Jockey underwear

If it weren't for your Y-fronts, where would you be?

Jockey Y-fronts go on sale for the first time in New Zealand, 16 March 1940

Some people might say we are what we eat; others might prefer to say we are what we wear. Here we consider what the garments many New Zealand males have been wearing underneath their trousers for more than 60 years say about who we are, our attitudes and values.

The invention of the mighty Y

In January 1935 New Zealand was struggling to emerge from the Great Depression. Finding or keeping a job was probably the greatest concern for most New Zealand men at this time. Halfway across the world in a Chicago department store, Coopers Inc. displayed a new style of skimpy men's underwear for the first time. America was also in the grip of economic depression, and to make matters worse, the citizens of Chicago were experiencing the worst blizzard of the winter. This was a day for the ever-dependable long johns if there ever was one. Store management ordered the display removed, but before that was done, 600 packages of Coopers' new Jockey Shorts were sold.

Newspaper advert for Jockey's

Early advertisement for Jockeys

The design of this revolutionary undergarment involved a Y-shaped front with overlapping fly on knitted drawers in short and long styles. It was dubbed the 'Jockey' because it offered a degree of support previously only available from the sportsman's jockstrap. Within three months of their introduction, over 30,000 pairs were sold. Jockeys were about to change not only the 'Underwear Habits of the [American] Nation' but those of New Zealand men too.

The Y-front comes to New Zealand

A Canterbury company, Lane Walker Rudkin (LWR), successfully bid for a licence to manufacture the new Jockey range and began marketing the Jockey Y-front on 16 March 1940. New Zealand became one of the first four countries in the world to make what would become an international, iconic brand.

These were heady days. Economic depression had been replaced by world war and the country was in the grip of centennial fever. A full-on assault to capture the New Zealand male market began with advertisements such as:

If old-fashioned underwear makes you squirm, switch to Jockey

This might all seem rather tame by today's standards, but in 1940 people did not talk about their underwear, in public at least. Richard Wolfe, writing in The way we wore, described how, before the war, men's underwear was 'all-wool and all-enveloping, extending to the ankles and elbows. It was made in the mills of New Zealand, with heavy ribbing and reinforced crotches, and came mostly in natural or fawn. For the patriotic there was Roslyn's Dominion brand, with spliced seat and knee.'

Not surprisingly, given some of the obvious discomforts of the more traditional undergarment (especially in summer), the Y-front quickly established itself as a market leader in New Zealand. Newspaper advertisements outlined the virtues of their 'sleek and fitting scientific designs', their overall 'support from the waist' and 'real masculine comfort'. No doubt New Zealand males were also relieved that there was 'no bunching discomfort at the crutch' and a 'no-gape opening'. Jockeys had the whole male market covered. By the 1960s radio jingles were urging Kiwi mothers to start them young:

From the day he's two, the wise thing to do is put him in Jockey Junior.

Despite increasing competition from other brands and styles in the latter half of the 20th century, Jockey products ruled the roost in this country. As recently as 2003 New Zealanders bought nearly one million pairs of Jockey men's underwear – one for every one and a half males aged 16 and over. On a per capita basis, New Zealanders purchased more Jockey products than any other country. Jockeys became the stock Christmas present for the male who seemingly had everything, and many New Zealand men and boys have woken on Christmas morning to a pair (or two) of Jockeys under the tree. In this regard the efforts of hardworking salespeople such as the legendary Rod MacLenman must be acknowledged. MacLenman scooped the prestigious Golden Spurs award for top-selling Jockey salesperson in 1983 for moving 72,000 pairs in the seven weeks leading up to Christmas.

The success of Jockey as a brand in this country also owes a great deal to mothers, wives and girlfriends: market research indicates that most Kiwi men don't buy their own underpants.

The many faces of Jockey

To stress the masculinity of the brand, marketing in New Zealand utilised sporting heroes and imagery. Television advertisements showed men being tackled on the rugby field with their Jockeys exposed in the process, and they referred to Jockey wearers as being part of a 'national team'. A whole host of Kiwi sporting icons have donned Jockeys for the cameras, including Chris Cairns, Danny Morrison, Zinzan Brooke, Paul MacDonald, Ian Ferguson and Matthew Ridge.

In recent years All Black Dan Carter has become the 'face and bod' of Jockey, but it is debatable whether his appearance in nothing other than a pair of 'Jocks' is aimed at Kiwi men. Jockey spokesperson Paula Newbold claimed Carter 'bridged the male–female interest gap by appealing to a wide range of people'. But if Kiwi women buy their men's underwear, then Carter is not being utilised for his prowess on the footy field. One news item in 2004 reported how a 16-metre billboard of Carter in his underwear was stopping traffic in Christchurch.  One woman working in a café across the road claimed women drivers were so distracted that they didn't notice the traffic lights turning green: 'Daniel Carter's pretty hot. It's good to look at it every so often, something entertaining, females love it. Most men don't.'

In recent years Jockey has developed a popular range of women's underwear, thus making it a brand for all New Zealanders

'Jockeys are as Kiwi as kiwifruit pavlova'

Through successful advertising and marketing Jockey has certainly established itself as a nationally recognised brand that has achieved iconic status. It has been forgotten, however, that it is an introduced brand. In July 2005, when it was announced that the woollen Swanndri would be manufactured in China, the online news site Village Press ran a piece on what it saw as the demise of several iconic New Zealand brands.

Once Upon A Time ...

