A woman I know asked me recently what kind of underwear men are wearing nowadays: boxers or briefs? My answer was that I didn't know. The last underwear I bought was a clearance-priced three-pack of cotton boxers, but, being essentially homeless, I'm happy for any clean pair of underwear, fashioned within reason, that I can get my hands on; I'm not in a position to obsess about contour or fit. I feel as though I probably have plenty of underwear, but it's hard to guess in which of the various houses and apartments I pass through that this underwear might currently reside.
In truth, my qualifications as a men's underwear trend analyst are poor: I can think of exactly two facts that might qualify me, and Fruit of the Loom isn't likely to float me a lucrative job offer based on either one. The first is that I'm male. The second is that I spend a couple of hours a week in the company of other males who are dressing, undressing, or already undressed and, as such, I often see them in their underwear. The explanation for this second fact is that my homelessness encompasses showerlessness, and being unburdened with a private shower, I use public ones — at the Y, at a couple of public golf courses, at health clubs, at Lake Afton when the weather is warmer, at WSU, and at other places that I won't list since although those facilities are good enough to act as my host — "Hygiene Hosts" I call them — it's also true that, ideally, they aren't typically aware that I'm there. My opinion, for what it's worth, is that I see a lot of boxer briefs; but given the volume of underwear that passes through my field of vision weekly, it's a watery observation — not scientific, because I don't really pay attention, and certainly not something that would suffice as an answer for my friend.
Half the population comprises men. What are we wearing under our jeans? I decided rather arbitrarily to seek an answer by questioning various well-known figures from Wichita's arts and culture scene; my plan was to use them as a kind of control group, and even though this plan never made a lick of sense to begin with, at least I understood that it didn't right from the start.
First I called Wayne Gottstine of Split Lip Rayfield. "Wayne," I said when he answered, "what kind of underwear do you have on?" There was a pause. Had I awakened him? "It's Jake," I explained.
I think it's a measure of Wayne's infinite cool that, grogginess aside, he never missed a beat. "I wear a variety of extra tight underpants," he told me. "Colored briefs." He went on to say that the reason for the variety is that his wife, Tanya Tandoc, who clearly was present as Wayne spoke, "tends to wear them a lot." Tanya could be heard in the background refuting this claim. I asked Wayne about his Split Lip Rayfield accomplices Jeff Eaton, Eric Mardis, and Kirk Rundstrom*: having spent the equivalent of a life sentence in their company while relentlessly touring the United States by van, I guessed that Wayne could tell me all about those men's underwear preferences, too — it would save me three calls.
"Well, Jeff and Eric are boxer guys," Wayne told me, "and Kirk never goes in too much for underwear."
Next I got Fisch Haus artist Kent Williams on the phone.
"It depends," Kent told me when I asked him about his personal underwear strategy. "In winter I usually wear Patagonia Capilene…"
I interrupted to ask him what words he was pretending to say, what on earth this alleged Patagonia Capilene was. He directed me to a website for Patagonia — the word refers to a maker of clothing as well as a region of Argentina — and there, under the heading Men's Performance Baselayers (not Men's Underwear) I found Kent's exotic words. In the meantime Kent had continued on without me: the rest of the year, he was saying, he usually "goes commando," another phrase I had never heard prior to commencing this article. In context I deduced that what Kent meant was that he usually forgoes underwear — Patagonia Capilene (which to me sounds like a mushroom sauce) presumably included. That is, he went on, he goes commando unless he's wearing pants with a Velcro fly, and the hoopy side of the Velcro, as opposed to the other side of the Velcro, is pointing in, thus "attacking the penis," to use his words; in that case, he wears silk boxer shorts from Aleta's Lingerie. Kent's mother, I happen to know, is Aleta's Lingerie, and so it made sense to me that he would.
