As a Christmas present, they might be a bit pants – but despite dropping in and out of fashion over the years, Y-fronts are now celebrating their 80th birthday.
While sales might have occasionally slumped in the face of competition from boxer shorts and trunks, Y-fronts have kept their status as the “original” underwear for men.
From Tom Cruise sporting a pair in the 1983 film Risky Business to One Direction heart throb Harry Styles in a grey pair on holiday last summer – and cartoon favourite Homer Simpson forever lounging about in them – it is clear the humble Y-front has stood the test of time.
It was eight decades ago when Arthur Kneibler’s Jockey briefs first went on sale – on 19 January, 1935 – at the Marshall Field & Co department store in Chicago. They had been placed on show in the window during one of the worst blizzards of the winter.
The store’s managers demanded the display be removed, thinking it ridiculous to flaunt such a skimpy design in the middle of winter, but not before customers had snapped up 600 pairs.
Some 30,000 pairs were sold in the next three months alone.
Kneibler, the vice president of marketing at a company called Coopers, was inspired by a picture of a man in a sleek, supportive swimsuit, going on to encourage his design team to create a new kind of underwear called “the brief”. The only successor to the long john had been the boxer short, a cotton version of trunks worn by boxers. They did not sell well due to their lack of support, but the “jock strap”, mostly worn by the jockeys or messengers who rode penny farthings, did.
Kneibler named his creation the Jockey brief, and Coopers is now known as Jockey International.
They went on sale in Britain in 1938, at Simpsons in Piccadilly, where they sold at a rate of 3,000 a week. In 1948 every male athlete in the British Olympic team was given a free pair of Y-fronts. To date, it has been banned for being too skimpy, survived the recession and become a Christmas staple across the world.
According to Debenhams, sales of Y-fronts increased by 35 per cent in 2009 and outsold boxer shorts in March of that year for the first time since the early 1990s – the last time Britain was in recession.
Three years earlier, a pair of 37-year-old Y-fronts were sold in the UK on eBay for £127. A second pair sold for £90 to a buyer in Hong Kong.
And according to Jockey, the American manufacturer of the original Y-Front briefs, more than half a million pairs of the famous pants were given as gifts in the UK last week for Christmas.
Jockey marketing manager Ruth Stevens said: “Although competition from the boxer is fierce, time and time again the Y-front has been used in ultra-masculine ads and films, such as From Russia With Love when they appeared on the ultimate man’s man James Bond – Sean Connery – in 1963, all the way up to 2012 where Zac Efron spent much of his time in them in the film The Paperboy.”
Last month a survey by John Lewis found men in Norwich and Ipswich seemed particularly fond of them – with local gents perhaps paying homage to fictional local radio DJ Alan Partridge, who had a penchant for the pants – while Scots men were found to be drawn to bold and bright colours.