Underwear is one of the most private and personal decisions in menswear because only very few people will see it, yet it is worn every day, all day, right next to the skin. As such, comfort is paramount in underwear and while many men prefer one kind of underwear, it makes more sense to choose the style based on the day’s activity.
When it comes to choosing underwear and materials, there are a plethora of options on the market today, which makes it difficult to find underwear that is perfect for you without buying one of each kind. Therefore, we dug in and tested many different underwear brands. In this guide, we will present the best underwear styles for different activities, colors, a #underwear-materials, quality hallmarks and brands that work best in different situations, including our favorite underwear.
First, let’s start out wish some brief history.
Starting Point: The Loincloth
During prehistoric times, men would wear what we now call loincloths made of leather hides to protect themselves from nature. Egyptian pharaohs wore them; Scotsmen wore kilts, and it became a standard piece of clothing that all men (and women) would wear during the day.
Over time, underwear evolved into a second garment that was worn under clothing. Wearing underwear decreased the amount of time needed launder trousers and outerwear. Additionally, it was less protective and less expensive to replace than a pair of pants.
The Codpiece Introduced Practicality To Menswear
They may have looked like a ridiculous way to brag about your assets, but at the time, trousers were tied using a form of lace at both the waist and the ankles. It was difficult to quickly remove them due to the hassle of having to undo all the laces. That’s how the codpiece came to be.
It was a type of clothing that utilized front buttons or laces which permitted men to urinate without having to take off their trousers. King Henry VIII adorned his codpieces with various decorations for show and padding for comfort. The popularity of padding a codpiece declined in the 1500s.
Boxer Shorts Evolve
As underwear continued to develop, men began wearing tight knee-length flannel union suit that matched their shirts. It wasn’t until the mid-1920s that a boxing company called Everlast began to tweak their leather trunks worn by prize fighters opting for something more comfortable with an elastic band. From this invention came the beginning of boxer shorts. Despite this level of ingenuity, men didn’t appreciate the modern boxer and preferred the support (and warmth, pre-central heating) offered by the union suit.
“Whenever the economy tanks, men stop buying new underwear first because they aren’t public garments.”
Brief Breakthrough in 1934
Then, in 1934, a man by the name of Arthur Kneibler, a senior executive at Coopers, Inc, a hosiery company, received a telegram from a close friend in France. The picture on the front of the postcard was a man wearing a small bikini-style swim suit. This triggered the imagination of Kneibler who immediately realized that this type of apparel could be worn by men as underwear. He then created what he would eventually name “Jockey shorts”. He chose the name because of the similar support that an athletic cup offered.
By 1935, Marshall Fields department store in Chicago began carrying the newly developed jockey shorts and despite the horrendously inclement weather, they sold out by the end of the first day. This also gave way to men opting to re-try the boxer shorts developed some years earlier and by the end of the 1940s, both boxer shorts and briefs were the regular style worn by men instead of the traditional union suits.
In fact, the jockey shorts were so popular that in 1971 Coopers changed their company name to Jockey.
Designer Underwear Makes Its Mark
The 1970s underwear industry began to flourish and by the beginning of the 1980s, fashion designers like Calvin Klein turned underwear into a publicly displayed form of fashion, and today it is probably the most counterfeited underwear, even though the fakes can be really bad, like the one below.
Men’s underwear began to adopt patterns and designs. They became more flattering and a company named Joe Boxer began to introduce funny and comedic underwear with bold pictures and wording and accessories that could be attached to the underwear via Velcro.
Joe Boxer’s $100 Bill Underwear Is Seized
By 1985, Joe Boxer was a household name with their most popular pairs of underwear being yellow smiley faces and images of hundred dollar bills. This trend became even more popular with the US Treasury Department decided that the underwear violated forgery laws and seized over a thousand pairs of the dollar bill underwear.
Rather than fighting it in court, Joe Boxer turned to the media and made a joke of it which took the underwear industry from playful to sexy and serious with solid color briefs and dull patterns.
