Underwear Chronology: The 1940s

Figure 1.--Munsingwear, one of the leading manufacturers of men and boys' underwear, issued a catalog in 1940 with a diagram showing the various styles of men and boy's briefs.

Our information on the 1940s is mostly trends in the United States. We believe that in the era before World war II that there were substantial differences between countries concerning underwear. This is also true of other garments. It was often possible to identify nationality by looking at a child's clothes. Interestingly the differences were less apparent with adults. After the 1940s, many of these differences began to disappear.

Major Changes in America

Underwear fashions at the beginning of the decade in 1940, just a year before America entered World War II, were changing radically. Although the union suits of the 1930s were still sold and were being worn (especially in the winter), the new knitted briefs were beginning to be much more popular, at least in the summer, and sometimes in the winter also. They were worn with either t-shirts or sleeveless white knitted undershirts. The color was always white. The briefs became known later as "tighty-whities"--a phrase that was later used to make fun of them by boys who preferred boxer shorts. But boxer shorts were not at all common in 1940. The idea of bright colored boxers came quite a bit later.

Company Trends

The changing trends in underwear fashions can be observed at several different companies.

Musingwear (1940)

Munsingwear, one of the leading manufacturers of men and boys' underwear, issued a catalog in 1940 with a diagram showing the various styles of men and boy's briefs (figure 1). Some have a pouch while others don't. There are three not so brief styles of knitted shorts in addition to the briefs. Two of these have legs that go a few inches down the thigh, and one, with shorter legs, is referred to in the diagram as "Woven Boxer Shorts". The styles for boys were exactly the same as the styles for men. All of these styles had an appeal for boys because of their association with athletics, sports, and vigorous physical activity.

Hanes (1940)

The same year (1940) Hanes, another leading manufacturer of men and boy's underwear, advertised three styles of men's underwear that were also available in boys' sizes. The first style (shown at upper right) is very similar to the Munsingwear diagram of the same year--white briefs with a sleeveless undershirt. The briefs have a fly front of course. But the ad also shows (bottom right) a man wearing broadcloth shorts with a yoke front and three- button closure in front. This style was worn by a few boys although it was not yet very popular. The third style is an athletic style sleeveless white union suit with short legs and a button closure on the strap of the left shoulder. This style was also worn by some boys. The most common and most popular, however, was the briefs with either t-shirt or sleeveless white undershirt. For winter wear, there was a knitted style of ankle-length drawers, essentially a long-legged version of the briefs with an elastic waist.

Underwear and Shirts

Carter’s Trigs: Undershirts and Drawers (1949)

More modern examples of boys’ undershirts and drawers can be illustrated by an advertisement for Carter’s Trigs in 1949 and E-Z men and boy’s underwear in 1952. The Carter’s ad shows an adult version of jockey-type long underwear worn with a sleeveless knitted undershirt (or singlet), but the style is advertised for both “Men and Boys.” The drawers are ankle-length but are designed with the same type of fly opening and elastic waistband that jockey-style briefs have. [Image not yet loaded on HBC] The Carter's ad copy read, " “Carter's underwear "Men and Boys:  Keep Comfortable Warm in Carter's Trigs. Man, They Fit Right.  Boy, The Wear Right.  Mom, They Wash Right. Carter's Trigs, for Men and Boys."

Waist Union Suits

Sears Waist Union Suits (1941)

Two pages from the Sears 1941-42 Fall and Winter catalog show a variety of waist union suits for boys and girls from age 2 to as old as 16. Both short-legged and long-legged styles are shown. Two short-legged styles are shown and designated “Pilgrim Downy-Baks” These are interesting suits because although they are waist union suits, they have no reinforcement straps over the shoulders and no additional waist buttons. But they do have garter tabs (tape loops) for hose supporters. These suits would not be very practical to wear because if supporters were attached, they would tend to pull the union suit out of shape since no additional shoulder support is provided. The girl’s model has very brief trunk legs and buttons only half-way down the front whereas the boy’s model has thigh-length short legs and has buttons all the way down the front. The other page from the same catalog adverises “Handywear Heavyweight” Waist Suits in a variety of styles. One innovation here is the choice of “gripper front” and “lastex back” waist suits—that is, fastened with snaps rather than buttons in front and with elastic openings in the rear. But buyers could also choose the more conventional button fronts and three-button drop seats. There was obviously some concern about younger children having trouble with managing buttons in front and in back. These suits are available in various leg and sleeve lengths but are all heavier weight (for winter wear) than the styles advertised on the previous page. Note that these suits have “rustproof metal garter tabs”—i.e., tubes made of nickel or some other non-rusting material that would not corrode by being put through the laundry process. The metal tubes were provided so that pin-on hose supporters could be attached for holding up long stockings. This is one of the last advertisements for waist union suits. After the mid-1940s, waist suits died out because most boys and girls stopped wearing long stockings to school under their short pants, knickers, and skirts. See HBC pages.

Garter Waists

Sears Children’s Garter Waists (1940)

Three styles are offered. One is a new all-elastic model. Here no inflexible cotton tape is involved as was the case with most of the other models. This garter waist supports only stockings. It has four individual supporters (two front, two in back) attached to an all-elastic waistband with one button in front for closure. There is no cross piece (apparently not necessary because the shoulder straps are of all-elastic construction). This garter waist resembles in some respects the German Leibchen with four garters (see HBC Leibchen page). Kern’s Child’s Waist is again offered (a version of the Dr. Parker style). Also Kern’s Dandy—the style that hangs entirely from the shoulder and has no buttons at all. Note that only one of these waists has waist buttons for other clothing. Two function only to support stockings. See HBC page.

Ward’s Free-Action Garter Waists (1940)

Ward’s offers four styles of garter waists here. The first is an underwaist that buttons in the back with waist buttons and metal eyelet garter tabs to which pin-on hose supporters are already attached. The second style is the shoulder-brace style with no waist band and garters suspended directly from the shoulders. The third is Ward’s version of the Dr. Parter model with shoulder straps, chest strap, waistband with extra buttons, and pin-on supporters at the sides. The fourth is the deluxe Hickory model—a skeleton underwaist with detachable supporters attached. See HBC page.

Sears’ Garter Waists for Children (1940)

Offers three styles of garter waists—(1) the shoulder-style with no buttons, (2) Kern’s Child’s Waist (the Dr. Parker style), and (3) the all-elastic model with four individual supporters. See HBC page.

Sears Garter Waists for Girls and Boys (1949-50)

This is the last time garter waists for boys was advertised. There are two models. A girl wears the all-elastic model with four individual supporters. A boy wears a simplified version of the Dr. Parker style, but without waist buttons except at the front for closure. A pair of Y-shaped supporters are suspended from the waistband. See HBC page.

Pin-on Garters

Sears Pin-On Garters (1940)

Again, two grades of supporters—“velvet grip” and ordinary “pin-on” garters. White is now the only color available.

Sears Pin-On Garters (1941)

Again two grades as in 1940, white only.


Carter’s Men and Boy’s Briefs (1940)

This ad shows the same style of briefs for both men and boys. The briefs have the well-known Y-front fly. Pictures of both men and boys at play in the background. [Image not yet loaded on HBC]

Carter’s Briefs for Men and Boys (1948)

This ad follows the favored father-son formula with the boy wearing a junior version of his Dad’s underwear—a knitted sleeveless undershirt with cotton briefs. There is also a toddler’s version of the briefs. [Image not yet loaded on HBC]


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Created: 5:32 AM 10/13/2004
Last updated: 7:54 AM 10/15/2004