Rise of the Y-Front

From My Heels Are Killing Me, 9:00 am on 12 May 2019

Long johns, undies, boxers, briefs, gruds, budgie smugglers, drawers, shorts, underpants, jocks...


Men’s underwear has seen a transformation over the years and one iconic brand that Kiwi men have loved through the generations, is Jockey. The brand launched in the U.S. in 1935, and five years later, it landed on our shores.

Jockey Y Fronts are a long time Kiwi favourite

Jockey Y Fronts are a long time Kiwi favourite Photo: Jockey NZ



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In this final episode of RNZ podcast My Heels Are Killing Me, Sonia Sly finds out why Kiwi men can’t get enough of Jockey underwear and the story behind the famous Y-Front.


“New Zealand was one of the first places in the world that was allowed the Jockey license,” says Te Papa Curator, Stephanie Gibson.


Lane Walker Rudkin in Christchurch - the manufacturer of sportswear brand Canterbury was one of the first four manufacturers outside the U.S to receive a license to make the famous Jockey Y-fronts, which proved revolutionary.


“Jockey helped outfit New Zealand soldiers for their overseas service during the war,” she says.


Jockey advertisement

Jockey advertisement Photo: Jockey NZ

Offering maximum comfort and support the product quickly gained popularity as an inexpensive item, and men could own multiple pairs.


Before the comfy cotton underpants were introduced, Kiwi men wore cumbersome long johns, with awkward buttons, slits at the knees and leather waist bands -  covering the body with layers helped to protect clothing from human sweat.


In the 19th and early 20th century, people washed their underwear more frequently than their outerwear. These undergarments were commonly made from knitted wool or knitted cotton and natural fibres were said to be good for airflow and cleanliness.


“People wanted to be clean and they really believed in the hygienic properties of  underwear,” Gibson says.


Another reason behind the enduring popularity of the Y-front was a change in lifestyle and increasing participation in sport. Cycling and boxing were popular, so a shorter style of underwear was more functional and convenient.   


In fact, the design of the Y-front was based on the men’s jock strap worn for cycling.


“It’s about how that binding is done around the sensitive area so that everything is held in place, but it’s comfortable," says Gibson.


And that tried and true design has not changed today, according to Melbourne-based William Radford who looks after the marketing for the Jockey brand.  


We don’t change our products once we’ve launched them and the Y-Front is a classic example of that,” he says of the classic design.


“Innovation has probably taken over since then...and Jockey’s strength is in brand reputation.”


The innovation relates to fabrication, fit, cut, and comfort. And the brand produces a number of ranges that appeal to different markets including a performance and active range where moisture wicking technology is key. A streamlined silhouette is also important for today’s man, and Jockey make a fine, lightweight style designed to be worn under suits and tight pants without causing irritation.


Radford says comfort has always been the main driver for underwear purchasing and next comes a desire to feel fashionable and confident. Keeping up with trends and being relatable is also important for the brand. Radford says  camouflage prints are always popular, while introducing new colourways keeps Jockey up with the play.


Women have traditionally been the main purchasers of men’s underwear, but Radford says the thinking around ‘men are lazy' and can’t buy their own underwear has shifted. Over the past five years around 80 percent of purchases have been driven by men.

Jockey's take on promoting body positivity

Jockey's take on promoting body positivity Photo: Jockey NZ


“These days, men are definitely taking control of their underwear purchases and want to source the products that they think are comfortable, instead of getting the underwear that they put up with,” he says.


While that may be true, receiving socks and undies still goes down a treat in the Xmas stocking and remains a strong tradition for Kiwi men.


But today, when there are so many products on the market is underwear now a luxury item, rather than a necessity? And how often are men replacing their threadbare undies to keep up with the latest trends, especially when times are tough?


“[During these times], the old favourites that are getting all holey might just last a little bit longer and men will hold off purchasing, but we do see steady sales across the range even in an economic downturn,” Radford says.  


Listen to this final episode of My Heels Are Killing Me to hear about Jockey's move towards sustainability, and  why men care about their briefs. 

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