16 September 2019
Bringing the inside outside: men's underwear is not the economic bellwether that it once was. Photo: AFP
Bringing the inside outside: men's underwear is not the economic bellwether that it once was. Photo: AFP

The bottom line on the underwear index

Some turn to purchasing managers indexes, others pull apart gross domestic product figures. But if you want to get a real sense of what shape the economy is in, take a good long look at underwear sales figures.

That’s the gospel according former Fed chief Alan Greenspan. Economics reporter Robert Krulwich told National Public radio a few years ago that Greenspan took men’s underwear stats very seriously.

“[Greenspan] once told me that if you think about all the garments in the household, the garment that is most private is the male underpants because nobody sees it except people like in the locker room and who cares … The last purchase that you don’t have to make is underpants,” Krulwich said. 

“If you look at the sales of male underpants, it’s just been much a flat lie, hardly ever changes. But on those few occasions where it dips, that means that men are so pinched that they are deciding not to replace underpants. And he said that is almost always a prescient sort of … here comes trouble.”

Cue the Men’s Underwear Index, the brief guide to economic health.

The Huffington Post reports that underwear sales sagged in the fallout from the 2009 recession but they’ve been gradually filling out since then. Men’s apparel sales are also up generally in the US in the last year, with some saying the industry is going well.

That’s fine as far as it goes but there’s one snag in the logical fabric — Greenspan made the observation more than three decades ago, according to New York Magazine. He made his point when women still bought a family’s boxers and briefs, before what Americans call shorts became a fashion statement, and before low-slung jeans brought the inside outside above the hipline.

Underwear is no longer a utility for men and the options and reasons for buying intimate apparel are much more varied. All that means is that the contours of the industry are much more complex and stitching a forecast together is much more difficult than examining the warp and weft of sales of a nation’s whitey tighties.

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