Men’s underwear is going retro in Japan, with steteco leading the pack. Steteco are “long trunks” that date back to tight trousers worn in Japan as early as the 14th century. The knee-length pants loosened up along the way and were just the thing to wear under hakama or kimono in the Meiji Era, and they made a comeback with the mass production of gauzy crepe fabric in the 50s. By the 1970s, blue jeans and the “new traditional” look had relegated the storied drawers to the top drawers of aging dads. But now, as old-man cute makes a global fashion comeback, the old briefs are young again.
In 2008, Steteco.com, a sub-brand of an intimate apparel maker called as, not only started making a youthful version of them, they called for nothing less than a world-wide steteco revival. “The first time I wore them under a suit, I loved how comfortable and absorbent they were, and how nice it was to come home, take off the suit, and just relax in them,” the head of the “Tokyo Labo” says on their site. “We decided to show the world how great life can be with steteco.”
Their vision has been catching on. In addition to Japanese fashion brands like Uniqlo and United Arrows, big international names are also bringing out their own versions. Hanes is about to put out a line in March, calling them “Neoteco.” Some have loud Hawaiian prints while others stick to a more traditional palette of sober stripes and plaids. The colors and length recall surfers’ board shorts, but the fabrics are lighter and the silhouette is a bit slimmer. Levi’s made some, now apparently out of stock, to look like stone-washed jeans in blue and black. Company catalogs show both men and women wearing the basic models, and there are also low-rise women’s versions with lace trim.
Not so into the loose and breezy thing? There’s plenty more neo-retro for you, too. Check out the new shorts with a wide, stretchy haramaki attached at the waistband. A haramaki is a traditional Japanese undergarment, a warm and snuggly woolly wrap that people — mostly older men and women of all ages and most famously, Tora-san — wear wrapped around their waists in the winter to keep warm. Wacoal saw the market potential of adding the stomach wrap to their men’s lines after their women’s version sold well over the last several years. Women wear them at temperature extremes, Wacoal found, to protect against both winter weather and overactive summer air conditioners. Now they’re gambling that guys might like to keep their midriffs warm and have a little extra slimming support at the same. The shorts come in boxer and brief varieties, in bright bold colors and small flower patterns.
Since these are being released just as the weather is starting to warm up, the real goal may be more about fashion than old-man practicality. That said, picnicking on those blue tarps at the early spring hanami is always chillier than expected. Going full length with haramaki tights might not be a bad idea.
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