Underwear Today – An Indicator of Economic Health
In the last few decades, advances in underwear have mostly been limited to materials and a few gimmicks without any real innovation. Interestingly, Alan Greenspan stated in 2008 that the men’s underwear industry was an important indicator of US economic health because the purchase of underwear was viewed as a discretionary. Whenever the economy tanks, men stop buying new underwear first because they aren’t public garments. While some critics laughed off this theory, men’s underwear sales drop significantly during an economic downturn.
Underwear Types & Styles
Underwear comes in many different styles and most men usually settle on one style of underwear and keep wearing that same style no matter the activity. Some enjoy the comfort and security of briefs, others prefer the freedom of boxers, and many opt for boxer briefs. Others prefer thongs and g-strings. About 90% of all underwear sold today are briefs and boxer briefs. However, because ever man needs underwear, even the remaining 10% represents a huge market.
That aside, rather than wearing the same style of underwear all day every day, wouldn’t it make more sense to wear a different style when traveling, working out at the gym or when wearing trim denim or trousers? Absolutely!
Boxer Shorts – Well Suited for Pleated Pants & Sleeping
Boxer shorts are loose and offer little support. They come with an elastic waistband and a button fly and straight leg openings with a short inseam.
Briefs, or jockey shorts, are easily identified by their elastic waistband, no leg and minimal coverage. They usually offer a Y-shaped fly in the front and have enough fabric to offer full coverage from the waist to the top of the thigh with complete coverage of the buttocks. Briefs provide excellent support and are less prone to bunching and rising than other styles. They’re an excellent choice for men who opt to wear tighter pants or low-rise pants. They are perfect for men who work at a desk all day, because they end in the natural crease between the body and leg. With the development of lower rise pants such as jeans becoming more popular with men, there are also mid-rise and low-rise briefs which sit at the belly button or three inches below the waist (respectively).
Boxer Briefs & Trunks
Boxer briefs are hardly a compromise as they represent are the best of both types of underwear. They are cut like a tapered boxer with the snug and supportive fit of the briefs. Similar to a brief, boxer briefs maintain their comfortable fit all day long. They are excellent for physical activity and look especially good even if you are not in your best shape.
Underarmor introduced a compression trunk, which is good for workouts at the gym, and therefore it makes sense to switch underwear or to put on a compression trunk if you know you will work out that day.
Thongs, Bikinis & G-Strings
There are men who enjoy the feel and look of a thong, bikini or g-string, but it is not for everybody. Typically all of these styles work best for men with exceptionally well-sculpted bodies relish the look of it.
The bikini is a smaller style of the brief, also called a micro brief. They expose the entire thigh, still managing to cover the buttocks with a small front pouch.
The thong, similar to the bikini, offers a confined space in the front connected by thin fabric strips, leaving the buttocks exposed.
The g-string is a minimalist version of the thong that shows as much skin as possible. Usually made of spandex or nylon, they can be slightly more expensive than the other styles due to the materials used.
Men’s underwear today comes in all colors and patterns under the sun, with the most popular color being solid white.
If you generally wear thicker, darks pants fabrics, such as denim, dark flannels, or cavalry twill the color or pattern of your underwear will not show through and you can wear whatever you want.
However, during the summer, when you wear lightweight pants such as cotton, seersucker or fine worsteds in light colors, you can see strong underwear patterns through your trousers. In that case, you want a pair of underwear in solid tones that is as close to your skin tone as possible. Solid white, shows unde a white pair of pants because it is contrasting to your skincolor. So if you have lighter skin, you can take a white pair of cotton underwear and soak it in black tea thus giving it a nude-colored look.
Alternatively, you can look for nude underwear, but they are often hard to find. Instead go with a shade of solid or heather grey that is as close to your skintone as possible. The less contrast between your underwear and your skintone, the less you will be able to see your underwear through your pants.
Apart from the shape, the underwear materials have the biggest impact on longevity, quality and comfort of your underwear. As such, it is important to take a closer look.