I placed more calls. Moviemaker and Wichita City Paper film critic Jason Bailey, more audibly nonplussed than the others, revealed that he wears basic cotton boxers, "the kind you get in bulk at Sam's." These I imagined as being completely unadorned; does Jason also have a silly pair, something with, say, Count Dooku on them? "One year my wife got me two pairs with the Simpsons," he said rather apologetically. Jedd Beaudoin, another WCPcolleague, responded to my question by saying that it was funny I had asked, but then went on to explain that it was funny because of a coincidence — he has recently been transitioning from boxers to boxer briefs, and so the subject has been on his mind — and not simply because I was asking, which is what I would have thought.
Next I heard from Albert Goldbarth, two-time winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry; his succinct yet powerful answer, which he created spontaneously upon hearing my question and which I here report verbatim, was:
Briefs, occasionally laundered.
Artist Wade Hampton subsequently cast his straightforward vote for boxer briefs, and messages were left for former Eagle film critic Bob Curtright and for Mike Marlett, my editor here at Wichita City Paper, neither of whom returned my call.
For the Adventure Lover
In asking her question, my friend had limited the answers available to me to "boxers" or "briefs." However, the results of my informal poll, while largely just as useless as predicted, do suggest a viable third choice, one that synchs with my own observation of men in the locker room before and after pants: boxer briefs. Could there be still more contenders for the favorite men's underwear honor?
I checked the Internet. After first encountering a really unsettling — and, I hope, unnecessary — bit of guidance ("Men's underwear is sized according to a man's waist size, not his pouch or cup size" — I swear to god that I read this) and after then noticing against my will which brand of underwear the hottie Justin Timberlake wears, I ran across a helpful list of contemporary men's undergarments. Abovementioned styles aside, options include:
The Bikini: Possibly because its grip-of-death fit is likely to cause sterility, the bikini is named for the tropical Pacific atoll where the USA conducted nuclear weapons testing throughout the forties and fifties. This indecorous variation on the classic brief rides four inches below the waistline; although European men are known to flaunt bikinis well into their golden years, a practical domestic solution to the problem of those four inches — that's a lot of skin — might be to limit the bikini's stateside ownership to women, hand-selected athletes, and men no older than twenty-four. I've seen the bikini brief deployed in the locker room by men who fall far outside those boundaries, and it's weird how much more embarrassing it is to catch sight of them before they take their bikini briefs off than it is after.
The Long John: For me the words conjure vague images of moonshine of near-lethal potency, unlicensed cars modified to run on kerosene, banjos, catastrophic dental neglect, and a primitive system of "mountain" justice that's based on a hatred of city folk and is randomly applied. In reality these ankle-length drawers made their public debut as an outfit worn by boxer John L. Sullivan long before OxyContin swept through the Appalachians, and the term now refers to any binding and/or itchy bottoms that extend at least to the calf.
The Sports Brief: This humane alternative to the athletic supporter thoughtfully incorporates a back panel in addition to the standard waistband, leg straps, and cup, and in retail settings it's labeled and sold like other clothing, unlike the jock strap, which is typically crammed into a little box marked MEN'S ATHLETIC SUPPORTER and hung from a pegboard alongside darts and air rifles in the sporting goods section at discount stores. For the sake of female readers I'll mention that being seen in an athletic supporter for even a split second is singularly demeaning — worse, for example, than getting bitch-slapped at a crowded Dillons by a high school buddy who has caught you buying hose — and that they look like unseemly medical devices or some kind of primitive clown gear when worn by all but the top fifteen or twenty sexiest men in the world.
The String Bikini: As nearly as I can tell, the existence of the men's string bikini is purely conjectural, like a fantastic, thirty-foot sea creature whose presence in the sea, science assures us, is likely, despite the fact that actual sightings of it originate with crazy people and are extremely rare. Although men's string bikinis are shown in pictures on the Internet, including one in which an adult male seems actually to be wearing one around his waist, thus partially concealing his genitals, most experts agree that they're fakes; they point out that the likelihood of a man somehow obtaining such an item, and then actually stepping into what would be its "leg holes" and subsequently pulling the entire apparatus up over his bare legs until its "band" is secured around his hips, is too remote to consider from a scientific point of view, and that even if a man were able to achieve that much, societal pressures would cause a quick reversal of his behavior. It's interesting to speculate about, but we probably need to drop it for the time being: we'll end up scaring the kids.
