The politics of male underwear

What can we learn by researching the inventive histories of men’s underwear?

While the world is eagerly watching the battle of two powerful white men over the USA, we in the POP team have turned to male underwear patents to argue that there is a lot to learn about the multiplicities of masculinities in the intimate, private sphere, away from the grand stage of global politics.  

Previous blogposts on underwear, entitled “The ‘evil’ that is the corset” and “The politics of underwear: chasing the moving nipple” addressed female undergarments. There is a strong link between citizenship and female bodies in the intimate sphere, where underwear arguably belongs.

When attached to female bodies, underwear revolves around procreation and sexuality. In contrast, men – more precisely ‘hegemonic masculinity’ (Jones, 1994; Connell 1995) – dominate the public sphere in mainstream accounts of citizenship.

Researching male underwear in the 200 years of the POP project, my key line of inquiry was to map how this form of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ is being produced when it enters the intimate sphere: Does it get reproduced as dominant and in control of decisions about the shape of the body and  procreation? Or do the patents give attention to critical interventions in hegemonic masculinity and power relations inherent in its construction? Rather than continuing to leave hegemonic masculinity ‘untouched’, do the innovators intend to reconsider its embodiment and acknowledge its multiplicity, frailty and materiality? How does hegemonic masculinity alter the intimate/private sphere – does it transform or entrench this domain as femininized?    

How does hegemonic masculinity alter the intimate/private sphere?

In his book Masculinities, R. W. Connell claims that hegemonic masculinity is harmful, because it “legitimises powerful men’s dominant position in society and justifies the subordination of the common male population and women, and other marginalised ways of being a man” (1995). This formulation does not set apart all men against everyone else – the line is between the powerful and the subordinated. Hegemonic masculinity is seen as the universal norm of being, the trope of the heterosexual, white, upper/middle class man, which erases the multiplicity of masculinities and flattens out real male bodies to an ideal.  

This post is structured alongside the key concerns of the innovators and the type of garments they indented to address them. The main body parts are chest, nipples and the penis, which are covered and enhanced by shirt-like covers and corsets (part I) and underpants (part II).  

1. CHEST AND NIPPLE COVERS 

In a Chinese patent of 2017, we have a play of conceal and reveal. By covering up the upper part of the chest and the nipple, the muscles on the abdomen become more visible. This not only serves to show off masculinity but directs to a very masculine activity: bodybuilding and the practice of observing and shaping muscles. 


Men’s cover
(Pat. CN207084144) 

In a much more detailed drawing, we can decipher how a Japanese patent from the same year similarly aimed to conceal men nipples. It’s states: “problem to be solved” is “to provide a men’s clothing making floating of the clothing in nipple portions inconspicuous” (Pat. JP2018090940). 

Men’s clothing (Pat. JP2018090940) 

This South-Korean patent looks very similar to a bra for women, the invention not only covers men’s nipples but it also “volume[s] up the men’s breast” (Pat. KR100825850). 

 Man’s breast pad” (Pat. KR100825850) 

Visual beauty is also a central concern in “Men’s wicking shirt with chest lining” from Taiwan, 2017: “the main purpose of this creation is to provide a way to avoid the dew point of the breast nipple, to increase the visual beauty, to have a comfortable wearing and good breathability” (Pat. TWM553129). 

Men’s wicking shirt with chest lining(Pat. TWM553129) 

2. PANTS 

Maybe the most striking find amongst the patented male underwear inventions are the ones that enable men to carry their weapons. A patent from Brazil, 2018 claims that it is “designed to facilitate the carrying of guns by police officers and other persons authorized to carry firearms”. Unfortunately we could not find a drawing, but the description of the patent states that there are respective pockets each side that are “intended to secure the weapon close to the user’s body and to facilitate the quick access to the weapon” and “on the inside front of the product, there is a padded cotton lining to comfort the wearer’s genitals”. This “large underwear” allows “a safe, discreet and comfortable weapon life for everyday use whether for work or for sports” (Pat. BR202018000081). 


A “ballistic underwear” was also patented in 2013 in the European Patent Office that directly refers to terrorism: 
 

“Ballistic Underwear” (EP2890947)

Studies have shown that military personnel, but also the civilian population in crisis regions, in particular in those regions where there is heavy terrorist activity, for example in Afghanistan, is suffering an increasing number of injuries to the lower abdomen, in particular in the genital region. One reason for this is that terrorists are deploying improvised explosive devices (IEDs). IEDs are usually positioned on the ground, directing the blast upward from the ground. This gives rise to primary fragments and secondary fragments, which injure the lower abdomen in particular. The explosion further serves to accelerate particles of sand, dust and dirt. A pressure wave and fire also emanate from the explosive devices” (EP2890947).  