Cotton is the most popular underwear material because it is absorbent, breathable, and widely available. Most men look specifically for cotton underwear. Just like with any natural fiber, cotton has a huge quality spectrum and so the price from one pair of cotton underwear to the next can vary tremendously not just in feel, touch, and look, but also in price.
Cotton Quality Seal Abuse
Now, because cotton has such a huge quality spectrum, many of companies try to distinguish their cotton by using words such as two-ply, Sea Island, Pima Cotton or Egyptian Cottom among others. While some of these are trademarked, such as Supima (American Pima Cotton) or swiss+cotton, while others like Sea Island or two-ply are not.
The terms without protection are often abused, and if you analyze the numbers, it seems that Sea Island cotton multiplies manifold on its journey from the fields to the shops. The WISICA International (West Indian Sea Island Cotton Association International) inspects and certifies every kilogram of locally produced cotton. You have to know that and find the stamp and then hope that nobody fakes it.
Look For Staple Length If You Want Quality Cotton
At the end of the day, what matters when it comes to cotton is the staple length. For it to be called swiss+cotton, 75% must be extra-long staple cotton with a length of at least 35.72mm, and at least 67% of the added value in the production process must be provided in Switzerland, which includes spinning, weaving and dying.
An extra long staple cotton can be spun finer in the yarn, and thus, it will feel softer on your skin; it will last longer and look better but in order to get that, you will have to spend more.
Is Soft Cotton Good Cotton? Not Necessarily
So, can I just touch cotton to know if it is good quality or not? No. One way to create a softer material is to use a thinner yarn, another is to use a very short staple yarn that is fuzzy like flannel. While the latter feels soft at first, it will start to pill very quickly because the cheap, short staple cotton fibers are easier to loosen and therefore prone to doing that.
Even if cotton is labeled as 100% cotton, it may not always be 100%. Legally, even a 97% cotton composition can be declared as a 100% but for underwear, it is desirable to have elastic fibers blended because the final product to provide more comfort. As such, it is not unusual to see blends of 92% cotton with 8% Lycra, etc.
When you with blends, look for 90% + cotton blends because they are usually the best, and of course the better the cotton, the softer and more comfortable your underwear will be.
As mentioned before, a finer fiber results in a softer feel, and microfiber is the finest of all fibers. It is manmade from polyester, polyimide or rayon and used for everything from eyeglass cleaning cloths to household items to doormats and underwear.
For underwear one particularly popular item is MicroModal, the Microfiber version of Modal.
So what exactly is Modal? It’s a trademarked fiber from Lenzing, which is made in Austria and based on rayon extracted from beechwood. According to the Kawabata Evaluation Systems for Fabrics Modal is twice as soft as Cotton. So, how does one determine softness on a scale you may wonder? It is done by machine and hence reliable.
To get even softer, Lenzing created a microfiber version of Modal, which is called MicroModal and it is three times as soft as cotton! Therefore, it is very popular in the underwear industry, and whenever you touch a piece of underwear that is very soft, chances are it is modal.
Basically, MicroModal Air is finest available material in terms of the thinness, breathability, and softness that you can find today. The fiber diameter is even thinner than MicroModal, which results in this floaty material. It is softer than MicroModal, and softer than silk, at the same time it is much more breathable than silk and moisture wicking. It retains its color and shape despite repeated laundering and hence it should be the top choice of material if you are in the market for high-end luxurious underwear.
Another popular underwear material from Lenzing is Tencel. It is very similar to Modal in the sense that it is soft and derived from wood. Unlike Modal, it is a lyocell fiber and as such a greener, even more, sustainable fiber and although not as soft as Modal it is stronger than modal and cotton.
Although naturally stiffer and less comfortable, Linen has made its way into underwear. Due to its rougher heritage, it is always blended. In our tests, Linen seemed rather comfortable when traveling for longer periods of time, even though the fabric is much bulkier.
