Writing & Talking about the History of Fashion

Undies go inside the pants

This homeless guy was wearing his underwear outside his pants. I’m guessing his resume ain’t all up to date; I’m predicting some problems during the interview process. I’m pretty sure even MacDonalds has an underwear go inside the pants policy; not that they enforce it very strictly, but technically, I’m sure it’s on the books.

Lazyboy, ‘Underwear Goes Inside the Pants’, 2006.

I wonder if LazyB (aka Søren Nystrøm Rasted) knew how prescient his 2006 song, ‘Underwear Goes Inside the Pants’, was? The song’s observational and vituperative lyrics, voiced by comedian Greg Giraldo, comment on various aspects of western society, from drug usage to obesity, but it is the sartorial critique that gives the song its title and parting shot that intrigues me. We have not yet reached a position where it is fashionable to wear underwear over the top of trousers… I think. But we are seeing an increasing number of (young) men wearing their trousers so low that much of their underwear is visible. This issue has been causing consternation for some time. Last year, The Guardian published a review story and charted the various (futile) attempts to get men to ‘belt up’. Strategies have included an appeal from Barack Obama, a $500 fine and, within the UK, an ASBO (Anti-Social Behaviour Order).[i]

A fad or a trend?

The fashion for flaunting underwear (‘sagging’) seems to have originated in American prisons. Inmates’ belts would be confiscated for fear of them committing suicide or hurting fellow prisoners, causing their trousers to hang low. Enamoured of this enforced sartorial quirk, or simply regarding it as de rigueur, inmates continued to wear their trousers low after their release. The trend, as I suppose it now is, became popular when rappers started to sport low slung trousers in the 1990s.[ii] Calvin Klein also played a part. In a 1992 commercial for the American designer, Mark Wahlberg wore a pair of sagging jeans to parade his CK boxers and their now ubiquitous waistband. ‘After that advertising campaign, Calvin Klein’s underwear sales skyrocketed. Women loved the muscular Wahlberg and men wanted to show off their Calvin Kleins.’[iii] Ten years later, sagging has given rise to an interesting range of new products. Schultz Jeans have designed a special strap that eradicates the need for a belt and enables jeans to be worn ‘low-slung or even open at the fly,’ without the hassle of having to hitch them up.[iv] Wearers of the jeans can therefore flash the waistband of their favourite underwear. Not surprisingly, Schultz have produced an accompanying line of particularly colourful pants (for men and women) and boxer shorts with a range of provocative waistband slogans: I Want Out, Heatseeker, Get a Grip, Coming Soon.

Civic censure

Sagging has drawn criticism from a number of people and communities, but a common concern is that the style of dress is subversive because it contravenes the customary (read, ‘normal’) way that trousers are, or should be, worn. In Britain and America, in particular, men’s penchant for sagging jeans and joggers, which are often assumed to be paired with hoodies, another sartorially suspicious garment, has been linked to a growing undercurrent of social disruption. The hoodie worn by Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, who was shot dead by a neighbourhood watch captain as he returned from a convenience store, was deemed to be as culpable for the fatality as the shooter by the TV pundit Geraldo Rivera.[v] Wearing the hoodie apparently indicated Trayvon’s intent to appear like a ‘gangsta’, so his perception as a menace was inevitable. Reviewing the London riots one year after they occurred, Lindsay Johns, a Daily Mail columnist, listed a series of changes that were needed to prevent their reoccurrence. Johns decried the lack of empathy that young people generally receive from ‘left-wing academics’ (i.e. people like me), but went on to recommend that they review their wardrobes:

High time, therefore, for young people to be encouraged to get rid of the hoodies and the baggy jeans hanging down their bums![vi]

Commentary of this nature, which shows how garments become imbued with various meanings, provoke wider questions about the very nature and role of dress; chiefly, about the degree to which clothing is mere surface ornament, an outer layer to reflect somebody’s character, or a medium that informs, even dictates, styles of behaviour.[vii] Geraldo Rivera’s response to the Florida shooting, which he later apologised for, reveals the ‘transnaturing’ power that clothing possesses; that is to say, its ability to turn ‘the virtuous into the vicious, the strong into the weak, the male into the female, the godly into the satanic.’[viii] Remarking on the same incident, criminology lecturer Frankie Bailey indicated that it is the wearer who informs responses to their dress. Suggesting that three-piece suits would arouse people’s suspicions if black males in urban environments started to wear them, Bailey’s torturous reasoning highlights the conceptual difficulty that exists in putting objects before subjects, which is to say nothing of her blissful ignorance about the history of the three-piece suit.[ix]

