When the 25 Tips to Dress More Elegantly was published, a lively discussion evolved around whether or not to wear an undershirt. Therefore, today’s post is dedicated to undershirts, starting with the historic evolution of underwear, outlining the different undershirt options and discussing the pros and cons of wearing one beneath a dress shirt.
The History of the Undershirt
The Evolution of Clothes & Undergarments
In order to understand the history of the undershirt, it is essential to grasp the purpose of clothing in general. Looking back in history, it is very difficult to find paintings, illustrations or photographs of underwear that predate the 20th century because they were never to be seen in public. Exposing one’s undergarment back then had about the same effect as exposing yourself in public has today.
Throughout the evolution of clothes, one can observe basically two schools of thought. On the one hand, the church understands clothes and undergarments to be a means of covering up people’s sense of shame. Even the bible implies that Adam and Eve wore a fig leave because of it. On the other hand, sociological and anthropological studies have shown that clothes and in fact any form of accessories were worn to make oneself as attractive as possible for mating purposes.
The Purpose of Underwear
Originally, undergarments were not really designed to protect the body from the elements or to add another layer of insulation. Instead, their purpose was to protect the outer layer of garments from touching the body, especially since regular bathing did not become du rigeur until the 18th century. At the same time, undergarments protected the wearer’s skin from the scratchy outerwear. This was, of course, primarily true for the rich and noble. The working class were lucky to have a single shirt, as textiles were expensive, laborious and precious goods.
The Undershirt Evolves
By the 15th century, young men of nobility began to wear at least part of their shirts exposed and while there was some criticism, the trend of exposing ones shirt to the public prevailed over time. After a while even respectable men in society would show more of their decorative shirts, such as revealing collars and cuffs. Up until the end of the 19th century, you’d never see much of a shirt than the cuffs and collars, which is why detachable collars and cuffs were invented. That way only the visible parts had to be washed consistently. To this point what we know as a dress shirt today would have been strictly considered an undershirt! While a gentleman would only wear a shirt without additional undershirt, the poor working class and peasants would sometimes wear a tunic that later developed into the sleeveless undershirt as we know it today. Usually it was made of wool or flannel to keep them warm. On the other hand, if a gentleman was too cold, he would wear more overgarments, but he would not add a layer beneath. In the US, the so called Union Suit was an overall-style undergarment that was patented in 1868. Although first worn by women, it was later adapted by men as well, though it was always associated with a working, more rural demographic, rather than elegant men.
At the beginning of the 20th century, soldiers would often wear undergarments to protect their uniforms from dirt and in hot climates it was more comfortable to just wear the undershirt. In 1934, the always elegant Clark Gable revealed in the film It Happened One Night that he did not wear an undershirt. Legend has it, undershirt sales in the US dropped by 75%. Apparently it took until WWII for sales of undershirts to recover and then, soldiers wore them on their own as a form of outerwear. While it was considered to be poor taste in the beginning, by the fifties Hollywood stars such as Marlon Brando would wear them in public and so the T-Shirt as we know it today became a success.
In a nutshell, historically only members of working class wore undershirts as we know them today.
Undershirt Styles Today
Today, you can find all kinds of undershirts, ranging from the classic sleeveless shirt (sometimes also referred to as a tank top, or if white and ribbed, a wife beater) over T-Shirt all the way to “performance shirts” that make comfort claims. In the following, we’ll discuss the details of each style. Two important aspects of all undershirts are their color and their fit.
1. Undershirt Color
Forget white. In an ideal world, your undershirt should match the color of your skin. This may seem odd at first but even underneath a white shirt, a skin-colored undershirt will be less visible than a plain white T-shirt, especially in the areas between skin and T-shirt around your biceps and collar. Unfortunately, skin tones vary greatly and so there is no easy way to buy skin colored shirts. Although there are now a few companies like Sloane Men or Albert Kreuz who offer “invisible” undershirts, we have an old theater and film trick for you that is very inexpensive:
How to make a skin-colored shirt yourself
- Take a pure cotton undershirt.
- Brew some strong black tea.
- Then put the shirt in the solution in a basin (you don’t want to stain your sink), and let it soak for a about 15 minutes.
