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A news article today says

The force’s rural crime team lambasted the owners of more than 200 cars who drove to the top of Snake Pass, a trans-Pennine road between Sheffield and Manchester on Saturday, and then expected the police to rescue them with their “magical snowmobiles”.

“We’ll deal with what we can, but our underpants aren’t on the outside and we can only knock so much common sense back into society,”

Guardian

Is this merely a reference to fictional superheroes (such as Superman) as in

Elite readers

Or is there more to it?

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    Yes, it's a common 'superhero' trope. No deeper meaning – Jim Mack Jan 12 at 15:43
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    @JimMack It's a UK thing... – Cascabel Jan 12 at 20:45
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    @Cascabel Its in New Zealand too. Eg a local TV programme in the `80s had "He doesn't wear a shiny suit or fly across the screen. He doesn't wear his underpants outside his jeans he's Terry Teo, " in its tune song. nzonscreen.com/title/terry-and-the-gunrunners-episode-one-1985 – Criggie Jan 13 at 0:21
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    Quail Man (I have one, MIB; who doesn't?) – KannE Jan 13 at 3:42
18

There is a bit of a history behind this...

The Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell used the allegation by Alastair Campbell that he had observed (John) Major tucking his shirt into his underpants to caricature him wearing his pants outside his trousers, as a pale grey echo of both Superman and Supermac, a parody of Harold Macmillan

Wikipedia

["Super-Mac" was from a 1958 cartoon image of Harold Macmillan, and became an enduring nickname for him. ]

An example of a Steve Bell political cartoon lampooning John Major...

enter image description here

The trope was taken up in the Woody Allen movie Bananas (1971), in which an increasingly insane revolutionary leader overthrows a typical banana republic and begins to issue a number of strange executive actions. One of these is that underwear must be changed 7 times daily, and in order to facilitate checking compliance with this dictum the underwear must be worn on the outside.

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    Well, that's brilliant stuff. I suspected a rich vein but knew nothing of all that. Very wide perspective. I won't accept in a hurry but it seems a strong and informative front-runner. – Anton Jan 12 at 16:43
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    I think I recognise the chap on the left, but who are the other two? // I'll never forget [the essence of] the quote from Nicholson-Joker: 'And now, folks, it's time for "Who do you trust!" Hubba, hubba, hubba! Money, money, money! Who do you trust? Me? I'm giving away free money. And where is the Batman? He's at home, washing his tights!' [YouTube] – Edwin Ashworth Jan 12 at 19:38
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    @EdwinAshworth they are Johnson, Osborne (gimp suit) and Cameron (condom). – David Jan 13 at 8:24
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    Are you saying that the idea that superheros are characterized by the fact that they wear their underwear on the outside comes from Steve Bell? I find that very hard to believe and would expect that idea to be as old as the first appearance of Superman. It's a pretty common trope, in any case. – terdon Jan 13 at 13:27
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    I enjoyed all contributions! I am delighted at the obvious pleasure this have given us all, together with the cultural elucidations. – Anton Jan 13 at 20:02
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On the possible origin of the trope:

From Piperson at The Great Comic Book Heroes

Men in Tights - a history

When Superman first hit the scene with his blue and red tights it created a shockwave around the country that it hit off the whole superhero craze that is going on stronger than ever today with blockbuster movies like Batman and the Avengers. Before that no one had ever seen a hero in tights and cape. Where did they get the idea from?

enter image description here

Siegel and Shuster created a character called Superman in 1933 though it bore very little resemblance to the Superman we know. He had mental powers but had normal strength. A year later they would re-envision him into a super crime fighter.

From Wikipedia on the creation of Superman - “The pair re-envisioned the character, who became more of a hero in the mythic tradition, inspired by such characters as Samson and Hercules, who would right the wrongs of Siegel and Shuster's times, fighting for social justice and against tyranny. It was at this stage the costume was introduced, Siegel later recalling that they created a "kind of costume and let's give him a big S on his chest, and a cape, make him as colorful as we can and as distinctive as we can."

"The design was based in part on the costumes worn by characters in outer space settings published in pulp magazines, as well as comic strips such as Flash Gordon, [Doctor Occult, the Phantom,] and also partly suggested by the traditional circus strong-man outfit, which comprised a pair of shorts worn over a contrasting bodysuit."

Around this same time Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon hit the funny papers. He would often wear tights and cape so it's not very far fetched to imagine that this very popular strip was a big inspiration for the creation of Superman.

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    So to summarize for the OP, "our underpants aren’t on the outside" is not a set phrase or idiom but is a jocular understandable reference implying that "we're not superheroes", because superheroes wear underwear on the outside. – Mitch Jan 13 at 15:00
  • Thank you Mitch. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 13 at 15:26
  • @EdwinAshworth Between your answer and mine, I think we have a fine response to this complicated topic...+1 – Cascabel Jan 13 at 18:35
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    My thanks to all who contributed. I am enlightened, entertained and made very cheerful by all you have written. I may only accept one answer, could have chosen either, but have gone for the politically broader one. I am grateful to you all. – Anton Jan 13 at 19:59
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    @chasly-supportsMonica Oops - I will wash my mouth out with champagne. Your name eventually stimulated me to read about monica: a sad and murky tale from before my main time here. – Anton Jan 14 at 22:54

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