Abdominal attraction

It is particularly interesting that this contemporary commentary about clothing should focus on the abdomen and groin, as these have long been provocative and symbolic parts of human anatomy. For men and women the abdomen, or more specifically the waist, has often been highlighted through the wearing of particular styles of clothing and dress accessories. In the medieval period, belts were especially significant items of costume, defining status and sex.[x] Fastened around the waist of a woman, a belt or girdle emphasized the womb, a symbol of the wearer’s femininity and her importance as a child-bearer and mother.[xi] Worn by a man and hung with a dagger, sword or purse, the belt could be a sign of bellicosity and power. Throughout the medieval period, the quintessential mark of knighthood was the belt.[xii] Because of their social importance, and the fact that they could be easily – and thus cheaply – modified, belts made for particularly suitable presents. References to belts as gifts abound in contemporary literature.[xiii]

The sexual power and allure of the abdomen and groin is perhaps more evident under the Tudors. In Holbein’s famous portrait of Henry VIII, few parts of the king’s anatomy have not been emphasised in the pursuit of an image that would exude the authority and élan of the sixteenth-century English royal court. But most viewers’ eyes are drawn to the codpiece.

‘Henry VIII’, Elton announces, ‘is the only king whose shape you remember.’ Then he turns to the blackboard behind him and draws a quick sketch. First, a trapezium for the body. Then two splayed lines for the legs. A pair of triangles form the arms. The head and neck are a single oblong, surmounted by an angled line for the hat.

Pause for laughter. Then, playing to the audience, Elton adds another, inverted triangle for the codpiece. More laughter and applause.[xiv]

The attraction of Henry’s codpiece, so to speak, is not (necessarily) mere prurience, but it is deliberate. Tatiana String observes that ‘Holbein has deliberately foregrounded this feature by composing Henry’s body in two nearly equilateral triangles, with the codpiece at the centre of the two’ (a la Elton). The size of the codpiece, further emphasised by the jerkin, which is drawn back, ‘invites the viewer to imagine the dimensions of its contents.’[xv] The codpiece is thus to be ‘read’ as a symbol of Henry’s masculinity and fertility and his power as a dynast.[xvi] Another part of Henry’s anatomy that gained notice was his expanding waist. By the time the king was forty-nine, his waist probably measured fifty-four inches.[xvii] The mature king’s obesity, as it would be regarded today, was in marked contrast to the lithe body of the athletic prince, but Henry’s protruding waistline still appears to have been interpreted as a sign of power. It certainly gave the king a physical presence, which courtiers apparently aped by ‘wearing puffed and padded short gowns that were almost as wide as they were long.’[xviii] Henry’s expanded waistline, a result of gastronomic excess, also bespoke the opulence of the royal court. Much the same was true of one Henry’s medieval predecessors, King John (1199-1216), who grew corpulent as he aged and apparently died from a surfeit of peaches.

The padding of the waist grew apace in the sixteenth century as the sartorial influence of the Spanish court spread across Europe. The effect was achieved with bombast. Bombast was a form stuffing, which included cotton and horsehair, that enabled garments to be shaped. ‘The bombasting of the doublet over the chest and the stuffing out of the breeches naturally made the waist seem smaller, and the effect was increased by the use of tight-lacing.’[xix] Bombasted breeches did away with the codpiece and exposed more of the leg, which now became a focus of male costume – think of royal portraiture; Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud or George IV by Sir Thomas Lawrence. The leg, specifically the calf, became an indicator of athleticism and virility. The importance of the waist was still emphasised, for it was here that the trousers, vest and coat met and helped determine the silhouette of the man’s outfit. This was especially the case for the nineteenth-century ‘dandies,’ who favoured tighter fitting (or rather, well-made) garments. It was also around this time that the female waist became markedly smaller.[xx]

Below the belt

Mass production in the twentieth century was generally responsible for camouflaging the waist, and other body parts besides, especially when it came to men’s workaday clothing.[xxi] This may explain why subsequent sartorial experimentation with the waist has largely been within the domain of informal attire; although there are exceptions in haute couture. Thom Browne’s shorter cut suit jackets give the waist, certainly the posterior, greater emphasis.[xxii] Browne’s attire is also notable for the emphasis placed on the ankle, a consequence of deliberately shorter trousers. This has sparked a burgeoning trend among fashionophiles and, with it, the flaunting of another part of the male anatomy.

