NEW YORK • Once, they were known as unmentionables and it only mattered that they were clean. You never knew, after all, when you might be knocked down by a bus.
"When we were young, you would never show your underwear," designer Tommy Hilfiger, 64, said recently. "Now, if you don't show your underwear, you're just not cool."
Hilfiger was marking one of those shifts in culture that lurch along with a tectonic jolt.
For generations, American men who were raised wearing generic boxers or Jockeys purchased in three-packs expended little thought or time or post-tax income on the foundation garments worn beneath their outerwear. The whole point of skivvies seemed to be encapsulated in the name given to the category under which they were sold: intimates.
That was before Justin Bieber, sexting, saggers and artfully lit, half-clad Snapchat selfies.
It was before baldly erotic videos of Rafael Nadal popped up on smartphones or monitors in advertisements depicting the top tennis player doing a locker-room striptease in Hilfiger's new line of sexy boxer briefs - images that even five years ago may have been flagged as NSFW (Not Safe For Work).
It was also before a trend (most likely inaugurated by Calvin Klein in the prehistory of Marky Mark) that gained considerable momentum over the past dozen years, that of offering so-called premium underwear for men.
"Underwear is where jeans were 20 years ago," Hilfiger said. "It's the new denim."
Proof of that assertion can be found on The Underwear Expert, a startlingly comprehensive website dedicated to researching, testing, reviewing and even curating for sale underpants culled from the nearly 600 labels now in the field.
"The options out there are what make men's underwear a really interesting category," said the site's founder, Mr Michael Kleinmann. "It's not just three-packs from Wal-Mart or something out of the back of a catalogue anymore."
Jostling for a position in the retailing "white space" of an apparel category, little altered for decades, are niche labels such as Sunspel, Handvaerk, Hanro, Tani, Zimmerli, Naked, Under and Les Lunes.
Priced in a broad range from US$24.99 or S$35.30 (the figure at which men's underpants are considered "premium") to the US$470 or S$660 charged by French luxurygoods house Hermes for a pair of woven boxers are briefs whose virtues are sometimes described in terms better suited to the aerospace than apparel industry.
Relative newcomers, such as Mack Weldon and the Eighth, offer well-constructed though low-key products pitched online to a prosperous imaginary Everyman.
Indie labels such as Bear Skn, started last year with US$56,000 in seed money raised on Kickstarter, offers premium underwear in sizes as large as 4XL because, as Mr Jody Koenig, a founder of the label, explained: "There was nothing out there for bigger guys to make them feel sexy or hot."
Some, like Marco Morante, the designer of Marco Marco, a label whose gender-various fashion shows were a surprise hit at the recent Los Angeles Fashion Week, happened into the category almost accidentally after viewers of RuPaul's Drag Race, where Morante was doing costume design, started clamouring for the briefs he designed for the show's pneumatic Pit Crew hunks.
"We've kind of done everything we can do in women's fashion," Morante said. "Men's is a blank slate because we're working with concepts that are 50 years old or more."
Technological advances have resulted in briefs that now seem less designed than engineered to aerate, separate, wick, deodorise and adjust body temperature or battle microbes with anti-bacterial silver filament.
That men now increasingly buy underwear for themselves, rather than relying as in the past on women to make their unglamorous utilitarian purchases, "kind of shows where we are as a country," Mr Kleinmann said.
At the very least, it demonstrates changes in the way men shop.
"Guys are shopping differently now, much more like women," said Mr Marshal Cohen, chief retailing analyst at the NPD Group, a market research company in New York.
The proliferation of new labels, he said, spurred a solid sales uptick in a market that reached US$2.7 billion last year.
"Guys are now very comfortable being part of the fashion equation," he said. "Every part of what we wear has now become a part of image-building. That includes shoes, your socks, your pants and your underwear."
NEW YORK TIMES