Sunday 16 August 2015

Men's Underwear and Fight Club

One of my correspondents, Scott, emailed me with a question this week:
What do men's underwear and Fight Club have in common?
Manly: string vests
The answer is obvious. Brad Pitt looks good in both! But Scott has a point. He goes on:
Men get seriously squeamish talking about their underwear. They don't like to talk about wearing it, or buying it, or whether it's comfortable or uncomfortable. This is in stark comparison to women, who blog about their bras and openly talk about their favorite styles of underwear online and in the break room at work.

Men hate shopping for underwear in stores. They avoid sales people and other shoppers. They buy "extra" stuff they didn't need to take the focus off of the underwear at the cash register. And they wait until their old underwear is falling apart before buying new.  Why do they hate buying underwear so much?

Men's underwear has really never been built for comfort, but guys never talk about that.  They don't openly discuss what they are wearing, or how it is too restrictive, not supportive enough, or causes chafing.  Guys just "deal with it" as the stuff of life. This is rather interesting, because underwear is worn longer than any other article of clothing, yet guys put the least thought into it.

So let's take a look at some of these assertions. One of my favourite ever books is called Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping by Paco Underhill. Insightful, impeccably researched, light-hearted bordering on hilarious, it's a wonderful book which made me think in a whole new way about shopping. Underhill runs a company which observes shoppers: how they interact with retail spaces, with products, with other shoppers, with parking and escalators and trolleys. And every gesture, every movement, is recorded and quantified. How long a consumer spends looking at item A before putting it back on the shelf and buying item B. As a result, Underhill knows how shopping works.

I do all my own modelling, you know.
Underhill's book has an entire chapter called Shop Like a Man. It describes men's behaviour when they shop for everything: groceries, clothing, power tools, detergent, cars. And it contains this observation:
We caught a signal moment in the life of the modern American male on videotape. A man was browsing thoughtfully at an underwear display when he suddenly reached around, grabbed a handful of his waistband, pulled it out and craned his neck so he could learn--finally!--what size pants he wears. Try to imagine a woman who doesn't know her underwear size. Impossible. Someday soon, we can all hope, every man will know his.
Underhill's observation lends credence to Scott's point above, that men hate shopping for underwear. He makes the point that, traditionally, women have bought the man's underwear: Men have always bought their own suits and shoes, but women, traditionally, shopped for everything in between. Another point he makes is that stores are not well-designed for men; they are often designed with women shoppers in mind, and as a result have a host of subtle discouragements to men to shop there.

Sir, do you have any budgies on your person?
To take Scott's next comment: men's underwear has never been built for comfort--until recently, that is. I bought some "performance briefs" (for men), like these Jockey ones. They are made of a black synthetic material, which is snug and stretchy. The waistband is neat and holds well. The fabric is breathable and doesn't smell, which makes it ideal for cycling (which I do a fair bit of). But here's what really struck me: those briefs are surprisingly similar to some women's panties. Overall, they are so comfortable that I plan to phase out my cotton briefs and go for these entirely. To be clear, they don't "do it" for me in a crossdressing sense; they are just comfortable and practical.

I think men's underwear is a microcosm of masculine attitudes. First, in general men want clothing which is practical and functional. Job done, moving on. Our fathers and grandfathers wore string vests and braces and other unattractive accoutrements. They would have snorted with scorn if you had offered them a selection of snug, comfortable underwear: "What's wrong with pants knitted from old sandbags? They never wear out!" As a result, men's underwear has tended toward the plain and functional, the sort of thing you would wear while sawing logs or changing an engine block.

Second, women's underwear has (I believe) been frequently seen as being sexy. Women wear sexy underwear underneath their day clothes to make them feel special. I am sure it is no accident that many crossdressers begin with wearing underwear as their first and most cherished female garments. Women's underwear is attractive to look at; it has all sorts of little details and features adorning it. The fabric is luxuriant: lacy or velvety. You wouldn't wear that for mundane physical jobs; you would wear it to feel fabulous, at a party, out for the evening, for a special event. That goes along with the traditional image of women themselves as being delicate, fragile creatures.

Batman probably wears underwear like this.
Men don't wear underwear to feel sexy; they wear underwear to hold their bits in place. And on that subject, those of you who haven't spent much time Down Under might not have come across one of my favourite pieces of Australian slang, which is that tight swimming trunks for men are called budgie-smugglers, the idea being that the bit down the front resembles a budgie tucked in there. Cheep cheep!

I think the field of men's underwear probably is changing. I think it is becoming OK for men to buy their own underwear; I know I do. Is it OK to choose underwear for comfort? I think so. Many companies are now deliberately marketing underwear which is designed to be fashionable and comfortable for men. (This image is from Tommy John).

But, as with skirts for men, I don't quite think men are ready to rethink the relationship they have with their underwear. This underwear, pictured (the grey number), is indisputably comfortable and practical, and is definitely cool; the sort of thing which would look great in the changing-room at the gym. It looks like something Bear Grylls or Daniel Craig would wear. But here is what I see. It still says tough. It still says rugged. It is still (resolutely?) unadorned, in that gunmetal-grey colour. It might possibly be something a woman, or a gay man, might describe as sexy (though the occupant might have as much to do with that as the garment). But it definitely doesn't seem like something that most men might describe as sexy. It seems designed to evoke feelings associated with masculinity: preparedness, resolve, decisiveness, leadership. Let's face it: James Bond doesn't wear underwear which makes him feel sexy.

Crikey: you could smuggle a whole aviary in this lot!
As I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, for both women and men, beauty is something associated with women. So for underwear to make you feel sexy, it seems that both women and men turn to underwear associated with women. I've already drawn your attention to tights for men, but Australian company HommeMystere seems to be taking their lingerie collection for men to a whole new level: I see gorgeous little details. I see lacy. I see frilly. I see delicate. I see fabulous. I see some very awkward-looking male models! I also see their marketing seems deliberately heterosexual: sure, your girlfriend is gonna love you wearing that!

I also give an honourable mention to HerRoom, an online lingerie retailer which provides a very detailed section about lingerie shopping for men: forthright, welcoming and helpful (though it's not easy to find it from the front page). The wording and layout says: hey, if you're a guy who likes lingerie, we have no problem with that. Let us show you something you might be interested in.

Though I am quite impressed by HommeMystere and HerRoom and their approach (surely another sign that whatever men like to wear, it's all good), I am certain that they will remain on the periphery of the male market for a while yet. Men's underwear is already very in touch with Fight Club. What it needs is to get in touch with Titanic, with Mona Lisa Smile, with Mamma Mia. And that might mean breaking the First Rule.


My thanks to Scott for suggesting this topic. I've also written a blog post about men who like long nails.