In New York's Times Square, the world's crossroads of theater, cinema, sin and commerce, gawking tourists are greeted by block-high billboards displaying healthy bodies showing off their underwear.
Rapper Marky Mark flexes a perfect torso in snuggy white Calvin Klein biker briefs. Olympian Nadia Comaneci flexes a perfect 10 toe in white Jockey for Her skivvies.
What is this American obsession for underwear? Nice underwear. In Times Square, where dark peep shows feature underpinnings of a sleazier sort, the bright outdoors pitch is for wholesome sexiness.
Fashion has brought underwear out of the drawer and onto the rock stage, street and society gala. That Madonna woman led women into fashion bondage with aggressive bras and bustiers. The satiny Victoria's Secret catalog became a voyeur's dream book. In a more modest way, men's underwear-makers started introducing racier patterns, colors and silks in this new era of body-consciousness.
But fashion is changing its mind again. Plain white briefs, the undies of choice for millions of plain dull guys, have been reinvented as a fashion item. Calvin Klein cuts them longish with a wider waistband, Karl Lagerfeld cuts them short for rich girls, and Jockey has figured out that if it ain't broke, don't mess with it too much. His and hers nice underwear is now the cool way to undress after a decade of pushy bras and screaming boxers.
"It's a very '90s kind of movement," says Harold Korda, associate curator of the Costume Institute of New York's Metropolitan Museum. "The Times Square phenomenon -- a move to functional, understated, no color, white cotton underwear -- really happened with Calvin Klein. He was the first to associate glamour with nice underwear. But he added some frisson to functional undergarments, made them sexy by association with a celebrity."
There is a move back to basics, purity, anti-ostentation, which Mr. Korda sees across the entire clothing spectrum.
Nicholas Graham, founder of the Joe Boxer label that almost single-handedly created the market for conversational boxers, is not about to be caught with his shorts down. For fall he will introduce a line called "Clean Fresh Underwear."
"They're for the customer who doesn't want to glow in the dark, but occasionally wants to step out in fashion," says Mr. Graham, who invented boxers that glow "yes" or "no" in the dark. His clean whites may have a fly embroidered on the fly.
"There's activity on the brief front," says Mr. Graham. "All of a sudden underwear has been discovered and it's being marketed at a feverish pitch." The product has to be good, he says; beyond that, it's fashion marketing. "We're into the pop American culture business, taking the weirdness of the country and putting it into underwear," he says.
With that idea he has founded the National Underwear Association -- "I am the founder, director and only producing member."
Charlie Korz, art director of 2xist, a 3-year-old men's underwear line that is being sold in trendy men's stores such as Saeno, says simple and athletically engineered white briefs are new again in two respects. "We are flooded by novelty underwear; a trip to any trade show would attest to that. Secondly, it comes back to a body-consciousness; gone are the days of droopy drawers."
The underwear industry may body-consciously be anticipating the outerwear direction to narrower, slimmer lines. "There's the problem of the 'visible panty line,' " he says. "Boxers just don't fit well under the newest clothes. Even in lines as generic as the Gap, clothes are being cut closer to the body."
He says his company is looking to break into Calvin Klein's market with very "forward" cuts along traditional lines with Lycra stretch that molds body contours. Although 2xist offers color, white is the leading seller.
"Color failed to take off as expected," he says, "and now we see white as a new retro '50s look. Even white socks are cool again, and not so long ago they were considered a real fashion disaster. What's sexier than white underwear on a great body?"
Guess who else believes that nice underwear is sexy? The company that believes in selling fashion in voluptuous Hollywood style is moving ahead with Guess Innerwear for men and women that will come to stores this fall.
"We are going for the look of European cotton, lots of freshness -- not frilly, but functional," says Leah Levy Soltas, director of public relations for Guess?
"Underwear is selling, and designer labels assure people of quality, much like the designer jeans idea," she says. "You gain status even when clothes are coming off, exposing underwear.
"Everybody is jumping on the bandwagon," says Ms. Soltas, "and even Victoria's Secret has freshened up and is showing more cottons and simplicity."
It is the new twist on the old-fashioned that's causing the stir in underwear, according to Steve Stamberg, president of Nantucket Industries, the manufacturing licensee for Guess Innerwear.
It's fashion underwear with a past. Versace had the longer white briefs for men two years ago. He didn't put his own name on the waistband as others do, but instead spelled out Miami. That underwear sold at $195, a high price, thinks Mr. Stamberg, for a reprise of a vintage "gents" look with a variation of trim and ribbing.
Talk about ribbing. Last spring Karl Lagerfeld sent out his models for the Chanel women's collection in Chanel jackets, pumps and pearls and menswear-inspired white briefs with the double C Chanel logo at the waistband. Those were priced at $165.
Who could he be kidding? A three-pack of basic white Fruit of the Loom briefs costs about $4.