Originally created 09/30/97

Comfort under the belt



Mark Power loves his black Harley-Davidson boxers. He has no idea where they are, but he loves them.

His wife, Debbie, hates them. They might show up in her rag basket, she says. She hates all his boxers, so she stopped buying them.

"I don't like him in boxers," Mrs. Power says. "It makes him look like an old man."

About 60 percent of men's underwear is purchased by women, manufacturer Joe Boxer reported last year.

"Men's underwear is bought in bulk by the women in their lives," says Valerie Steele, chief curator of the Fashion Institute of Technology's museum in New York City. "They stock up on it the way you stock up on kitty litter. It's a staple, not a conscious fashion choice."

The average guy owns more than 450 pairs of underwear in his lifetime, according to Fruit of the Loom. So they know what they like.

"Guys are actually very particular about their underwear," says Denise Slattery, vice president of marketing for Joe Boxer in San Francisco.

The label can't itch. The waistband has to stretch. And the cotton has got to be sturdy, Ms. Slattery says.

"If men don't notice their underwear that's a good thing," says Dirk Herrman, vice president of Brand Marketing for Fruit of the Loom. "If it's comfortable and they don't even have to think about it, they're happy."

Boxers were invented during World War I, so our boys wouldn't have to kick the Kaiser in itchy knickers.

Even more popular (and more supportive) Jockey shorts were invented in 1934 - giving men a lift during the Depression.

Over the years, fertility doctors favored boxers, thinking briefs overheated men's testicles, resulting in sluggish sperm. But it turns out that's just an old wives tale (probably created by a woman who hates seeing European men in Speedos).

Bruce Gilbert assistant clinical professor of urology at the State University of New York at Stoneybrook, surveyed 97 men and took the temperature of their testicles. With briefs, they heated up to 33.6 degrees Celsius. In boxers they were 33.8 degrees Celsius. Not much difference.

Ms. Steele says men probably just didn't want snug, sexy underwear, so they scared other guys into thinking it would hurt them - like 19th century doctors telling women low-cut evening dresses caused pneumonia, when really they were just shocked by the bare bosoms.

"Most guys on some subliminal level think that (snug underwear) is going to do something really bad to their genitals," she says. "They think they're in some way squishing their testicles."

About 55 percent of all underwear men buy is a plain white brief, BVD reports. And 72 percent of men's underwear drawers are filled with white underwear.

"Men's underwear is fairly plain and relatively unchanging," Ms. Steele says.

A Boston sales clerk told her that a lot of guys think that colored underwear, or bikini underwear belongs on the sweaty lower-class Stanley Kowalski's of the world, she says. It's not respectable.

And not very fashionable, some guys say.

"Briefs are now kind of taboo," says Michael Scott, a 20-year-old bartender at the Pizza Joint.

He wore tighty whities all through high school. But on his 18th birthday his girlfriend and mom started buying him boxers. He let them sit in his drawer a few weeks.

"But the heat got to me," he says. "It gets kind of clammy, so I forced myself to wear a looser fit."

Boxers give him better ventilation, he says. Now he's got blue, white, light green and yellow.

"Boxers are a little freer," says Eric Hammarlund a 28-year-old Augusta civil engineer.

But sometimes a man needs backup more than breathing room, says Joshua Toran Jr. His day-to-day boxers don't cut it on the basketball court - he needs his Jockeys for support, he says.

"It's a tighter grip," says the 21-year-old security officer at Fort Discovery.

The newest thing below the belt is the boxer-brief, invented a couple of years ago.

"It fits like a brief but has a boxer feel to it," Ms. Slattery says.

The boxer-brief is like Pert Plus 2-in-one conditioner, says Jay Marose, spokesman for BVD. It gives guys the best of both worlds - they're not suffocating, but they're not lacking support either.

"That's why I like 'em," says Fred King, 22-year-old salesman at Augusta's Best Buy. "Boxers get in your butt and briefs are too tight - they don't feel right."

What's worse are the bikini undies Mr. Power's dad gave him for Christmas.

"They are way too tight," he said. "They look like girls underwear," said Mr. Power.

Heck, Ralph Lauren's new polos are so tight there isn't even a fly.

Sounds a lot like girls' underwear.