Inventors of Gay: The Rise of Fashion Underwear

By: Christopher Harrity

Now that Mario Lopez has his own line of sleek men's underthings— Rated M— it's hard to recall a time when wearing exotic underwear was essentially a confession to same sex desires for other men.

It started in the same way for many men of a certain age: the pages of the Sears, J.C. Penny, and Montgomery Ward catalogs seemed to be a bit dog-eared on the men's undergarment pages. There they were, fully grown men in their skivvies, just standing around the hunting lodge, locker room, or fire station and talking to each other like they were fully dressed! Pipes were smoked, cigarettes lit, telephones talked on. Often, one knee-socked foot was propped up on a chair, table, or weight bench to display the flexibility of the leg opening or pouch area. And that pouch was suspiciously devoid of curvature or definition. All of that wonderful bulge was airbrushed out before the catalog was dumped on your front porch by a resentful mailman, but it was still enough to inspire a dream.

Then, as we grew up we saw something incredible in the backs of magazines like Esquire, Argosy, and True Man. Small, single-column ads offering forbidden delights like Terry cloth shaving skirts, caftans, and a sordid variety of stretchy, impossibly brief underwear modeled by "real men." And this time those bulges were pretty visible.

When our fathers' newest editions of said mags arrived on the doorstep, we secreted them off and raced to the back of the magazines to scan the pages for our favorite vendors of fine underwear: Ah-Men, Lew Magram, and Parr of Arizona. These proprietors were soon successful enough that their offerings of bikinis and thongs eventually grew into whole lines of fashion for men, and while women were sometimes sprinkled throughout these pages we knew they were intended for men who liked to look hot for other men.

What a life these muscular, and often hirsute guys apparently lived! Standing around on the patio in totally transparent pajama bottoms; wearing short, short, shorts and a fishnet tank top, right out on the street; hosting a party in a sheer black caftan that had slits so high on the sides that you could see the host wasn't wearing anything underneath at all!

And if you sent off for products from these mail order companies, you might find yourself suddenly receiving other mysterious offers in the mail, such as muscle building secrets, potions that promised to delay or enhance your sexual release, and maybe even an offer for products from the Athletic Model Guild—the mecca of underwear fetishism. Suddenly you were rocketed to a new dimension beyond the bikini and straight into the posing strap.

Eventually some of these companies died or were folded into larger more commercial entities like International Male, Undergear and the like. The charm of the small pop-and-pop mail order company that provided illicit and discreet service faded away. But they were not forgotten.

A few years back a friend of ours made the trek to Arizona to find the original Parr of Arizona store. As luck would have it, they were having a sale of their dated stock: striped bikinis with brass rings on the sides, shorts that zipped from front to back, tank tops cropped just below the nipples. Our friend filled his car with the vintage finds and asked if the owners were there. He met the mom and pop who ran the place and they were delighted to answer any questions he had. And what he asked, of course, was how they found the amazingly muscular and good looking young men who modeled their clothing in the ads and catalogs. Turns out they were the local talent— college kids, soda jerks, and paper boys who lived nearby. They just asked the boys if they would like to pose in some skivvies for a small fee. No one ever said no.

And thus a lifetime of fantasies were launched.

AMG's Posing Straps

Pages from the Ahh Men catalogue

Parr of Arizona catalogue and interior

READ MORE: Hot Sweat! How Fitness Magazines and Fashion Spreads Shaped Gay Identity

"Inventors of Gay" is our series on important people and cultural influences in LGBT history that helped create the culture we enjoy today.