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A Heroic History of Dudes Wearing Their Underpants Over Their Trousers

Even 80 years ago, Superman’s super-fashion was actually super old fashioned

“Batman’s pants were the problem,” read the first line of my contribution to a 1998 creative-writing assignment in which we were told to tell a complete story — with a disruption of the existing status quo, a resolution and the introduction of a new status quo — in just 50 words. “Did he wear three pairs (pants, tights, pants) or just two (tights, pants)?” it continued, before a fight broke out (in-story) and the two protagonists ended their friendship over the debate.

I was asked not to come back to the class.

Although my thoughtfully succinct brand of pants philosophy wasn’t appreciated at my somewhat snooty British university, I have nevertheless always been intrigued by the idea of superheroes wearing their underwear on the outside. It raises so many questions: Why? How how often do they wash the outer pair? Why? Do supervillains ever give them a super-wedgie? Why?

With DC Comics celebrating eight decades of Superman stories with the release of Action Comics: 80 Years of Superman, the Deluxe Edition, I’m taking a deep dive into the Big Blue Boy Scout’s briefs to see where this trend started. Let’s take a trip baaaack iiiin tiiiime…

1558: Despite breeches — nearly-knee length garments worn over hose — having been around since at least the 12th century, the Elizabethan period was, perhaps, the start of their true majesty. This was a time when large, hirsute men, brandishing broadswords and poleaxes, burned Catholics at the stake and argued about the coming war with Spain, all while sporting billowy, ornately embroidered velvet shorts over their fine white silk stockings. Truly, an age of real men.

1630: Spanish breeches become the number one choice for all fashion-conscious male Spaniards, with voluminous shorts being worn over tights and topped off with the obligatory codpiece.

1660: Rhinegraves rise in popularity in Western Europe. Essentially a sort of petticoat, gathered at the waist and knee by ribbons and topped off with lacy accessories, they were often worn under an overskirt, just to make them that extra bit butch.

1837: As the Victorian age begins, full-length trousers eclipse breeches almost entirely in the U.K. — except in the circus, where briefs over tights are still the costume of choice for strongmen and acrobats (and will remain so for decades to come — pay attention this bit is important for later).

1890: Knickerbockers become de rigueur for both men and boys in the U.S., sticking around until at least the early 1930s. These baggy, knee-length shorts, worn over pants, also became standard for multiple sports, including cycling, fencing and baseball (as you probably already know, the original New York Knickerbockers were a baseball team, founded in 1845 — the basketball team of the same name wasn’t founded until more than a century later, in 1946).

1920: Knickerbockers go long with the invention of Plus Fours — literally, a pair of knickerbockers that extend four inches farther past the knee. People who like to make fun of golfers celebrate worldwide.

1934: Sci-fi adventurer Flash Gordon debuts, spends the next few decades wearing multiple versions of briefs over tights in various color schemes — a look Sam J. Jones singularly failed to replicate in the otherwise perfect (no, you’re wrong) 1980 movie.

1936: Flash Gordon’s Defenders of the Earth teammate, The Phantom, debuts, also wearing briefs over tights — this time, ones with a snazzy diagonal stripe (possibly to hint at his ability to summon the power of 10 tigers!!! But who really knows?)

1938: Finally, we get to the one character everyone thinks of when you talk about underwear outside the trousers: Superman. Created in 1933 and sold to DC Comics in 1938 (first appearing on the cover of Action Comics in June of that year), the Man of Steel’s costume was based on circus strongmen of the time (who in turn were still in their Victorian duds — see, I told you that part was important). This schoolboy fantasy of a lantern-jawed strongman who dedicates his life to protecting the weak is clearly still an enduring idea, but in its original context — created by the sons of Jewish immigrants, just as Nazi Germany started to demonstrate its brute strength across the Atlantic — the appeal couldn’t be more obvious.

1939: Last comics entry, I promise: Just a year after Superman debuted, Batman toned down the cape, briefs and tights look with a more somber palette. The rest is pointy-eared, child-endangering history.

2014: Runner’s World asks, “Should Guys Wear Shorts Over Their Tights?” The thesis being, you need to choose between being aerodynamic and covering your modesty.

Guys… why not both?

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