- Finally, just rinse off the excess, and the shirt will have a color value very similar to that of bare Caucasian skin – and the stain will be relatively permanent. Of course, it goes without saying that you should not bleach the shirt.
- Unfortunately, that only works for a small range of skin tones. In that case, a color close to your skin tone is much better than white or all black if you decide to wear an undershirt.
2. Undershirt Fit
If you decide to wear an undershirt, make sure it fits closely and has small armholes, otherwise you may feel rather uncomfortable and constricted in your movement.
You can get white sleeveless undershirts pretty much anywhere, rather inexpensively. They are usually made out of 100% cotton or cotton/poly blend with a fine ribbed look. Many men still wear them today for work as an undershirt and some even wear them to the gym because they like the increased range of movement. Worn under shirts, you can usually see the outline of it even if you wear a jacket and if you take it off, it becomes even more apparent that you are wearing one. Functionally, if you use undershirts to absorb sweat then this style doesn’t work too well because your armpits aren’t really covered.
It might be a classic in many men’s wardrobes and your grandfather might have worn them religiously, but in terms of style and functionality, it leaves a lot to be desired, which is why I don’t wear them at all.
Crew Neck & V-Neck T-Shirts
Most men who wear undershirts today, either go with a classic crew neck or v-neck t-shirt. Plain white shirts are available everywhere and even solid colored versions can be found easily. Just like the sleeveless shirts, they usually come in pure cotton or poly blends, though lately there have been all kinds of cotton blends with spandex, viscose, modal, etc. Usually the goal of these additions is to either make the shirts softer or more durable, but they generally come with a higher price tag.
The crew neck has the issue of a high neckline which forces you to wear your shirt buttoned at all times because a shirt with T-shirt showing looks really disadvantageous. Hence, some many men switched to deep V-neck T-shirts hoping that would rectify the neckline issue. However, I can usually see whether a man wears a T-shirt underneath his dress shirt even if it is buttoned all the way and he has a jacket on. However, if you go jacketless, you can generally see where the T-shirt ends which looks rather undesirable. So if you take your jackets off, these T-shirts won’t work, and even if you don’t chances are one can still see the hems through the dress shirt.
For that reason, some men wear longsleeved undershirts however, they really make you feel warm and chances are, you will sweat more especially during the summer.
In the last few years, many sports outfitters have come up with all kinds of artificial fibers that are supposed to transport the moisture away from you body and make you feel dryer. When you are going for a hike, down the slopes or rafting, these are totally fine but they are really ill-suited as an undershirt for a dress shirt because they often come in patterns, bright colors and always with a contrasting logo that will be visible through your shirt.
Should You Wear an Undershirt or Not ?
Now, you may wonder whether you should wear an undershirt at all, and I think that depends on a number of factors.
- If you sweat profusely so that your jackets show it, wearing an undershirt might help make it less obvious
- With stiff fronted evening shirts, undershirts can help avoid chafed skin
- If you are always cold and you’d like an extra layer of cloth to stay warmer, an undershirt will help
- Undershirts can keep ample chest hair from poking through the surface of the shirt
- Historically, we have outlined above that elegant men did not wear an additional undergarment under their shirts.
- In terms of comfort, not wearing an undershirt should reduce the feeling of constriction that can come with wearing multiple, similarly shaped layers.
- Furthermore, the extra layer of cloth is usually undesirable in the summer and an undershirt will show clearly through an open-weave shirt regardless of color
- Cold in the winter? A heavy weight shirt fabric is an excellent alternative to adding an undershirt layer
- Proponents of undershirts sometimes argue that it is more hygienic to wear undershirts however, if you shower regularly and wash your dress shirts after they are worn, you should have absolutely no problem
- In my experience, my shirts last for a long time and I have yet to find any evidence that an undershirt will prolong the life of one’s dress shirt
- Finally, almost all elegant men I know – including Clark Gable, G. Bruce Boyer and Herbert Stricker - do not wear undershirts underneath their dress shirts
What do you think about the matter? Do you wear an undershirt or not and why do you do so? Please leave a comment below!