Perspective: The Skinny on Skivvies

From Kneibler to Klein, a brief history

In the 1958 film Long, Hot Summer, Paul Newman sent moviegoers’ jaws straight to theater floors. His shocking exploit? Doing a scene in his underwear. During the Eisenhower era, men’s skivvies just weren’t appropriate for polite discussion over a dish of ambrosia Jell-O. So it’s not surprising that prudishness determined function and form in the 1955 Jockey ad at right. Save your surprise for the near-pornographic flesh fest that replaced it. All advertising evolves—but seldom this much. As Jeff Buchman, advertising and marketing communications professor at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, observes: “The single most interesting thing about these two ads is how completely different they are.”

No kidding. But that’s hardly all there is to learn here. Today, it’s a given that the marketing of brands like CK are powered by the machinery of sex. But listen closely: That same motor is purring in the Jockey ad, too, just a bit softer. More on that in a minute.

In 1934, Arthur Kneibler of hosiery company Cooper & Sons invented a snug-fitting undergarment for guys. Its comfort came from the support previously found only in the jockstrap. So Kneibler called his new product “Jockey Shorts” in hopes guys would get the reference. They did. Cooper & Sons sold so many briefs that the firm changed its name to Jockey.

Yet even by 1955, Jockey still had to approach the advertising on tiptoe. After all, it’s not like it could just say: Dudes, your basket will be comfy all day long in these! Instead, says Buchman, “Jockey’s ad presents a problem that’s being solved. If your underwear doesn’t fit well, if it sags or binds, then this is the brief for you.” As a sell, it was polite, practical—and socially safe.

By the 1990s, when Calvin Klein began casting seminude gods in his ads, Americans no longer blushed at the sight of a certain . . . bulge. Not only did the power of sex obviate Jockey’s corny ad copy about “lively rubber waistbands,” it relied on a new psychology to make the sale: envy. “Either you want to look like this guy, or you’re a woman who wishes her husband did,” Buchman says. “But it’s all about the worship of the male body.”

Don’t credit Klein with too much, however, because pectoral worship wasn’t wholly absent from the old Jockey ad. Consider: The average Eisenhower-era man did not have a torso like the one here. “The fact that he’s so muscular, the slender waist, is clearly aimed as sexualization,” Buchman says. “And look at the smug satisfaction on his face. What’s he doing? Preening for a woman? The illustration is saying something a bit different from the copy.”

What Jockey was saying was what Klein would end up showing: Comfy undies are nice, but the body of Hercules is what we guys really wished came out of that underwear box.