Daniel in the Lions’ Den

Let’s put an end to bad advice about underwear

There has long existed a humorous trope, already a cliché by the time I was born. It’s the one about a mother’s advice to wear clean underpants in case you get into an accident. I never received such instruction myself. In fact, clean underwear was considered optional through much of my childhood, if memory serves correctly.

Underwear was just not something you discussed at the dining room table. Such garments could only be referred to through cryptic allusions and innuendo.

Not the face of a child wearing clean underwear. The author (circled) enjoying the third grade at St Helena's in the Bronx, NY. (Photo stolen from Patrick Scully's Facebook page).

When I first heard this supposedly wise admonition in my teen years, it felt as if my parents had been denying me some vital information. I couldn’t cross a street without worrying about the state of my underpants. What if I got hit by a car? What would the EMTs think?

But as I got older, I started to question if that was even sound–let alone realistic–guidance. Its premise, at the very least, is a shaky foundation on which to base your personal habits. In the first place, it assumes that every accident that could befall you will require the removal of your pants. What, all of a sudden we’re supposed to drop trou’ every time we stub our toe? I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t live in a world like that. I could try, but I wouldn’t like it. Mostly. To some degree.

The premise also takes a dualistic view of reality. According to this conventional wisdom, one wears clean underwear or one wears dirty underwear, and those are the only choices you get. What if you’re not interested in wearing undergarments? You tell a Scotsman that he can no longer go commando when he puts on a kilt. He’ll be furious with you. For your average Scotsman, it’s either dirty underwear, or no underwear at all, end of story.

There is also a problem with timing. The adage presumes either that you will get into an accident as soon as you put on a clean pair of underpants, or it presumes that the underpants will remain clean up until the time of your accident. If I got into an accident every time I put on a fresh pair of boxers, it probably wouldn’t take me very long to start wearing a kilt in the traditional way, instead. But let’s say you take your mother’s advice and you put on clean underwear before you start your day. You hope that when you do finally get into some bloody car accident, the EMTs will be able to look down on your mangled body with a smile. How impressed and satisfied they will be with your forethought as they peel your underwear off the pavement with a king size Spackle knife, along with whatever else remains of you.

Daniel in the Lions' Den by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1614/1616, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Here Rubens depicts the moment that Daniel, realising that God has saved him from the lions, offers another prayer that his highly prized underwear has remained immaculate throughout the ordeal, in the event of being seen in soiled underwear by King Darius' men once they've finally released him.

To be fair, most of us can get through most days without having to take our pants off in public, accident or no. But suppose you were a postal worker, and you’ve just eaten some bad sushi, and some dogs chase you for most of the afternoon, but when you finally do outrun them, there’s a huge line for the bathroom at Starbuck’s. Then, as you’re running out of Starbucks to use the bathroom in the Starbucks next door, a giant anvil lands on your head, followed by a grand piano. Your underwear is probably not going to look so good, despite your best efforts to keep it clean through a long and trying day.

And here’s another problem. What if this clean underwear thing takes off and everybody starts doing it. What happens when there’s a big aviation disaster in which each and every passenger and crew is wearing a brand new pair of Fruit-of-the-Loom. Some of them still with the pins attached. Think of all the hours that could have been saved identifying disembodied torsos if each person were, instead, wearing underwear befitting their station in life.

Now it’s hard to ask air travelers to get on a flight with dirty underwear. It should be required, however, at the very least for business class passengers to wear clean underwear, while those in coach should be required to wear the same underwear on their flight as they’ve been wearing for the last week. (You’ll know you’ve worn your underwear long enough if you’ve started to develop a rash). This will ensure an expedited identification of cadavers, in case of an accident. And one word to those who fly coach, I wouldn’t worry too much about the odor in your cabin section. Chances are that if you’re flying coach, you probably smell like shit anyway.

You see? There are just too many variables to make this clean underwear work. Practically speaking, it pretty much requires one to constantly change their underwear. So the adage shouldn’t be to wear clean underwear in case of an accident, but to not forget to bring 150 changes of underwear which will you use throughout a typical day, in the event of an accident.