As a kid I was, unknowingly, the beneficiary of two great complimentary advances in male comfort break technology - the Y-front underwear closure and the zip trouser fly
The zip (zipper, zip fastener) had been evolving for a long time before it was used to close trouser flies. In 1851, Elias Howe (better known as one of the pioneers of the sewing machine) devised a clothing closure operated by locking a series of clasps together. Unlike a modern zip fastener, the clasps were pulled together not by a slider but by a string and the device, although ingenious, didn't work very well.
A device incorporating a slider was developed by Whitcomb L. Judson in the 1890's. This looked more like a modern zip fastener, but the design wasn't perfected and made reliable until 1914, when Gideon Sundback came up with his "Hookless Fastener No. 2" which improved on earlier designs by adding a dimple to the bottom of each zip tooth and a nib to the top. This design, which ensured that the zip teeth stayed firmly together, was the zip as w know it today. First used on boots and tobacco pouches, it took another twenty years for zips to be regularly incorporated into clothing. In the conservative world of men's tailoring, the zip fly first began to challenge the button fly in the late '30's going on to supplant buttons over the following decade or so.
In 1935, just as the trouser zip was beginning to appear, Arthur Kneibler in Chicago was rolling out the first "Jockey briefs". Mr Kneibler boasted the enviable job title of "apparel engineer" for a company called Coopers. Where the rise of the zip fly was slow and steady, Kniebler's Jockey briefs were an immediate hit - despite being launched in the long-john weather of a cold Chicago January, 30,000 flew off the shelves of the Marshall Field & Co department store in the first three months. Coopers was eventually re-named Jockey International after the company's most famous product.
By 1938, Y-fronts had reached Britain, with Simpson's of Piccadilly shifting 3,000 pairs a week. In the 1948 London Olympic Games, every male member of the British Olympic squad was given a free pair of Y-fronts. In subsequent years, Y-fronts supplanted long johns (aided, no doubt, by the rise of central heating) and saw off the challenge of boxer shorts (invented in the 1920s) to become the default undergarments for most males.
I grew up with Y-fronts and zip flies and I didn't realise just how convenient this combination was until, in later life, I experimented with the alternatives. The button fly has made occasional, self-consciously retro, comebacks, most famously in the shape Levi's "501" jeans (I'm way too far from being fashion-forward to have ever owned a pair myself), but they're not as efficient:
Have you ever wonder about the logic behind a pair of pants that takes an extra 10 seconds to unbutton, an extra 15 seconds to button? Many can even argue that buttons close the fly less completely and less efficiently than a zipper. So why do some many of the premium brands only offer button fly jeans?
The button fly was included with the first pair of Levi’s, presumably for the same type of sturdiness provided by the rivets that made jeans last longer than other pants. At some point zipper flies were introduced, and the confusion began.Comedian Jerry Seinfeld let the world know that he only wears button fly. During an episode of his hit TV show Jerry stated: "That is one place on my wardrobe I do not need interlocking metal teeth. It's like a mink trap down there."
As for Seinfeld's "mink trap" gag, well, I've used zip flies for forty-odd years. Even during those irresponsible years of young adulthood when I'd occasionally drink myself into near-oblivion, I've never experienced one of those zip-related accidents of which male nightmares are made, or known anybody else who has (although I suppose it wouldn't necessarily be an experience you'd want to share with the world), so I've concluded that zips are quicker, more convenient and mostly harmless.
As for the alternatives to Y-fronts, the 1980's seemed to be the time when Y-fronts started to lose street cred. Fashion doesn't exactly play an important part in my life - actually knowing who Gok Wan is probably represents about the most trend-aware piece of information in my head right now. But even I'm not immune to marketing and to what appears on the shelves, and back in the '80s I got the message that Y-fronts were a bit sad and were the sort of garments worn by men whose clothing was still bought by their mums. Accordingly, I moved to boxers. They seemed a bit cooler in summer (although you didn't get the benefit if you were wearing something relatively tight, like jeans). Indeed, the loose fit of boxers was part of their appeal. There were dark rumours that tighter garments like Y-fronts were making men less fertile by keeping their sperm too hot (rumours not supported by the latest evidence, by the way).
Fashion victims like me having forsaken the Y-front for the boxer, soon began to appreciate the cost of eagerly pursuing all the latest fads and trends. Riding a bike in boxers can be a distinctly uncomfortable experience, especially on rough roads. There are some parts of a bloke's anatomy that don't benefit from being crushed and battered between the weight of his body and an unyielding bicycle saddle. I've only ever ridden a horse in tight underwear (no, I was wearing the underwear, not the horse - keep up), but I imagine that horse riding in boxers must be even more painful.
Boxers also had social drawbacks. Many boxers lacked even a button closure at the front of the fly, gaping open at the slightest provocation; even boxers with buttons could ride up in a revealing fashion or be left open by the absent-minded. When crashing for the night on a friend's floor, a guest sleeping over in boxers rather than Y-fronts was in constant danger of "unintentional and embarrassing disarray", as the early promoters of the zip fly coyly put it. The Y-front closure, in contrast, keeps things in place, yet accessible, at all times.
This is why, even after switching to boxers, I've always had the odd pair of fashion-backward but reliable and practical Y-fronts at the back of my drawer.
If the eighties were bad for Y-fronts, the Britain of the nineties was even worse, as the cartoonist Steve Bell mercilessly mocked John Major as a useless superhero, wearing his Y-fronts over his trousers. Not a look to emulate, although one that clearly did it for Edwina Currie.
There are other alternatives to the boxer, for example the very, very skimpy type of skin-tight posing-pouch-type briefs without any flies favoured by body-building types. I've never felt comfortable with these, as I don't have the body for them and the up-and-over style of urination they dictate just feels wrong. Mostly, these days, I use the sort of trunks that have the same leg-length and waistband height as boxers, but are tighter, usually with a button fly. They don't suffer from the same lack of support as boxers and are (I'm assured) more flattering than Y-fronts. What they lack, though is the convenience of the Y-front fly - a closure that stays closed when you want it to, but still allows easy access without any button-related fumbling at the urinal. Combined with the zip fly, the Y-front closure is still, IMHO, an overlooked design classic.
The last time I was in M and S, stocking up on undies, I couldn't help noticing that the Y-fronts were confined to a few small and insignificant rails in a display dominated by button-fronted trunks. Perhaps the bottom really has fallen out of the market and the age of the Y-front is drawing to a close.
A bloke from Debenhams recently quoted sales figures suggesting that Y-fronts are making a come-back in these recessionary times - he speculated that Y-fronts "provide a much greater sense of security than loose-fitting boxers, and perhaps, in these troubled times, that's what men need to feel." Don't you just love spokespeople doing pop psychology, or, as I prefer to think of it, just making up any old tosh that might fit the facts? Maybe he's right - more bizarre fashions have come back from the grave - but I'll take more convincing that this isn't just a blip in a long story of decline. My only hope for the future is that somebody has come up with, or will come up with, a closure for trunk-style underpants as elegant and efficient as the Y-front closure. I've never previously spent much time thinking about the design of underpants, but next time I go shopping for some, I'll be on the look out to see whether anybody has efficiently closed this gap in the market and produced a male undergarment fit for the 21st Century.
Terry Kirby's fine article "The undercover story: A briefs history of Y fronts" in The Independent was the source for much of the Y-front related trivia above.