Finally, there were a number of underpants concerned with sexuality and procreation. Men are protected against diseases and conception, whereby the crotch area is connected to a condom (Pat. CN1313071). But they are also facilitated in their sexuality. An innovation patented by the European Patent Office in 2007 gives off synthetic pheromones, that “result in strong sexual desire” but are not produced by the human body “in such amount to stimulate the same type of response in the opposite sex” (Pat. EP1996154). A Chinese patent of 2002 directly addresses “marital life” as the institution in which sexual exchange happens: “improvement of the quality of the marital life, facilitation of the healthy treatment after the marital life” (Pat. CN2540789). 

Striking is also the detailed description of another Chinese patent of 2002 of the anatomical changes of the male body:  

Before sex, men wear the pair of underpants which enable the penis and scrotum portion to expose outside. For the upper portion of the penis is pressed by the elastic strip knot, reflux of venous blood is decreased, and thereby increasing and thickening the penis. The penis can easily erect, as congestion leads to dropping in temperature and effect the like, which can prolong the sex time, and obviously promote the sexual life quality” (Pat. CN2540789).  

 The accompanied drawing is much less informative: 

“Male underpants” (Pat. CN2540789)

Patents can tell us about nation-building man, the warrior man, heteronormative man…. and fragile, vulnerable man.

The story the patents seem to tell us is of the nation building man, the warrior man, the heteronormative procreating man. These patents can be read as reinforcing the domination of hegemonic masculinity in the public domain and organise and constrain male bodies to conform to the ideas of grandeur and potency associated with this ideal. I have chosen to end this post of the grandiose male who protects and procreates its way through 200 years with this drawing of a very sad looking gentleman. He is wearing a pair of “drawers”, “which will snugly fit the abdomen of the wearer. Here the problem seems to be mundane, profane even, compared to the issues the patents told us about so far: a corpulent male body that needs some adjustments around the waist and abdomen. This male body is fragile, vulnerable even, a far cry from hegemonic masculinity.  

Drawers” (Pat. US590596) 

References: 

Beasley, C. and Bacchi, C. 2000. Citizen Bodies: embodying citizens – a feminist analysis, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 2:3, 337 – 358.
Connell, R. W. 2005. Masculinities. Oakland: University of California Press.
Jones, K. 1994. Identity, Action, and Locale: Thinking about Citizenship, Civic Action, And Feminism, Social Politics, 1 (3): 256 – 270.
Lister, R. 1997. Citizenship: Feminist Perspectives. Basingstoke: Macmillan.
Phillips, A. 1991. Engendering Democracy. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Shanley, M. and Narayan, U. eds. 1997. Reconstructing Political theory: Feminist Perspectives. Cambridge: Polity Press. 

Patents: 

Pat. CN207084144. Qui Aimin, China. 23 March 2018. Accessed at the EPO Espacenetwww.epo.org  
Pat. JP2018090940. Kawajiri Daisuke, Japan. 14 June 2018. Accessed at the EPO Espacenetwww.epo.org  
Pat. KR100825850. Yu, Rae Hyun, South Korea. 15 May 2008. Accessed at the EPO Espacenetwww.epo.org  
Pat. TWM553129. Shen Hui Song, Taiwan. 21 December 2017. Accessed at the EPO Espacenetwww.epo.org  
Pat. BR202018000081. Icaro Jorge Alves De Almeida, Brazil. 16 July 2019. Accessed at the EPO Espacenetwww.epo.org  
Pat. EP2890947. Freier, Katrin. European Patent Office. 08 July 2015. Accessed at the EPO Espacenetwww.epo.org  
Pat. CN1313071. Wu Shoushan. China. 19 September 2001. Accessed at the EPO Espacenetwww.epo.org  
Pat. EP1996154. Fede Alexandra, European Patent Office. 03 December 2008. Accessed at the EPO Espacenetwww.epo.org  
Pat. CN2540789. Cheng Zhiliang, China. 26 March 2003. Accessed at the EPO Espacenetwww.epo.org  
Pat. US590596. J. A. Scriven, USA. 28 Sept. 1897. Accessed at the EPO Espacenetwww.epo.org   

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