What Do Undershirts Do?
Undershirts (and all undergarments) were created for one specific purpose: to protect the outer layers of clothing from touching the body. They were intended to absorb sweat so that it wouldn't soak into the costly outer shirts, vests, and jackets. Due to the fact that bathing wasn't common practice until the 18th century, it's understandable why people wanted to protect their outer clothing!
The cost of a cotton undershirt was significantly lower than that of a fancy silk shirt or vest. Undershirts were easily changed and washed, while the outer layers of clothing remained unsoiled and free of sweat and body odor. Thus, the undershirt was born!
Nowadays, undershirts serve three purposes:
- To protect our clothing from sweat and body odors. Most people wear undershirts beneath collar shirts and dress shirts, or shirts that are made of expensive materials that could easily be ruined by heavy sweating, dirt, or body odor. The undershirt is the layer that stands between the body and the clothing.
- To protect the body from the elements. This is important for people wearing undershirts in cold environments, such as skiers, snowboarders, and people who live in snowy or chilly countries/regions. Adding another layer of clothing beneath the outer layers helps to keep heat trapped close to the body, keeping the wearer warm.
- To enhance comfort during athletic performance. Many athletic undershirts are designed to wick moisture away from the body, preventing sweat from drying on the skin. Drying sweat causes salt crystals to form, and those crystals can be abrasive when they rub against each other. By wicking away sweat, you increase comfort during exercise, running, or sports.
Bonus: Some undershirts are designed to be slimming, to compress extra body fat similar to the way Spanx do.
Do I Need an Undershirt?
Not everyone needs an undershirt. Some men are just fine wearing their regular clothing without the need for a base layer. However, an undershirt can come in handy if you are:
A heavy sweater. For guys who sweat a lot, an undershirt is a must-have! Think of the undershirt as a layer of cloth intended to absorb the sweat, preventing it from soaking through your outer layer of clothing. If you perspire freely, you need an undershirt to keep your regular shirt or jacket from getting soaked with sweat.
Wearing stiff formal shirts. If you've ever worn a stiff formal shirt, the sort used for black tie events, you'll know how uncomfortable they can be. The starch that keeps them stiff can cause friction with your skin, leading to chafed nipples and irritated skin. An undershirt beneath your stiff formal shirt will keep you comfortable all night long.
A hairy man. If you have a lot of thick chest hair, it may poke against the fabric of your shirt. This may be fine for lounging around your house, but not if you're out in public or trying to look professional. A nice undershirt will press your body hair flat against your skin, reducing its visibility. For guys with a lot of chest hair, undershirts are a must-have!
In cold environments. When in cold environments, you want to dress in multiple thin layers rather than a single thick layer. Multiple thin layers will be more effective at trapping body heat close to your skin, keeping you far warmer than you'd be in one thick overcoat or jacket. Always start off your winter outfit with a thin undershirt, followed by a thicker outershirt, a sweater, and (if it's very cold) a coat or jacket to finish it off. You'll be far warmer this way!
Wearing deodorant. You may be thinking, "But everyone wears deodorant!" Or, at least I HOPE they do. Well, think about the type of deodorant you wear. Some types of deodorant are prone to leaving yellow pit stains on your shirt when you sweat heavily. Even non-marking deodorant may cause pit stains, which can ruin a shirt. Better make it a cheap cotton undershirt than a fancy dress shirt, right? If you wear a lot of deodorant, you're better off using an undershirt to prevent damage to your outer shirts.
Cotton is the most commonly used fabric for undershirts, as it's lightweight, absorbent, and inexpensive. It also offers good breathability, and it's wonderfully soft and comfy.
Synthetic fabrics like nylon, Polyestery, and Lycra all offer their own unique benefits: elasticity, breathability, moisture-wicking, quick-drying, and softness. However, they may cause skin irritation, and don't have the natural feel of cotton.
Then there are the blends: shirts made using both cotton and synthetic materials. These shirts are intended to combine the best of both worlds, offering comfort, reduced weight and thickness, moisture wicking, and elasticity. They are pricier, but they are an excellent choice to consider if you wear undershirts regularly.
Types of Undershirts
The modern undershirt comes in all shapes, styles, and uses. Below is a list of the most common types of undershirts you'll find on the market:
Cotton Tank Tops – Also known as an A-neck, a tank top is a scoopnecked, sleeveless undershirt that is beautifully lightweight. It's an underlayer that will be slim and easy to hide beneath any shirt style, especially short-sleeved and low-necked shirts. They're ideal for guys who sweat heavily on the chest and back, but won't protect against armpit sweat and deodorant stains. This is the cheapest type of undershirt around!