If the current vogue for sagging is placed within a historical frame, it appears less scandalous and subversive. In fact, it highlights various moments when men’s clothing has sought to highlight other body parts; the leg and the ankle have been mentioned, but the neck and shoulders, chest and arms, could easily be added if space and time permitted. More significantly, sagging highlights the complex nature of clothing, which is at once external and easily removable and also symbolic and replete with memory and meaning. This being the case, it is no wonder than areas of the body that are as alluring and potent as the abdomen and groin should be so consistently the focus of sartorial styles through the ages.

So, LazyB was perhaps not so prescient after all; he just understood the power of clothing.

[i] A. Needham, ‘Belt up, young man’, The Guardian (9 May 2011). www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/may/09/florida-ban-sagging-jeans-underpants. The six pages of comments that accompany this article make for an interesting read. Accessed: 4-xj-12.

[ii] A. Naik, ‘Sagging Pants History’. www.buzzle.com/articles/sagging-pants-history.html. Accessed: 4-xj-2012.

[iii] S. Millar, ‘Sagging Pants, Negative Messages’. www.thebronxjournal.com/sagging-pants-negative-messages/. Accessed: 4-xj-2012.

[v] S. Foss, ‘The ubiquitous hoodie: It’s warm, trendy and for some, it’s a symbol.’ www.dailygazette.net/standard/ShowStoryTemplate.asp?Path=SCH/2012/04/01&ID=Ar00102&Section=National. Accessed: 10-xj-12.

[vi] L. Johns, ‘The London riots one year on: What still needs to change if we are [to] avoid a repeat of last year’. www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2184359/London-riots-year-What-needs-change–.html. Accessed: 10-xj-2012.

[vii] A. Rosalind Jones & P. Stallybrass, Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory (Cambridge, 2000), 1-11.

[viii] Ibid., 4.

[ix] Foss, ‘The ubiquitous hoodie.’

[x] B.L. Wild, ‘Emblems and enigmas: Revisiting the ‘sword’ belt of Fernando de la Cerda’, Journal of Medieval History, 37 (2011), 395.

[xi] J.E. Snyder, ‘From Content to Form: Court Clothing in Mid-Twelfth Century Norman French Sculpture,’ in Encountering Medieval Textiles and Dress: Objects, Texts, Images, ed. D.G. Koslin & J.E. Snyder (Basingstoke, 2002), 89.

[xii] M.M. Williams, ‘Dressing the Part: Depictions of Noble Costume in Irish High Crosses,’ in Encountering Medieval Textiles, 50-2. In the same volume, see O. Blanc, ‘From Battlefield to Court: The Invasion of Fashion in the Fourteeth Century,’ 161-2; F. Piponnier & P. Mane, Dress in the Middle Ages, tr. C. Beamish (New Haven and London, 1997), 32, 61.

[xiii] Notker der Stammler, Taten Kaiser Karls des Grossen, ed. H.F. Haefele, Monumenta Germaniae Historica: Scriptores rerum Germanicarum, Nova Series 12 (Munich, 1962), II. 21, 92; Gregorii Episcopi Turonensis, Libri historiarum X, ed. B.K. and W. Levison, Monumenta Germaniae Historica: Scriptorum rerum Merovingicarum (Hanover, 1951), 1. ii. xlii, 92-3; v. xviii, 221-2.

[xiv] D. Starkey, Henry: Virtuous Prince (London, 2008), 2.

[xv] T.C. String, Art and Communication in the Reign of Henry VIII (Aldershot, 2008), 71.

[xvi] Ibid., 72.

[xvii] A. Weir, Henry VIII: King and Court (London, 2001), 435

[xviii] Ibid., 435. The courtiers probably felt compelled to copy their monarch. Earlier in his reign, Henry had made it clear how men were to wear their hair. Ibid., 366.

[xix] J. Laver, A Concise History of Costume (London, 1969), 90.

[xx] Ibid., 162.

[xxi] E. Musgrave, Sharp Suits (London, 2009),14-25.

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