This piece was first published on on August 27, 2011.


“UP Topnotcher Wore Red Underwear” – headline

SAN FRANCISCO–Think for a moment of that headline’s groundbreaking significance. This year’s topnotcher in the Philippine medical board exam revealed that among the rituals he observed on the day he aced the test was wearing red underwear. Presumably, either a pair of briefs or boxer shorts. The result for him was phenomenal.

Could this topnotcher’s secret to success have wider application for the common good? Something, perhaps, that could soothe our collective itch for economic progress and lift our sagging morale?

Snicker if you must, but before you sniff at Mark Augustine Saquido Onglao’s conceit as naive superstition, remind yourself this—the guy is a man of science, an aspiring surgeon. With cred like that, as one steeped in the scientific method, he must be on to something with his red underwear stratagem. Perhaps it fits in our nation’s development efforts. That’s not farfetched. Underwear, both men’s and women’s, have a proven impact on economic life.

For one, reported CNN, the state of men’s underwear usage is a useful economic indicator according to no less than former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan. Men tend to keep their underwear until they’re frayed beyond recognition; after all, undies are hidden from public view. So men tend to think buying replacements is discretionary spending. In downturns, discretionary spending trails off. Hence, when the U.S. recession started in 2008, the yearly sales of men’s underwear fell by 12 percent.

A Japanese study in the late ‘90s uncovered a more direct socio-economic effect. It found that Japan’s bus drivers figured in more traffic accidents when they wore freshly laundered undergarments. But they had fewer mishaps on days that they didn’t change. The explanation: They drove more carefully to avoid accidents when wearing their dirty undies, for fear of embarrassment in the hospital. Bingo. The dirtier the underwear, the fewer the accidents, the lesser the strain on social services and infrastructure.

But here’s a more intriguing possibility of undershorts being an engine of economic growth. In 2004 Deutsche-Welle reported on a survey that found 30 percent of German men didn’t change their underwear regularly. In fact, an earlier survey in the ‘90s found that German men walked around with the dirtiest underwear in all of Europe. Connect the dots and you’ll find the correlation between dirty undergarments and the German economic renaissance.

Germany’s hapless frauleins didn’t cotton much to their reeking mensch. Who would have? (By the way, the stereotype of German men being mediocre lovers? It’s not them, it’s their herrenunterwasche.) Freed from the fussy demands of courtship and reproductive activity, both sexes could devote more time and energy to productive output in the workplace, leading to the most robust economy on the continent. The only drawback was an excessively low population growth rate. Germany had to import guest workers from southern Italy and immigrants from Turkey, even Vietnam, for its booming industries. Now that’s a problem we’d like to have.

All this shouldn’t be a surprise. A brief peek into the history of underwear shows its tight link with innovation, hence, with the rise of civilization as we know it. Once humans left their cave dwellings, clothing ceased being a mere protector from the elements and began acquiring aesthetic value. It became necessary to use some kind of inner lining to protect outerwear from the embarrassing stains of bodily fluids, i.e., sweat, urine, nicotine, etc. The constant need to make that lining more comfortable inspired innovation.

The bulky loincloth spun off more convenient variations, from the pharaohnic shendoh (sando?) to the Sikh kaccha (katsa?) to Middle Age Europe’s codpiece, a handy aid to urination. And just as eating ceased being merely an act of refueling and turned into a source of pleasure, underwear, particularly women’s intimate apparel, also leaped in function. From its use as a practical guard against bodily stains it became a vehicle for eroticism—from simple shield against Victoria’s secretions evolved today’s frilly multimillion-dollar behemoth, Victoria’s Secrets.

Here’s more innovation: Before the 1930s men wore knee-length drawers, good in winter but impractical in hot weather. So came the breezier boxer shorts in 1925, followed in 1934 by the modern briefs. Patterned after France’s bikini swimming trunks, the snug, all-weather, slit-fronted underpants that used a minimum of textile was developed by Wisconsin-based Cooper’s Inc., which called the new apparel “Jockey shorts,” and the rest is profitable business history.

So let’s take a cue from topnotcher Onglao and make our own economic history. Let’s demand that our technocrats stretch their imaginations and find ways to wring national economic advantage from his surefire stratagem. While they’re at it they might as well factor in a unique habit of ours. We’re the only people on Earth whose men’s briefs and boxers are immaculately pressed, and often even bear the user’s embroidered nickname. Surely that should count as value-added.

Unfortunately, I ran into a disturbing new research that could put a damper on our economic strivings: “Male Organ and Economic Growth: Does Size Matter,” by Tatu Westling of the University of Helsinki. His findings? “The size of male organ has an inverse U-shaped relationship” with a country’s GDP. In other words, countries with larger gross domestic products tend to have smaller gross domestic prodders.

“Every centimeter increase in penis size accounted for a 5 to 7 percent reduction in economic growth,” says the study. For the record, Zaire has the longest penile length. Prosperous South Korea had the shortest. Small wonder that as the Philippines’ economic growth rate inches up (the latest figure is 5.5 percent), a shrinking feeling also takes over me. Life is so unfair.

But I have faith in our experts’ mental elasticity. Surely they’ll find a way to free us from this cruel variant of the boom-and-bust cycle. I personally pledge to contribute my own research, so that one day, all Filipino men may proudly say to the Mae Wests of the world, “Yes, ma’am. That’s our GDP in my pocket, and I’m also glad to see you.” For good results, I’ll keep wearing my favorite blue briefs when I go to the library. And I won’t change it. Ever.