There are still more varieties of men's underthings; I haven't even touched on thongs ("This," one industry website states, "is the most unpopular style for men. Most people agree that thongs are not sexy"; but reading about them, what I thought of was a passage from a Christian tract I picked up recently: "God's will is that the human form should be covered, not displayed. Satan uses various methods to undermine God's standard of modest dress"), action bikinis, or athletic strings ("Buddy, I'm sorry to intrude but your jock strap is coming untied"). According to the available evidence, no one wears those things, and it turns out that my friend's boxers/briefs assumption was right on the money: In the $13 billion a year underwear industry, boxers and briefs are the styles closest to men's… Sorry — I can't think of the word.
A Silent Majority
And of the two, white cotton briefs are clear victors, consistently outsell all other men's underwear by a wide margin. I encountered this fact again and again on reference and industry websites, and my confidence of its truth was such that I repeated it to my inquiring friend as the gospel truth.
For me, though, a new question arises: Who's wearing them? Here's a partial list of guys I talked to who don't:
Doobie, a guy in his early twenties who wouldn't tell me his exact age, his real name, or what he does for a living; overhearing me talking to someone else, he merely asserted, kind of violently, that he doesn't wear briefs, and then left. I made up the rest;
Paul, a 25-year-old bar employee, and his co-worker Jeff, also 25. Paul reported that he wore "anything but briefs"; Jeff used to wear boxers but decided that "they didn't work";
Lowell, a 34-year-old student who was forced by circumstances to blow $28 on a pair of Versace boxer briefs one day (it's a long story having to do with a zipper) and faithlessly gave up boxers for them;
Jay, 39, who now owns over sixty pairs of boxers, but who, in high school, wore "cock-sling bikini briefs. I had a pair by Brut";
Bill, 41, a city employee, who stopped wearing briefs because "you'd be wearing them and then one day all of a sudden they'd just blow out";
Brad, a 44-year-old teacher, who, though straight, cultivates a gay image, and thus wears the kind of underwear that you usually see only in Chelsea store windows or International Male;
Bill II, 50 and unemployed, who wears boxers because he "can't afford briefs," which he insists are far more expensive; and,
Martin, a 51-year-old office worker who went on a double-date with his roommate while still in college in the seventies. When Martin's date offered the opinion that briefs were "weird," "despicable," and "for old people," Martin privately persuaded his roommate to swap out the boxers he was wearing for the briefs that Martin had on. The two retired to the men's room of the restaurant where they were dining. Martin's roommate neglected to lock the door, however, and when another patron walked in to find the two men standing naked from the waist down with their underwear in their hands, he complained to a manager; the manager, in turn, expelled the men and their dates from the restaurant, yelling, "Fruits!" at them across the entire length of the parking lot as they made their way to the car.
When I was growing up there were only briefs, and, if I remember it correctly, it took John Travolta walking around in black underwear in Saturday Night Fever before colors were widely introduced. Every single guy in my high school class wore briefs — or at least all those with whom I had gym — and when I bought my first pair of boxers I had to get them at Sears. (The single exception in my underwear drawer was a pair of bright red, low-rise bikini briefs, made of see-through netting, that my Grandma Ella mailed me from Los Angeles when I was only twelve or thirteen. Why?) I could never have foreseen the day that I would walk into a thrift store, as I did a few years ago, and find a pair of scandalous white briefs, trimmed in red, on which an eager dill pickle stood front and center above the caption, "Hold the Pickle!" When I turned this underwear over another surprise awaited me: the previous owner had spelled out the word VENDETTA across the butt in bold, black iron-on letters.
For men, underwear just used to be a thing that you wore so that you were even more exactly like everyone else in the locker room, or, in case you really did crash the car, as a courtesy to emergency personnel. Now that it's a statement I find that I maybe liked it better the other way around.
Because what is this VENDETTA guy trying to say?
* After this piece was written, I learned that Kirk Rundstrom had become very sick again. In a hundred ways Kirk is a hero to me, and I want to say here that I love him and that I'm thinking about him night and day. I hope that the rest of you who love him too will do the same.