Men’s vintage underwear (quite unlike women’s) hasn’t changed much throughout the years, although it did look a little bit different during the 1940s. Men wore either knit briefs, woven boxer shorts, or union suits under their daily clothing.
White knit briefs were made from ribbed cotton with an elasticized waist and were worn high on the waist. Most were legless, but a short leg option was available. They were usually paired with a tank top undershirt of the same material.
Shorts (not called boxers yet) were given to soldiers during the summer months. At first they were white, but while hanging out to dry, they attracted enemy fire, so they were quickly changed to olive drab (tan) instead. Back at home, men wore them in either white, blue, striped, or with a small print on them.
They buttoned or “Gripper” snapped in the fly and had either a full elastic waistband, partial elastic panels, or a yoke band with buttons (elastic was in short supply during the war).
Shorts were worn above the belly button and they fell to the upper thigh. The back of the shorts was a little baggy, allowing ample room to move about without restriction. The loosest option was the French back shorts with full seat and tab and buttons to tighten.
Men always wore an undershirt during the ‘40s. Before the war, a white ribbed cotton scoop-neck tank top was the standard (with thinner shoulder straps than are common today). They were also long, hanging down to the thigh.
The white cotton short sleeve T-shirt was the standard issue undershirt for soldiers and soared in popularity during the decade. That’s even how it got its name – it was called the ‘T-type shirt’ by the military. After the war, the short sleeve T-shirt as a clothing item came to be – men started wearing them by themselves without anything over them, as they had become accustomed to while overseas.
During a cold winter, men might have thrown on a ‘union suit’ underneath their clothes. This was simple long underwear. The ‘40s version was very fitted with buttons down the front. The legs reached down to the ankles with long or short-sleeves. These were usually white ribbed cotton with a high crew neck.
Short leg varieties with short or tank top sleeves were an alternative to just undershorts in spring or autumn weather. Some full length union suits were made of lighter summer weight materials as well. For many men who grew up with union suits, they were the only style they wore. Briefs and shorts were too modern!
1940s Men’s Socks
During the war years, wool shortages and other wartime restrictions meant that men now started to knit socks using cotton and synthetic fibers that were more freely available. Manufacturers had to work with the new synthetic, Nylon, when natural fibers ran short.
It also led to socks shrinking in length to above the ankle, rather than over the calf (OTC). They were made of ribbed wool or cotton or a rayon blend with tighter ribbing at the top two or five inches to hold them up.
They were rich dark colors like brown, maroon, yellow, tan and blue, or light white and grey. Just like neckties, socks came in a wild range of patterns. Argyle was still a popular pattern as well as clocked (long thin lines down the sides). Large plaid, checks, and windowpane were other popular prints.
Bold horizontal stripes were frequently worn as sport socks for all genders and ages. White socks with bands of color or ribbing at the top was also a popular style with the youth in the later years.
Because elastic wasn’t used in socks yet, they tended to sag. Sock garters helped hold them up. They were an elastic or leather strap with one or two clips that grabbed the sock and another clip that wrapped around the calf tightly and held it in place above the calf.
Fancy dress socks accounted for 60% of men’s sock sales, and 40% plain colors by the end of the 1940s. Silk socks were almost non-existent as nylon continued to improve and remain affordable.
This was a time where young men continued to experiment with their hosiery options from colorful argyle to athletic socks made from thick cotton. Continue reading about the history of men’s socks.
Men’s Vintage Style Underwear
Look her for vintage or classic styles of men’s underwear and union suits
- Brooks Brothers – Classic boxers, French back boxers, undershirts, socks
- Fogey Unlimited on Esty – Yoke front boxers
- Sunspel – Some classic boxer shorts and undershirts
- Uniqlo – Affordable essentials, classic cuts, made in Japan.
- Online Militaria – Has a WW2 underwear set in khaki color
- Brycelands – French boxers, button down undershirt, pajamas
- Darcy Clothing – Historical reproduction undershirts, long johns, vests, singlet, cotton boxers
- Gota Waesche (DE) – Cotton Henley shirts, underwear, boxers, knitwear
Debbie Sessions has been teaching fashion history and helping people dress for vintage themed events since 2009. She has turned a hobby into VintageDancer.com with hundreds of well researched articles and hand picked links to vintage inspired clothing online. She aims to make dressing accurately (or not) an affordable option for all. Oh, and she dances too.