Underwear Anxiety

January 10, 2010, marked New York City’s 9th Annual “No Pants Subway Ride,” an event organized by “Improv Everywhere.” If you are unfamiliar with the concept, the name is exactly what you might expect. Participants meet in one of six locations throughout the city, descend onto the platform, and, well…take their pants off. There are only two requirements for participation:

1) Willing to take pants off on subway
2) Able to keep a straight face about it

The below video illuminates the jaunt far better than any description I might offer:

Last week a friend and I discussed participating. I will cut to the chase: we both wussed out. We agreed that while we might be brazen enough to wear our underwear in public, there is something especially crude about wearing underwear and shoes and socks. The combination is repulsive. During the conversation, however, my friend made an astute comment:  If aliens came from another planet and observed our behavior, what would they conclude? “So these creatures wear material that covers the lower region of their bodies, and it’s a really big event when they remove this material. They get a kick out of themselves.” When all is said and done, it seems pretty silly.

There is quite a bit of dissent on Improv Everywhere’s “No Pants” forum, however, which suggests that maybe there is more to this whole “underwear” thing than we realize. The idea of an organized “No Pants Subway Ride” is unsettling to many New Yorkers. Grievances  range from, “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of,” to “keep contributing to the ever growing embarrassment you’re turning our city into,” to “It’s really too bad this creative sort of guerilla organization and participation can’t be harnessed to spark civil disobedience. We’re walking around the city in underwear, irony-loving hipsters that we are, while our working-class peers are getting blown up in Afghanistan. There is rather a disconnect from reality with events like this.” Apparently, no pants yields big problems.

I’m going to come out and say it: there is an inexplicable anxiety about underwear. The very mention of it makes certain types of people uncomfortable. And, like many problems, I believe that we have The Bible to blame. In the book of Genesis, God got wind of Adam and Eve’s illicit snacking by sight of their underwear. And the punishment for wearing a few fig leaves as coverings? Let’s revisit Genesis 3, shall we?

“To the woman he said, / I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; / with pain you will give birth to children. / Your desire will be for your husband, / and he will rule over you. / To Adam he said, ‘Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, / ‘you must not eat of it,’ Cursed is the ground because of you; / through painful toil you will eat of it / all the days of your life. / It will produce thorns and thistles for you, / and you will eat the plants of the field. / By the sweat of your brow / you will eat your food / until you return to the ground, / since from it you were taken; for dust you are / and to dust you will return.”

I include this extended passage to emphasize exactly what resulted from the world’s first underwear mishap: painful childbirth, the subjugation of women, a life of toil and bad food, and in the end, what do we have to show for it? Nothing. We are returned to dust. If underwear welcomed evil into the world, it is no wonder that it spawns anxiety.

And the anxiety continues to plague us today. As a kid, the height of mortification is to get “pantsed.” Elastic waistbands were the Russian Roulette of Middle School- if you happen to lack a drawstring one day, you better be prepared for a day of degradation. (recall the insulting, “I see London, I see France” taunt). Even before public speaking engagements, the threadbare shred of advice passed down through generations is none other than, “imagine the audience in their underwear.”The implicit message is that no matter how shaken one might be, it cannot equate to the terror of being seen in undergarments.

Quite a comical predicament we’ve inherited. But it gets all the more complicated. For centuries, underwear was always “worn but not seen or spoken of.” But all that changed in 1980, when Brooke Sheilds’ TV ad for Calvin Klein jeans included the famous tagline, “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.”  Two years later, Calvin Klein took it a step further in erecting a giant billboard in Times Square depicting a model wearing just a pair of white briefs.

Underwear, acknowledged.

His advertising sparked a revolution, and the underwear craze cascaded from there. In the mid-80s, Madonna took to the stage in nothing but lace bustiers and pointy metal bras worn as outerwear. In the nineties, MC Hammer and other rappers wore their pants slung low, revealing the waistbands of their boxers. Suddenly, the nation became comfortable talking about—and showing—their underwear. (Coincidentally, a popular trend emerged last week. Thousands of women’s facebook statuses featured the colors of their bras. While some said that it was to raise awareness for breast cancer, others reportedly did it, “just to confuse boys.” Either way, the fad proves my point).

But just as we became Ok with discussing underwear, a whole new anxiety emerged: too many choices were introduced. For men, the longstanding question has always been, undoubtedly: boxers or briefs. The choice was once a glimpse into men’s souls. Not anymore. Men’s drawers now come in a vexing array of cuts and fabrics. Undies come in a variety of silhouettes (such as boxer, brief, or trunk), rises (such as low, mid or high), fit options (such as relaxed or slim), colors and patterns. And fabrics include not only the traditional woven or knit cotton but also Lycra, Spandex and various “microfiber” synthetics. (And in doing research for this piece, I shamefully learned about Jockey’s 3D-Innovations Seamfree Microfiber undies that have “eight-way stretch” and offer the service of “sculpting and supporting muscular movement” — which sounds suspiciously like a men’s version of the Spanx body-shapers). “We’re doing underwear with all of our energy and all of our creativity,” says Bob Mazzoli, chief creative officer of Calvin Klein Underwear. And it certainly shows.

And I refuse to even get into women’s choices. Victoria’s Secret earns 3.2 Billion dollars in revenue each year by making us believe that we need lace. And sequins. And “ipex racerbacks,” which sounds like a motorbike but is actually a type of underwear.

So where does this leave us? While I’m sure that many people out there feel perfectly comfortable with underwear, there’s no denying that underwear has woven a bizarre story in the fabric of human history. It has taken us centuries to publically acknowledge its existence, but with the liberation of acknowledgment comes dizzying choices. I wonder what Yossarian would say.

The beautiful thing about No Pants Subway Day is that it acknowledges underwear without explicitly acknowledging. It’s 3000 participants shamelessly display their undies without making the underground another runway show. They carry on with their days, reading newspapers, knitting, doing the crossword—they just happen to be wearing underwear while doing so. The display, in effect, demystifies underwear, and that is the first step towards breaking the anxiety that surrounds it.

Underwear, demystified.


2 Responses to “Underwear Anxiety”

  1. Well Done BD! I couldn’t agree more!

    Though, all things considered, the full breadth of your point may still be shadowed by the implications of this specific event being orchestrated to occur during winter…haha anthropologically speaking, of course!


  2. brigidduffy Says:

    Thanks, Tom!

    I was also wondering why this event is scheduled in mid-January. No Pants Subway Day is certainly not for the weak of heart…

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