Sometime in the 1970's a Canterbury sheep farmer would wake up. After his Flemings oats for breakfast he'd get dressed. He'd be wearing Jockey underwear, Skellerup gumboots, and Skellerup wet weather gear (all made in Christchurch). He'd definitely not forget his Swanndri, made for over 100 years in Timaru, and he liked to think some of his wool ended up there. He'd have a glass of clean artesian water and look out at the swimming hole where the kids played in summer.

Thirty years on things have changed. His Jockey and Skellerup products are no longer made here. Flemings now has an Aussie twang. He has an irrigated dairy farm and the waterhole is unfit for swimming. People are also worried about the future of the aquifer which supplies the water. He's wearing his last fully New Zealand Swanndri. Swanndri's Timaru mill, RIP.

If it weren't for your Y-fronts ... activities

This topic might seem a little tongue in cheek, but it offers an opportunity to explore life in New Zealand that could be incorporated into:

  • a social studies unit looking at life in New Zealand since the Second World War
  • a social studies unit exploring economic issues such as manufacturing in New Zealand or the place of cheap imports in the New Zealand economy
  • a decade study that might be used as a research option in senior history
  • a junior economics programme or social studies unit examining the role and nature of advertising 
  • a combined languages/social studies programme where static images might be the focus.

The following activities give teachers some ideas how this material could be incorporated into their teaching programmes; users should adapt it to meet the needs of each class. If the subject matter is too risqué for your class (or school community), then the underwear models/themes can be replaced by something like fast-food advertisements.


This is a good opportunity to introduce or practice some of the skills associated with data gathering and surveys in general. This is an important skill in the social sciences and a good way to test hypotheses. There are a number of simple surveys that you could run within your class, syndicate, department or year level relating to some of the ideas in this calendar event. Students can also use this as an opportunity to refine the additional skills involved with presenting information in a useful and interesting manner. While this particular topic can be seen as a bit of fun, be aware that for some students due to personal circumstances, such as religious beliefs for instance, the topic might be seen as inappropriate or potentially embarrassing. As always, use your professional judgment; you know your class. For instance:

  • You could follow up the market research that suggests the majority of New Zealand males do not buy their own underwear. Your students can design appropriate questions and determine how they will gather responses to these questions and how they will record the results. They can also determine how to present their results, such as in the form of tables and graphs. In addition, your students could be asked to write a generalisation based on the results of their survey and whether or not their results support the original hypothesis.
  • You could find out what brand names are known or appear to be most popular or to what extent people are influenced by celebrities advertising a particular product.

2. The power of advertising

A. Product endorsement is a key weapon of the advertising agency, and advertising is not always about demonstrating the benefits or worth of the product itself. You could use this feature to explore the issue of how marketing and advertising works.

  • What are some of the tricks of the trade?
  • What makes a good advertisement? Is a bad advertisement a good advertisement?
  • What are some of the differences between advertisements that are in print, on radio or TV?
  • What sort of people do you think advertising agencies are looking for when promoting a particular product?
  • Why are sports stars used to market something like Jockeys?

B. Design your own advertising campaign

Students could develop a marketing strategy for a new product and consider ways of advertising their product, including designing an advertisement that would be suitable for the print media. Students can also think of who they might use to endorse their product and why they think this particular person would be most appropriate

3. Class debate

An implication of the use of Dan Carter to promote Jockeys is the notion that sex sells. A sexy image makes the product more desirable. Using this as a starting point, discuss this concept with your class. To prepare for this you might want to obtain some of the Jockey advertisements that Dan Carter has appeared in. This activity might work best with an older social studies class. Now get your class to consider the role of celebrity endorsements, in general, before exploring this specific question:

Is Daniel Carter selling underwear?

  • In groups of three ask your class to prepare arguments that support the notion that Carter is indeed selling Jockeys and nothing else. Also develop arguments that suggest that the use of Carter by Jockey has nothing to do with selling the product.
  • Ask each group to add their thoughts to two lists either on the board or on large sheets of paper.
  • Now select six members of the class to debate this question, applying the usual rules of a formal debate with one team in the affirmative and one in the negative, speaking times, etc.
  • If it is more appropriate to your class, you could substitute Dan Carter with Elle McPherson or another celebrity selling a different product.

4. In the good old days ...

The Village Press seemed to speak with nostalgia about a time when many of the well-known and respected brands, including Jockeys, were made in New Zealand. It seemed critical or sad that this was no longer the case.

  • In your opinion does it really matter where products are made?
  • What are some of the advantages of manufacturing some of the products mentioned in the Village Press here in New Zealand? List at least three.
  • Why are many of the products mentioned in the Village Press no longer being made in New Zealand?
  • There have been attempts in the past to promote a 'buy Kiwi made' campaign to encourage New Zealanders to buy products made here. This was largely an attempt to support New Zealand manufacturers and therefore maintain jobs here. In recent times the Green Party has talked about re-launching this initiative.
    • Imagine you are a Green Party politician. You are delivering a short speech to a meeting attended by employers, workers, trade unions, the media and other interested parties (including some of your political opponents). During your speech you want to make clear to your audience what you believe to be the three main advantages to New Zealand and its workforce of your 'buy Kiwi made' campaign.
    • Imagine you are a member of the press attending this speech. What are the two key questions you believe the speaker needs to answer?
    • Now imagine you are an opponent of this idea. Explain to the audience why you think this campaign would be a bad idea for the New Zealand consumer.
    • Design a poster that could be used to promote a 'buy Kiwi made' campaign.
How to cite this page

'Jockey underwear goes on sale in New Zealand', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 16-Mar-2016