Cupro / Bemberg
Short for Cuprammonium rayon, cupro is a rayon made from cellulose dissolved in cuprammonium solution. It is also known as ammonia silk or Bemberg and was invented by the German J.P Bemberg company which is now defunct. Nevertheless, the fabric is still produced in Japan. Cupro / Bemberg is popular for jacket linings because of its smooth, gliding surface. For the same reason, it is also used in underwear. Usually, it is blended with other materials such as viscose or polyester to achieve ideal results for underwear.
Quality Hallmarks of Underwear
Comfort is crucial when it comes to underwear because we wear it all day, every day. As such, the material has a huge impact on the comfort level but that aside, the cut, the pouch and the quality and positioning of the seams make a tremendous difference.
Generally, women’s underwear seems to be more advanced because women usually want thin underwear that does not show through their pants. To reduce the number of seams, 360 degree knitted underwear has been introduced to the women’s underwear market but due to the pouch needed for men they have not been present in the men’s underwear market.
However, you will find that luxury men’s underwear brands now offer back knitted or cut thigh openings that do not unravel! Traditionally, you needed a seam for it not to unravel, but new advancements in knitting technology now allow for smooth leg openings.
Overall, it will be interesting to see what innovation the men’s underwear industry will produce in the next few years.
If you look at underwear as an investment, you can break it down to cost per wear. A cheaper, all-cotton pair of underwear fade and shrink, leaving you with a per wear cost of $0.10 or less. On the other hand, a pair of luxury underwear will require a larger upfront investment, but it will feel softer and make you feel more comfortable. If you have a decent rotation, it will be easy to wear these for years to come, and your per wear cost will only be slightly more than if you’d wear a cheap pair.
Just like with quality Goodyear-welted shoes, quality underwear pays off in the long run. And, it is not necessary for every pair of underwear in your closet to be the best; choose your activity and then the pair of underwear that suits it best.
What Underwear Should You Buy? The Best You Can Afford
That is a rather personal question, and you have to pick the style that is most comfortable for you but as outlined above, consider adding a few different styles depending on your activities.
Over the last few years, the underwear world has become flooded with brands who all promise you quality at various price points. Keep in mind, just like with most things in this world: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
That aside, we have tested several dozen brands over the last three years and here are our findings.
Low Budget Underwear
If you are looking for a big bang for your buck, here are brands to look at:
Uniqlo – Recommended If You Are On A Budget
Uniqlo: Starting at $6.45 you get a great selection of reasonably soft materials and modern cuts, no matter if you are in the market for Boxers, Briefs or Boxer Briefs. Of course, it is not comparable to a luxury pair of underwear, but if you are on a budget, and you need some underwear, it’s a good start.
Marks & Spencer – Good Budget Underwear in the UK
Marks & Spencer: If you are based in the UK, Marks & Spencer provides budget underwear with an ok quality level.
Calvin Klein – The Underwear Giant
Calvin Klein: Calvin Klein has been a dominant player in the menswear industry since the 1990s, and it’s not just due to their marketing budget. In the past, I wore Calvin Klein cotton blend boxer briefs for years. In recent years, they have pushed hard for non-cotton underwear, but you can still find all kinds of options from them. The only problem with Calvin Klein today seems to be that it is often produced under license. Thus, stores like TJ Maxx can license the name, and manufacture whatever underwear with the CK label. Consequently, the brand seems to be no guarantee for consistency in quality. Keep that in mind when you buy Calvin Klein.
Under Armour – Good For Performance Underwear
Under Armour: Under Armour started out as a performance undershirt company that introduced moisture wicking fabrics for athletes. Over the last two decades, it has grown rapidly and is on track to seriously rival Nike as the number one sports gear brand in the world. While they offer all kinds of underwear, they introduced the performance boxer briefs that are moisture wicking, compressing and anti-microbial. Unfortunately, they seem to have some quality control / sizing issues because in our experience the fit for the same size can vary drastically. Definitely only buy from a trusted source where you can exchange them if you are unhappy.
DIM & Schiesser – Good European Basics
Gimmicky / Innovative Underwear Options
Because the underwear market has been flooded with new brands in recent years, it has become difficult to stand out from the crowd. As such, numerous companies have tried to come up with different pouch concepts. The most popular one is Saxx.
