In praise of boxer briefs.

The language of style.
June 8 2006 5:11 PM

In Praise of Boxer Briefs

An underpants manifesto.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

It's come to my attention that there are some men out there—even a few friends of mine—who've not yet switched to boxer briefs. These are otherwise intelligent fellows who, either through ignorance or recalcitrance, begin each day by pulling on (shudder) traditional boxers or (double-shudder) briefs. I feel great pity for these men. Because the irrefutable truth is that boxer briefs —a knit, mid-thigh-length compromise between boxer and brief—are the ultimate male netherwear. The sooner you accept this, the happier your crotch will be.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

It's not too late to change. We humans have a terrific capacity for adapting to new underpants. I know, because I've switched styles twice now. Consider my first (though ultimately misguided) underwear revelation:

The time was the mid-1980s, and I was an impressionable tween. I'd worn briefs all my life—those classic, white-cotton Y-fronts—without giving the issue much thought. And then one evening I saw an episode of Moonlighting in which Bruce Willis (as detective David Addison) was somehow de-pantsed (an event which occurred with some frequency on the show, as I recall). He was shown wearing a pair of generously cut, broadcloth boxer shorts, emblazoned with large red hearts.

The billowy boxers were meant to look anachronistic and silly. But this joke was lost on me. Compared to my briefs—which revealed my pale and scrawny pre-teen upper thighs—those modest, roomy boxers looked positively dignified. And cutting-edge, too: My father didn't wear them, thus by definition they were modern and stylish. (I didn't realize at the time that baby-boomer men had switched to briefs in large part to tack away from their own boxers-wearing fathers.)

Soon after, I made the leap. And by the end of high school, in the early 1990s, every teenager I knew was wearing woven cotton boxers. (Often carefully showcased—allowed to peek out below the hem of a pair of shorts.) It's still not clear what sparked this large-scale boxer rebellion. Surely not every young man of my generation was so profoundly affected by Moonlighting. (Though underwear fashions do seem particularly pegged to pop culture. There's that old saw about Clark Gable killing undershirt sales in 1934, when he unbuttoned his shirt in It Happened One Night to reveal a bare chest. Likewise, it was Monica Lewinsky's thong flash that seemed to really galvanize women's rejection of the granny-panty. Theory: Since underwear is concealed in day-to-day life, and we can't see what our neighbors and co-workers are wearing, we have only pop culture to give us our cues.) Nonetheless, boxers remained the near-universal choice of my generation throughout college and into the years beyond.

I now realize, of course, that those were wasted years, groin-comfort-wise. All that time, a better option had awaited. Although by 1993 those iconic Mark Wahlberg print ads for Calvin Klein boxer briefs were in heavy rotation, the famous query put to Bill Clinton in 1994 ("boxers or briefs?") didn't even acknowledge a third possibility. I was aware that the boxer brief existed, yet my naive understanding held that it was a choice open only to the European or the gay.

It wasn't until a forward-thinking friend clued me in ("It's the best of both worlds," he enthused) that I was made aware of the cut's functional superiority. Soon enough, I switched again—this time for good. After just a few days, I could see the boxer brief's profound advantages:

Support. The obvious, yet oft-unspoken flaw with traditional boxers is their lack of cuppage. They are useless for athletic events, and can even be a hindrance. (An acquaintance refers to the "tunnel" created by wearing boxers under soccer shorts. Via this tunnel, one's testicles can gain sudden and direct access to the world outside.) Boxer briefs hold your goods in place and out of sight.

Stability. Traditional boxers never sit still. They are forever riding up above the waistband of your pants, or slipping down below it. That loose fabric tends to twist, and bunch, and wedgify. Constant realignments are required. (This is especially true with the "bubble-butt" cut of boxer, which uses a spinnaker-like central back panel. The idea is to avoid having any seams line up with the butt-crack, but all that extra cloth just crawls up in there anyway, to disastrous effect.)

Containment. That simple slit of a fly on traditional boxers encourages a phenomenon I will term "flop-out." Some boxer shorts seek to rectify this with a button enclosure, but a button is the last thing you care to deal with when you urgently need to urinate. Boxer briefs use the much more effective and user-friendly Y-front.

Aesthetics. My unscientific polling suggests that ladies dig 'em. While it has all the comfort, support, and fit of a knit brief, the boxer brief's full-cut thigh lends it the modesty of a traditional boxer. And that thigh is functional, too—its snug, ribbed cuff serves to hold the garment in place. This prevents the boxer brief from riding up or (worse) burrowing into one's posterior cleavage. (The Calvin Klein boxer brief is particularly well-tailored, and is my personal choice. I own one pair of boxer briefs from 2(x)ist, bought at the little store in my gym when I forgot to bring a change of underwear, but I find they take an overly presentational approach to the genitalia. Sort of a push-up effect.)

I'm confident there's really nothing the boxer brief can't do better. But just to make sure, I recently revisited the other underwear alternatives, to see if I was missing something.

Step 1 in my research was to buy a pair of Brooks Brothers briefs in a lovely, mercerized white cotton for $14.99. When I first slipped them on, I found them incredibly comfortable. And even a bit stylish, with that racy curve tracing the cup of the buttock. But all the old problems pertained. I felt naked, and also like a 7-year-old. I could tell that the bright white cotton would quickly dull to beige. Worst of all, the briefs crept way up over the course of a long day. Verdict: Too tighty, and too soon not-whitey.

Next, I picked up a pair of plaid boxers from Burberry's for $45. I felt as dapper as anyone can feel when dressed only in underwear. But the boxers simply wouldn't remain in place under my pants, always migrating 30 degrees around my waist in one direction or the other. The leg-openings would ride up and accordion, leaving weird marks on my thighs. And while Burberry's model prevented "flop-out" with a button enclosure, I found myself leaving the button undone. Who wants the bother? Verdict: Classic preppie choice—looks sharp, underachieves.

I've also tried trunks. There seems to be some disagreement as to what this term means, but my understanding is that trunks have an abbreviated thigh-length and no fly opening at all. I bought two pairs that qualify while traveling in the Netherlands last year. (I'd run out of clean underwear. The vast majority of men's underwear purchases, I suspect, are born of desperate and immediate need.) Trunks have many of the same benefits as boxer briefs, but I can't understand the lack of a fly opening. Standing at a urinal, you're forced to reach through the fly of your trousers and pry the trunks' elastic waistband down with your thumb. Should you lose your purchase on the waistband, it will snap back violently—with messy and painful results.

Some men endorse going commando. I find it thoroughly unhygienic. Also rife with potential for injury. No dice.

I couldn't bring myself to try on a thong. I realize this is a viable choice for some men these days (perhaps even some straight men), but it's just not for me. I have no need to prevent panty lines. And, more fundamentally: Half of what I'm looking for from underwear is wedgie avoidance. What is the thong if not a permanent wedgie? No doubt, future generations of men will adopt the thong as a comfortable, minimalist alternative and will urge me to ditch my fusty old boxer briefs.

Until then, I beseech you: Make the boxer-briefs switch. You, and your groin, will not be sorry.

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