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Brief encounters

How one iconic advert helped cement Sunspel’s status as the best British underwear brand

The Sunspel boxer short achieved icon status, after featuring in Levi’s 1985 advert
The Sunspel boxer short achieved icon status, after featuring in Levi’s 1985 advert

Underwear is, of course, the foundation of every outfit, and almost certainly the first thing you put on when getting dressed. But while women have the whole category of lingerie to enjoy, men have been traditionally constrained by what they can wear in this department.

A 1949 Sunspel underwear advertisement from the Long Eaton archive
A 1949 Sunspel underwear advertisement from the Long Eaton archive

Sunspel has been making the finest quality British undergarments for men since 1860, and that includes underwear. Today, the range is broad, comprising trunks, briefs, shorts, vests, base layers and boxer shorts. All are made from the finest, lightweight, breathable fabrics and cut for maximum comfort.

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Although Sunspel is best known today for its T-shirts, underwear has, in fact, been a significant source of its international success. Major department stores around the world have sold Sunspel underwear since the 1950s. When Tony Soprano and Christopher Moltisanti in The Sopranos both talk of the underwear at Barneys with the holes in it, that’s Sunspel! In recent years, Sunspel has been sought out by fashion brands for its expertise in underwear, making pieces for American designer Thom Browne’s catwalk shows and manufacturing designs for Japanese fashion label Comme des Garçons, with which Sunspel also created a cross-brand collaboration. This sort of partnership has also been successfully realised with our own Paul Smith, and Belgian designer Kris Van Assche. All of which speaks of genuine skill, quality and knowledge in this specialist area.

Sunspel’s cotton poplin boxer short, introduced to the UK in 1947
Sunspel’s cotton poplin boxer short, introduced to the UK in 1947

And yet the hidden story here is of how Sunspel helped change the underwear-wearing habits of a nation. In 1947, the firm from Long Eaton started making boxer shorts, introducing the style to the UK. The boxer short had developed in the US in the 1920s as a lightweight garment for fighters to sport in the ring, and had crossed over into the male wardrobe as a welcome alternative to the existing often bulky and woollen items on sale.

Over the decades Sunspel has developed a style for every preference, always made from the finest long-staple cotton fabrics
Over the decades Sunspel has developed a style for every preference, always made from the finest long-staple cotton fabrics

Sunspel recognised the appeal of the boxer and brought it over the Atlantic. The modern “brief” had appeared in 1934, and the boxer remained something of an acquired taste for several decades. But then, in 1985, everything changed, care of an ad for Levi’s. If you’re of a certain age you will remember it, if not, look it up on YouTube: to the strains of Marvin Gaye’s I Heard it Through the Grapevine, a handsome young man with a hint of Elvis about him walks into a 1950s small-town American laundrette on a hot day. He pours some rocks into a washing machine, strips off his black T-shirt and Levi’s and puts them in, and takes a seat to wait for the cycle to stonewash his denim. He is now wearing only a pair of white boxer shorts, much to the excitement of all the girls in the place.

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Despite the glamour of vintage Americana, the ad was actually a British affair. The agency that created it was Bartle Bogle Hegarty of Soho London, the male lead was Essex-born model Nick Kamen and, crucially, those white boxers were not made in the Midwest of the US, but in the Midlands of the UK. By Sunspel. Someone involved clearly knew their fashion history. If Levi’s were to be promoted as the original jeans, then Sunspel was the obvious choice as the original British boxer.

The ad did wonders for Levi’s and the profile of its leading man, but it also introduced the public at large to the boxer short. As style journalist, author and broadcaster Robert Elms puts it: “Before the boy in the launderette, nobody wore boxers.” He explains: “The model was Nick Kamen, a hip face of the time, and white cotton Sunspel boxers were the inspired choice of underpants, appearing both timelessly cool, and crisply modern. Almost overnight, men who would once have seen boxer shorts as stuffily old-fashioned were clamouring to look like Nick Kamen and buying boxers in their droves. And ever since, a pair of white cotton Sunspels has been the boxer choice of those in the know.”

What makes Sunspel boxers so special is that they are engineered for comfort. The seams are double-turned and feldlocked so that there are no rough edges. The rear features a distinctive back panel rather than an uncomfortable central seam. And all of the excessive bagginess left over from the early styles has been eliminated so that they can be worn with a slimmer trouser, without being restrictive. The fabric, too, has been chosen for unparalleled lightness, softness and breathability: each pair is cut from 100 per cent long staple fine cotton.

So, when it comes to getting dressed, you can do no better than to start with Sunspel. And if you want the ultimate in comfort and style, look no further than the brand’s famous cotton boxer.

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