utterly oblivious to his own ridiculousness as ever.
When I asked a male friend if tighty-whities were cool, he responded, “In what universe?”
It wasn’t merely an aesthetic consideration--comfort was the dominant concern for him and other penis-possessors surveyed.
“Gotta keep your boys in a safe environment so they can swim. Gotta be temperate,” my friend explained of his issue with tighty-whities.
“I cannot stand them,” Zachary Kolin, a 27-year-old New Yorker, said. “They get all up in my junk and it feels very suffocating. It feels really uncomfortable. It gets all up in my thigh. It's all these ways of being uncomfortable smushed into one thing.”
A slew of my male colleagues also denounced the tighty-whities for various comfort and stylistic reasons.
But maybe we were all thinking of the wrong tighty-whities?
The current conception of tighty-whities is not, in fact, completely clear. Moreover, the design has changed since it hit the first department stores more than eight decades ago.
When Arthur Kneibler designed what we know have come to refer to as tighty-whities in 1934, he was inspired by a postcard he received from the French Riviera showing a man in a bikini-style of bathing suit, according to Laura Clark’s Smithsonian article on the underwear’s history.
While boxers and long johns were already available, Kneibler designed a “legless” pair “with a ‘Y-front’” to make “it nearly as supportive as a jockstrap,” writes Clark.
That’s why Kneibler first called them jockey shorts and eventually changed his underwear company name to Jockey, now of the most ubiquitous underwear makers in the country.
When the first 600 tighty-whities went on sale on January 19, 1935 at Marshall Fields in Chicago, the entire stock sold out in a single day.
“Jockey invented the men’s brief, and it continues to be a timeless classic today,” Sean Radford, Jockey director of men’s design, told The Daily Beast. “The brief is certainly a good fit under slimmer pants for today’s modern man. So, it certainly has a place in the modern man’s underwear drawer.”
For a while, tighty-whities and boxers were the only game in town—then came Calvin Klein and specifically his 1992 ad featuring a young Mark Wahlberg, grabbing his crotch.
“The Mark Wahlberg Calvin Klein campaign spurred awareness. That was a defining moment,” Brian Berger, founder and CEO of underwear company Mack Weldon told me. “A lot of guys, including myself, shifted from tighty whities or boxers to that look. You wanted to look like that, not schlumpy.”
Today, boxer briefs are the dominant style, according to consumer research conducted by NDP Group. They make up about 40 percent of the $2.7 billion men’s underwear industry in the U.S.
As Kim Bahsin wrote in BloombergBusiness this year, the classic briefs and boxers have “today been eclipsed by a style that didn't exist 25 years ago.”
But that doesn’t mean people have stopped buying briefs, or specifically, tighty-whities.
According to Berger, 15 percent of Mack Weldon’s sales are in briefs, and 52 percent of those are in “fashion colors,” aka not white.
Therefore, one can conclude that the tighty-whities were not their big seller, so I asked Berger who he thought the tighty-whities consumer was.
“I think older, like 50-plus, more of a mass-market customer. You know, not necessarily super-focused on fashion,” he said.
However, Berger also qualified that the tighty whities’ cachet depended on the context.
“The Walter White, Kramer tighty-whities are very different from our brief. Traditional ones, likes Hanes, Fruit of the Loom, and Jockey have been stigmatized from those characters,” he said.
A peek at Mack Weldon’s brand of white briefs, simple as they may be, by no means resemble the classic image of the saggy, diaper-esque tighty-whities.
These briefs have tight stitching and mesh zones to “keep you cool in all the right places,” as the description notes. Such features would rectify at least some of my male friends’ complaints about tighty-whities.
Mack Weldon’s speaks to a widening gap between the mass market, commercial type of tighty-whities and the fashion-forward take.
This disparity may also explain why so many of the underwear designers I spoke to described today’s tighty-whities as stylish and trendy.
“It’s making a huge comeback,” Ron Miller, the owner of Jack Adams underwear and activewear, said of tighty-whities.
“You can definitely see around with other brands that they’re highlighting more basic stuff with briefs,” he said, adding that “we’ve noticed online that the trend towards basic brief has probably doubled over the spring season.”
“Men love their classic white briefs and won't let them go,” Mehdi Mebarki, CEO of Garçon Model, a men’s underwear company, wrote in an email to The Daily Beast.
In fact, Mebarki went so far as to say they are “a staple of men’s fashion just as much as the little black dress for women.” He added that “tighty-whities are definitely a best seller” for Garçon Model.
However, Mebarki also noted the company doesn’t merely replicate the decades-old style.
“Our goal was to modernize the tighty-whitie [while] trying to keep its classic appeal with a sexier, more modern cut,” he said. “We strive to provide tighty-whities with comfort that keep [their] shape all day without being frumpy.”
So, why do so many of male friends and colleagues have such a negative reaction to the very mention of “tighty-whities,” lamenting both the discomfort and dorkiness?
Miller wasn’t surprised by the response.
“Most dudes on the street are probably wearing boxer briefs and trunks, but the trends in [higher-end] stores is towards briefs,” he said.
These later and, shall we say, more sophisticated tighty-whities are an evolved form of the suburban dad sad sack pair of the past. They just haven’t reached the mainstream—yet.
“It's not your basic Hanes, big-ass boxer briefs from the Walmart store,” Miller said. “We’re actually working on a campaign that this is not your father’s underwear. It’s not the basic cotton. It’s cotton mesh. There’s some athletic racing stitching with the tighty-whities design. We have sewing details.”
Best of all, the caboose can look quite good in these tighty-whities. As Miller says: “It makes the butt look nicer in shape. The features are trickling down from the women’s market, and make guys look good, too.”
Miller believes that tighty-whities may very well make a triumphant, complete return and even gain a sexiness they never had. In fact, they may be the perfect touch for the macho man who still can’t admit how good it feels to flaunt a little (or a lot) of sex appeal.
“Men want to feel sexy, too,” explains Miller. “They just don’t want to admit it. Guys are traditionally conservative, but they can keep on the three-piece suit, and no one will know what kind of underwear they have on.”
Then again, Miller’s got skin in the game (pun intended) when it comes to changing the perception of tighty-whities.
“Personally,” he said, “I’m a tighty-whities dude.”