I haven’t covered this topic in a while, and it’s still a question many guys continue to wonder about. Adam from Wide Eyes, Tight Wallets covers the subject in depth. Hope this answers your question, as far as what type of undershirt to wear and when.
Take it away, Adam…
We of the menswear world spend so much time figuring out what we are going to wear (which shirt to match with which pair of pants, which tie to go with that shirt, which shoes to wear with the ensemble), that we often forget about some of the essentials.
In this case, I’m talking specifically about your underwear.
OK, not quite your underwear (not that cozy with you folks just yet), but actually, your undershirts.
The gut reaction from most guys here is, “What’s to think about?”
You throw on a white tee, or any other non-bright color, and you’re good to go. As long as it doesn’t smell funky, you’re a happy guy. Well, I hate to tell you, there’s a lot more to it than that, and picking out a good undershirt is important for a few reasons:
- This is the layer that you are the most up close and personal with. Therefore, comfort is a huge value here. Wear an uncomfortable undershirt and you will be uncomfortable, all day long. Most importantly, it will show, in the way you act and the way you carry yourself.
- On a more sartorial level, even if you can’t actually see the undershirt, the difference in the options really does have a huge effect on the way your outfit looks. From what layers you see when you look at the finished package, to the way your shirt drapes, to your ability to stay sweat-stain free; once again, your bottom layer can make you or break you.
So, what exactly should you look for?
To start, I want to quickly point out that an undershirt is not a tee-shirt. You can’t wear these out casually with a pair of jeans, or under a blazer. Undershirts are meant solely to be used as undergarments.
As such, they tend to be thinner, sometimes come in moisture-wicking fabric, but most importantly are designed around function over form, and should always be considered underwear. Working from there, you have a few things you’re going to want:
The first and arguably biggest thing to look for is V-neck over crew-neck. All day, every day. Why? Because you can’t see that V-neck popping out of the top of your collar.
Sometimes, even a fully buttoned shirt will show a hint of crew-neck undershirt collar, and that completely disregards the times you want to loosen up and open up a button or two, or want to wear an undershirt under a polo, or Henley.
Why is this so bad? I actually wrote an entire blog post on the subject, and I’ll quote myself now (I was particularly proud of this piece of prose):
Here’s the test: Can you see a triangle of white tee-shirt sticking up from under my collar, like a thong riding up the butt of that girl in the trailer park?
Ok, that might be a little harsh, but the analogy remains: treat your undershirts like underwear; they are there to do a job, NOT to be seen.
It just looks….well maybe not quite trashy, but definitely unrefined and definitely not classy when they are visible over your shirt.
OK, maybe that wasn’t the most important point to take away, but on top of that, who takes great care of their undershirts? I beat mine up, and I’m fine with that, but I certainly don’t want a rumply collar throwing off my smoothly pressed duds.
That peeking shirt also throws this visual curve-ball into your otherwise carefully planned outfit. Where previously you were expertly balancing colors and patterns, all of the sudden here’s this big splotch of white thrown in for no good reason.
Bottom line, go for the V-neck.
Your next biggest priority is to find something that fits your body like a glove. A loose shirt will billow and fold around your waist, same as with a dress shirt.
You can have the most perfectly fitted, custom cut dress shirt that hugs you in the most luxurious of embraces, but if your undershirt is bunched up underneath it you will still look lumpy and misshapen. Instead, find something that hangs (at most) just barely off your body.
My test is to put the undershirt on, tucked in, with a pair of pants and belt. Not a look you want to wear in public, ever, but take a look at the waistline. You don’t want that undershirt billowing out at all (perhaps even more so than with your dress shirt).
This is where I often struggle in my searches for good under-garments. These bad boys have to stay tucked in, all day long. An undershirt that has come up above the waistband will rumple up your dress shirt just the same as a loose fitting undershirt.
Find something with a little bit of extra length and (even better) a bit of a taper at the waist and you should be anchored down and good to go.
Nine times out of ten white will be your best friend. Avoid colorful tees for the simple reason that the color can ‘bleed’ through thinner or looser-woven shirts. The only time you really need to venture from that line is when wearing a bright white shirt on top.
You’d think that a white undershirt would blend best with a white dress shirt, but in that case you fail to remember that your body is, in fact, not bright white (don’t care how pasty pale you may be).