Saxx – Overrated
Saxx: The most popular one is Saxx, which offers a little bit of mesh on the inside pouch which is supposed to prevent skin-on-skin contact. Saxx provided several pairs of underwear to us, and we have tested their underwear over more than two years, and while it is reasonably soft and long-lasting, the waistband can be uncomfortable at times. Also, in our experience, the mesh does not result in a more comfortable wearing experience compared to other similarly priced underwear. That being said, other men are quite pleased with it.
In our opinion, it seems to be a gimmick rather than actual innovation.
Sheath – Not Recommended
If you want to treat yourself to the absolute best underwear money can buy, this is the section for you. After all, there are not many areas where you can experience the benefit of luxury items as extensively as in underwear. If you then compare the overall cost and longevity, you’d be foolish not to wear luxuriously soft underwear if you can afford it.
Zimmerli – Great Cotton Underwear with Grandpa Styling
Zimmerli‘s slogan is “The World’s Finest Underwear” and while they offer very fine cotton underwear as well as Modal underwear, they lack the finest underwear material in the world today: MicroModal Air. As such, we have to disagree with them.
Starting at about $60 and going upwards of $150, Zimmerli has developed quite the reputation for their men’s underwear. We have tested six pairs of underwear over four years, and while they are in fact a stable performer and comfortable, we think that their styling is a bit too conservative, and the value proposition is not as good as other luxury brands. Their cotton is very fine long staple cotton and just like other manufacturers they buy it from specialists. Their Egyptian or Sea Island cottons are fine but it is not clear from the tag whether it is West Indian Sea Island cotton or not.
Zimmerli boasts a large product portfolio with slightly differing cuts, which are supposed to guarantee the maximum comfort. For example, their Royal classic line you have to choose between 17 models, which means you have to invest a lot of money upfront before you have one pair of underwear that suits you best. They also do not offer MicroModal Air in their lineup, which is finer and softer than any cotton Zimmerli offers.
It really seems that you pay a premium for the brand name and “Made in Switzerland”, and while their cotton is of very high quality, it is not the finest material in the world. If you like the conservative color range and styling you should look into Schiesser as well. Unlike others, Zimmerli offers silk underwear, but it is most difficult to maintain, and therefore it is not a good everyday option in our opinion.
Hanro of Switzerland – Good Quality Swiss Cotton Made in the EU
Hanro is another Swiss contender but as the name “of Switzerland” implies it is no longer made in Switzerland. Hanro provided us with seven pairs of underwear over the last two years, and they are comfortable pairs of underwear but just like Zimmerli, their styling is very conservative. They offer a range of different cotton and cotton blend options, boxer shorts, boxers, and boxer briefs. Made in places like Portugal or Bulgaria, Hanro underwear is less expensive than Zimmerli also because the cotton is not quite as fine. Overall, Hanro is a good supplier of underwear that must be listed in the luxury segment with a price range of $45 for basic models, all the way up to $135 for Sea Island cotton. Unfortunately, outside of cotton, you will not find many other blends from Hanro, even though it would be preferable to see some Micromodal or Micromodal Air blends in their lineup.
La Perla – Italian Luxury Cotton Underwear
Formerly known as Grigio Perla, La Perla now also produces men’s underwear under the same name as their women’s lingerie. They produce high-quality cotton underwear in modern styles. For $50 you get 11% elastane with 89% cotton. Moreover, they offer various all-cotton underwear with prices all the way up to $125 and a modal blend for $135. Overall, their underwear is similar in the cotton qualities to Zimmerli but a bit more fashion forward. They also manufacture swimwear, which was popularized by Daniel Craig as James Bond in Casino Royale. Similarly to the Zimmerli you pay a La Perla premium for the brand cachet.
At the end of the day, comfort is relative and so are the materials you like, and you can choose from hundreds of underwear brands on the market. No matter if you have a small budget, medium budget or high budget, you can find good value in every price range but for us, the ultimate luxury underwear contains micro modal