The Privacy of Style: Imagining Underwear
Last month the New York Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony joined 50 Cent to launch the rapper’s fashion line at Bloomingdale’s in New York City. Observers attempting to fathom consumption are routinely befuddled by the apparently irrational expense consumers will devote to style, and 50 Cent’s endorsement will leave many of those observers once more scratching their heads. The rapper has been joined by Anthony and Timbaland as investors in Frigo underwear, taking aim at the “premium” men’s underwear market with a line that includes a $100 pair with a patented “interior pouch”. A surprising universe of companies appeal to this upscale men’s drawers market ranging from the likes of Versace (a pair of briefs at $175) and Derek Rose to upstarts like the Swedish firm Tani or Mark Mocy (which promises to protect you from an astounding range of personal offenses). The pricey celebrity-endorsed undies illuminate the confluence of consumer desire, branding, and individual material imagination in what might seem to be the most prosaic of all things.
On the one hand, Frigo and a host of firms hawking expensive underwear may confirm the irrationality of brand consumption. From a purely economic perspective, post-war parents began buying their sons bags of functionally adequate tighty whiteys that still can be found for $10 at every department store. Not surprisingly, Carmelo Anthony rails on the classic bags of cotton underwear, intoning that “They’re just not comfortable.” A 2016 survey seems to confirm Anthony’s sentiments, since just 6% of men wear conventional white briefs. The consumer driven purely by function might well be unconvinced that they require Frigo’s “laser cut vents … for aeriation” or the space-age fabrics in designer drawers. Likewise, the concrete effect of endorsements and advertisements is not especially clear. Fashion ads have long celebrated photo-shopped genetic anomalies, and it may be strangely appealing to think that the likes of David Beckham wear your undies brand or they come with the endorsement of Timbaland. Nevertheless, no consumer can be so deluded that they expect a pair of drawers will transform them into Cristiano Ronaldo, Rafael Nadal, or the French Olympic swim team.
On the other hand, though, perhaps the most interesting distinction of underwear branding is that (with the exception of strategically exposed waistbands) underwear do not publicly display the brand. Much of the theorizing about branding revolves around brands’ public display of style, affluence, and taste, but premium men’s underwear underscore that brands do not necessarily display taste; instead, they appeal to a consumer’s imagination of their stylishness, comfort, extravagance, and gratification. Even when they are displayed to our most intimate partners, underwear may be more about imagining how we feel and look than how we are actually seen. Our drawers may not confirm our affluence or style as much as they capture a self-absorbed and even unarticulated dimension of material desire.
Critics often fail to appreciate the depth of material imagination, instead caught up in their own bemusement over consumers’ economic irrationality or suggesting that foolish shoppers are succumbing to transparent advertising appeals. For instance, when Frigos first broke the $100 barrier four years ago the Huffington Post’s women’s editor Emma Gray lampooned the ludicrously priced underwear. Gray sounded an age-old argument that function should rationally trump price and style, suggesting that the flood of pricy men’s drawers demonstrates “that lots of things—specifically unmentionables—can be manufactured in such a way that you can convince consumers to pay way more for them than they’re worth.”
The lingerie market has long appealed to and exploited women’s imaginations of body and beauty, and the lingerie industry is enormously profitable, with $13 billion in annual revenue in the United States and about $32 billion worldwide. Frigo hopes to spark men’s imagination about their skivvies, but this year a study found that the average man in the UK owns just 13 pairs of underwear; he buys a new pair just once every six months; the typical pair remains in use for four years (some wearing a single pair for a week at a time); and he manages an average yearly underwear budget of £20.75 (at the moment just more than $27). In contrast, a 2012 study concluded that the typical British woman owns 34 pairs of panties, and on average 14 pairs are reserved for “special occasions.” This year the Queen’s lingerie supplier Rigby & Peller found that alongside 42 pairs of knickers the average woman owns just two bras (and 5% of women wear them over 20 years). The average pair of men’s underwear at the massive online skivvies site Fresh pair today costs $28, but Rigby & Peller’s women’s briefs start at £30, and made-to-fit bras go for £300 or more. A 2015 study argued that over the average woman’s lifetime another $2280 of new underwear are purchased simply to replace underwear stained during menstruation.
Efforts to explain nearly any material consumption routinely meet with some inexplicable dimensions of experience, desire, and imagination that fall outside the order of functional need, economic rationality, or ideology. For instance, in a 2012 Bjorn Borg survey (PDF) 59% of respondents indicated they buy underwear on sheer impulse (72% of French consumers professed no brand devotion whatsoever, while 26% of Americans favor a particular brand). Some things like undies are especially reliant on sparking individual imagination since their appeals do not rely on the narrowly visual dimensions of material culture. Underwear may reside on the boundaries of articulation—that is, most of us do not commonly share with others our day’s choice of drawers—but they conversely are an utterly bodily concrete experience, cradling us intimately even if that experience passes largely without conversation. The appeals made by 50 Cent or the allure of very expensive and technically sophisticated underwear certainly shape many peoples’ consumer experiences, but they likely do not explain much of our materiality. Underwear may heighten the utterly imaginative dimensions of style, comfort, and affluence found in most if not all material culture, but they underscore that much of consumption defies straightforward rational explanation.