Thus, instead of blending in, a white shirt causes a huge contrast between the single and double layers at any of its edges.
Instead, you can try to match your skin color, but I just go for something with a slightly darker shade (a light grey suits me well and is easy to find).
Get all that down and your golden. There might be a few more options, like special fabrics and other gimmicks, but most of that is just a matter of preference.
So, that might seem like a helluva demanding list, and where is anyone supposed to find an undershirt that does all of that??? Fortunately, I’ve already done all of the legwork and feel confident declaring the perfect dress shirt.
Behold: Your Best Bet
In a completely unsolicited and entirely whole-hearted endorsement, I give you the Tommy John Second Skin Stay Tucked Deep V-neck Undershirt.
Phew, what a mouthful, but really, it’s the perfect undershirt. The shirts are fitted to the body, but do not feel tight in any way. Honestly, it really does feel like a second skin.
The length comes most of the way down your butt and is the right length to stay tucked without starting to constrain your thighs like some sort of hidden miniskirt.
The fabric is incredibly soft, and also thin enough to not add too much in the way of layering or excess insulation. Most importantly, it covers the basics – white and V-neck.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like Tommy John currently offers this specific shirt in grey, though I swear I’ve seen it around. They do have a beige option that should work just as well.
These undershirts are available through Tommy John as well as Nordstrom for $40 each. If that price is too steep for your tastes, Nordstrom Rack offers a ‘basic’ version (same fit, less luxurious of fabrics) for much cheaper. I personally have the ‘basic’ version and it hasn’t failed me yet. If my memory serves me correctly, I picked up a 2-pack for a little over $20. – Thanks to Matt and the Tommy John team for clearing this up.
The Similar Alternatives
If you can’t find Tommy John in a store near you, or have some other aversion to that choice, there are some other very similar options.
Nordstrom offers an undershirt through their house brand that is reported to be right in line with the Tommy John option; slim through the body, lightweight, and long enough to stay tucked in.
I’ve heard the same about the Hugo Boss undershirt, although from the pictures they look to be a little less fitted, so you might want to consider sizing down.
To be perfectly honest, I’ve been so happy with my Tommy John undershirts that I haven’t tried either of these myself, but the chatter on the internet all backs these up as solid bets. Nordstrom Rack often carries bargain versions of these as well.
The Regular Tee
If you’d rather have an undershirt that can do double-duty on its own, the trick is to find something that falls in the middle ground.
Where my Tommy John shirt is much too form-fitting to wear as a top layer, you still want something slim and close to the body.
Again, where Tommy John undershirts are probably too long to be appropriate untucked, you still want to look for a Tee that isn’t so short that it won’t stay tucked when you need it to.
My recommendation here is Uniqlo’s Premium Cotton V Neck. The fit is great, and it does come in grey, which can be a little harder to find when looking specifically at undershirts.
My only complaint is that the fabric is a little thick, so I had to retire this option during the warmer months, but the rest of the year this falls right in with my rotation of Tommy Johns.
Also referred to by the wholly tasteless term, ‘wife-beater,’ the A-shirt is not a choice I personally make, but is still an acceptable option.
It covers all the requirements, lying close to the body, cut low from the neck, thin enough to go unnoticed under a shirt and long enough to stay tucked. I used to wear these all the time, but in the past year or so have turned away from them.
My reasoning is purely practical, in that the main reason I wear an undershirt at all is to keep my sweat off my nice dress shirts, and A-shirts just don’t cover up in the way I prefer.
That said, they are probably the coolest of these options (in terms of temperature, not style), and there’s no shame in rocking one under your dress shirt.
To wrap it up…
Keep the neck low, the shirt form fitting and long enough to stay tucked, and 9 times out of 10, go with white. If you’ve got that down, really any brand or style will keep you looking and feeling like you’ve got nothing under your dress shirt at all.
Tommy John may be my go-to, but I love having options when I go shopping.
Have any more brand suggestions? Leave them in the comments!
(One last P.S. from the Editor: Cladright is launching very, very soon. Don’t miss out! Read more about it here.)
Learn a few shortcuts to dressing well
Enter your first name and email, and I'll send you a free eGuide with quick and easy tips you can use today.