At the turn of the twentieth century many men wore union suits as undergarments. Union suits were one-piece, knit undergarments that covered both the upper and lower body. The traditional union suit was made of cotton or wool and covered the body from the ankles to the wrists. It had a long row of buttons up the front and featured a buttoned drop seat in the rear. Union suits often shrunk when washed, making the garments uncomfortable. They also were bulky and tended to irritate the wearer. Despite these problem, they were practical undergarments that provided warmth before the days of central heating.
During the first few years of the century, several factors influenced the shape and the style of men's underwear. First, the widespread use of central heating meant that men no longer needed to wear long underwear indoors. Secondly, men's fashions began to be fitted more closely to the body, making bulky undergarments impractical. Thirdly, as sports and athletics became more popular as leisure activities, men sought out lighter forms of underwear. To accommodate these changes, underwear factories such as Chalmers Knitting Mills in Amsterdam, New York, began manufacturing less bulky, mesh garments that were comfortable for summer weather. By 1911 the first newspaper advertisements promoted patented, or original, advances in men's underwear styles. They included improvements in crotch closures and seat flaps, allowing for more comfort and better hygiene.
The athletic union suit was introduced in the early 1910s. It was a knee-length one-piece garment with a sleeveless top that gave men more mobility. In 1912 Chalmers advertised a cotton-knit athletic union suit called the Porosknit, which featured a sturdy cotton yoke front. This model boasted a no-bulge waistline and easy-to-fasten buttons that did not easily come undone; it was also breathable, which meant that air flowed easily through the fabric, keeping the wearer from getting too hot.
During World War I (1914–18) several changes occurred in the shape and styling of men's underwear. Men started wearing two-piece undergarments. The bottoms, often referred to as drawers, were knee-length cotton shorts with a few front buttons for durability and comfort. Certain models laced up at the side. Most drawers were made of cotton, although wealthy men wore silk drawers. On the upper body men wore chemises, sleeveless tops that covered the upper torso and tucked into the drawers.
Men's underwear followed this basic pattern into the twenty-first century, with both tops and bottoms made in a variety of styles. For the bottoms, men can choose from longer, looser boxer shorts, close-fitting but modest briefs, or skimpy, skin-tight bikini underwear. For the tops, men typically choose from either V-necked or crewneck T-shirts or tank tops.
Cunnington, C. Willett, and Phyllis Cunnington. The History of Underclothes. New York: Gordon Press, 1979.
Waugh, Norah. Corsets and Crinolines. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1970.