Greenspan’s Underpants

With the GDP, finally, tentatively, moving up, is the economy, in fact, on the mend? One cheeky metric—let’s call it the underwear model—has recently gained in popularity. It all started with a remark of Alan Greenspan’s to an NPR correspondent to the effect that the less men’s underwear is sold the worse off the economy. When men’s-underwear sales went up 4.8 percent for the first half of 2009, according to retail sales monitor NPD Group, this was seen as a sign that things are looking up. Business Week, The Wall Street Journal, Women’s Wear Daily, and untold blogs in between ran with the good news: Just Google “Greenspan underwear” (perhaps not a very appetizing prospect, granted).

But the metric might not be as revealing as it’s purported to be. Greenspan’s reported theory—that men only buy new underwear when they are feeling flush, since it’s the one garment no man really cares about given that nobody sees it much—actually dates back to the seventies, when he shared it informally with a young NPR reporter, Robert Krulwich. It wasn’t until Krulwich brought it up again on-air in late 2007 that it took off.

“I am really amazed by this,” says Krulwich. “All of a sudden, all these people are writing about this, and I’m getting calls. This would definitely qualify as giddy.” Irrational exuberance, even.

But what no one bothered to find out, Krulwich said, was that Greenspan actually told him this idea more than 30 years ago. This was back when the U.S. was emerging from the gas crisis, when women still bought most underwear for men, and before Calvin Klein would inaugurate the full-scale erotic commercialization of this once-private garment. Today, courtesy of low-cut jeans, underwear is often one of the most visible parts of men’s attire, all of which has helped men’s skivvies snowball into a category that grossed more than $2.4 billion last year. Still, since underwear is pricier than it was 30 years ago, when it wasn’t about fashion, Greenspan’s theory could still fit. It’s a sign that consumer confidence is perking up, right?

Again, not so fast. None of the reports of this underwear bellwether bothered to break down the figures. The sole reason that sales of “underwear” are up this year is that sales of undershirts are up 18 percent. Bottoms—as briefs, boxers, boxer-briefs, et al. are known—are down 1.5 percent, and both numbers figure into the tally. According to Bloomingdale’s menswear V.P., Kevin Harter, the store has seen a dramatic increase in sales of undershirts, especially plain V-necks, a trend he ascribed to guys’ wanting something simpler after pricey statement T-shirts. NPD’s chief industry analyst, Marshal Cohen, notes, “Just like underwear has become an accessory, the undershirt has become an apparel item.” Or perhaps men are wearing undershirts again to get more wear out of their work shirts, too. After all, one of Greenspan’s other barometers, Krulwich says, was dry-cleaning sales.

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Greenspan’s Underpants