Men's underwear has really made strides since the loincloth.

Once worn solely for protection and warmth, it has evolved into a fashion statement and inspired its own lexicon of slang --from long johns and union suits to skivvies and tighty whities.

Ask a guy today what underwear brand first springs to mind, and he'll likely say Jockey, Hanes or Calvin Klein. But a former Minnesota company also played a big role in undergarment history. Munsingwear, whose massive factory complex covered an entire city block just west of downtown Minneapolis where International Market Square now stands, was once the world's largest underwear maker and the state's biggest employer of women.

More than 70 of the company's products, from World War II-era rayon briefs to wildly patterned matching bra-and-panty sets of the swinging '60s, are the subject of a new exhibit, "Underwear: A Brief History," opening today at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul.

Thanks to donations from Munsingwear, the History Center owns the nation's largest museum collection of underwear -- about 35,000 items, kept in vaults under the museum's public space, away from damaging ultraviolet rays.

Considering the size of this trove, why hasn't the museum made more mention of its unmentionables before?

"When you have millions of objects covering three centuries of life in Minnesota, it may take 25 years for some stories to be told," said Linda McShannock, the center's textiles curator, who is clearly pleased that underwear's turn in the spotlight has finally arrived.

During a preview walk-through of the items to be on display, McShannock, wearing latex gloves, picked up antique underthings as if they were precious jewels -- a century-old union suit, a pair of 1938 "Skits" (precursor to boxer briefs) and a sort of paleo-Wonder Bra from 1930 sporting some serious cone-shaped cups, dense enough to stop a bullet.

"Almost look like propellers, don't they?" she mused.

McShannock pointed out a psychedelic "Color Quake" garter belt from 1971. "That certainly would have put Grandma's undies in a twist," she said. A pink girdle from the early '60s brought back seventh-grade memories for her: Even though her figure was very slim, "I was told I had to wear a girdle so my butt wouldn't jiggle."

Boxer rebellion leads to brief encounter

The 1930s were a big decade for drawers, with the introduction of both boxers and briefs (before that some men were wearing drop-seat union seats, winter and summer, or bulky two-piecers that had to be unbuttoned). In 1935, Marshall Field's in Chicago put a pair of the new, shockingly tiny -- for the time -- Jockey briefs in its front window, and more than 600 pairs flew out the door that day. Around the same time, elastic waistbands, snaps and freedom of movement replaced cumbersome buttons on shorts made in the style of those worn by boxers. It wasn't until the 1990s, that boxer briefs, the most popular style among today's young men, solved the issue of having to choose between the comfort of one and the support of the other.

Part of the city's fabric

Munsingwear is also the subject of a new complementary book by local author Susan Marks, known for her previous history of Betty Crocker. In "In the Mood for Munsingwear: Minnesota's Claim to Underwear Fame," Marks writes that it all began in 1886, when George Munsing co-founded the Northwest Knitting Co. in Minneapolis, selling his popular invention -- itchless long underwear, made by plating silk on wool.

By 1900, the company was making more than 80 different styles of undergarments for adults and children. Four years later, it moved to the five-building complex on the IMS site, where new employees often got lost wandering its 650,000 square feet and residents of north Minneapolis set their watches by the noon blast of the steam whistle.

As both the exhibit and Marks' book explore, the world of undie advertising has a history nearly as rich as its subject's. In the 19th century, showing live models in underwear was unthinkable, even if they were covered head to toe in long johns (Calvin Klein billboards 100 years later would have given those Victorians the vapors). Eventually Munsingwear was daring enough to try it, in wholesome family settings, and gained rather than lost sales.

Looking back at Munsingwear's men's ads from the 1940s and '50s, some are laughably suggestive by today's standards, including one that shows two men wrestling in nothing but tight briefs, with the tag line "Let's get down to business." Marks writes that at that time, such homoerotic double entendres were common among companies that wanted to expand their customer bases in a wink-wink way.

Once everywhere, now gone

In the 1950s, Munsingwear seemed to be everywhere; it even had a presence at Disneyland. The company's mechanical "Wizard of Bras," acquired as part of the purchase of the Hollywood-Maxwell Brassiere Co., narrated a fashion show at the Intimate Apparel Shop on Main Street, U.S.A. While Munsingwear was proud of that family-friendly association, it kept mum about a contract with Frederick's of Hollywood, for which it made unlabeled pieces.

Once ahead of its time, Munsingwear eventually was unable to keep up with changing marketing strategies and public tastes, and the vast Minneapolis factory was closed in 1981. The brand is still sold, but these days people are more familiar with the famous penguin logo that Munsingwear put on its golf and activewear lines, a little icon recently revived by J.C. Penney.

The History Center has tried to reach out to former Munsingwear employees, but so far has a list of fewer than 20 people, she said.

"Hopefully they'll come out of the woodwork once the exhibit opens," McShannock said.

Then she answered the most important question of the day: What will she wear to RetroRama, the exhibit's opening party, featuring a foundation-garment fashion show?

"A lacy white tunic that looks like underwear," she said. "And a purse made out of a girdle."

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046