Crew Neck T-Shirt – This is the most commonly-used type of undershirt. The crew neck has a high neckline, which can be visible beneath button-fronted shirts. However, if you're wearing a necktie or bowtie, the collar of your undershirt will be invisible. Crew neck T-shirts are a classic style that offer excellent sweat protection on the armpits as well as the torso.
V-Neck T-Shirt – If you're planning to wear a button-up shirt with the top button or two undone, you'll need a V-neck undershirt. The low V-neck collar leaves the top of your chest exposed, but provides excellent sweat protection for your chest, back, and armpits.
Knitted T-Shirt – A knitted undershirt can come in both V-neck and crew neck design, but it's made of a thicker, heavier-knit material than your average cotton undershirt. Knitted undershirts are usually worn as a base layer in cold environments, as they are highly effective at trapping body heat. Be warned: they're thicker than your regular undershirt, so they're not to be worn beneath formal outfits. Keep them for winter or winter sports use.
Long-Sleeved Shirt – A long-sleeved undershirt is also a winter garment, one that is the perfect layer beneath T-shirts, long-sleeved outershirts, coats, and jackets. They can be worn in layered outfits (think Sheldon Cooper's outfits from The Big Bang Theory), or they are ideal to wear beneath a light sweater when the weather is cool but not cold.
Slim-Fit Shirt – This isn't the same as a slimming shirt (see below). It doesn't actually compress anything, but it's a T-shirt cut in a style that clings to the torso. Most undershirts have a looser fit around the torso, but slim-fit T-shirts are designed to reduce bulk when wearing multiple layers. They can be a cotton undershirt, athletic undershirt, or any of the other types listed her—the only difference is the slimming cut of the torso.
Sweatproof – Hard to believe it, but such a thing does exist! Sweatproof undershirts prevent sweat from soaking through to the outer layers, protecting them from getting soaked. They're usually made of synthetic materials that offer thermoregulation.
Moisture-Wicking – These undershirts are intended to wear beneath athletic apparel, and they are made with a material that wicks (absorbs or draws away) moisture away from the body. They're particularly popular among runners, as they help to reduce the friction/irritation that results from dried sweat forming salt crystals on the skin. The shirts will not absorb the moisture—instead, they transfer it away from the skin and outward to be absorbed into the outer shirt or to be dried by the heat/air.
Cooling – Cooling shirts are not very common, and they tend to be fairly pricey. They're made of materials that pull sweat away from the body, where it dries quickly once exposed to the air, heat, and light.
One shirt, the Omni-Freeze ZERO by Columbia Sportswear, is made with fabric embedded with 0.15-inch hydrophilic polymer rings. The rings expand when they absorb sweat, which requires them to absorb heat away from the body. One test discovered that the shirt kept its wearer 10 degrees cooler than any other material.
Slimming – Also known as "compression undershirts", these garments are made to compress the body and hide excess body fat. They don't offer medical-grade compression (unnecessary for the torso), but they are like Spanx for men: they keep any hint of love handles, excess belly fat, and drooping man boobs a secret!
Quick-Drying – Quick-drying undershirts are usually intended for athletic use, as they absorb the moisture and pull it away from the body, where it is exposed to the air, heat, and light. The material is lightweight, synthetic, and intended to dry very quickly.
Undershirts Do's and Don’ts
Here are a few rules for wearing undershirts:
- Wear thicker layers in cold weather. Thicker undershirts and outershirts will keep you nice and warm when the weather turns wintry.
- Consider colors other than white. Grey is less visible than white beneath a white formal shirt. White and black undershirts are good beneath solid, non-transparent materials.
- Go for close-fitting shirts. You may feel self-conscious when you see the undershirt hugging your less-than-perfect body, but it's better than wearing a shirt that adds bulk beneath a formal outfit.
- Consider V-neck undershirts, especially if you're wearing collar shirts. That way, you can unbutton the top button and remove your tie without your undershirt showing.
- Protect your armpits! Wear an undershirt that protects the armpits of your outer shirt from pit stains and sweat stains. You can buy more cheap undershirts, but that fancy collar shirt is pricey to replace.
- Remember your chest hair. There is such a thing as "showing too much". If you have very thick chest hair, consider wearing a crew neck undershirt to cover it up.
- Find the right fit. You don't want to be squeezed into your undershirt, but it shouldn't be so bulky that it bunches up beneath your regular clothing.
- Tuck it in. This is a MUST for wearing undershirts, as tucking in the shirt prevents it from showing beneath the regular shirt. Buy undershirts of the right length to tuck in.
- Wear T-shirts as an undershirt. T-shirts are too thick and bulky to be worn beneath a collar shirt.
- Wear sleeveless undershirts beneath formal outfits. You'll end up ruining the armpits of your fancy dress shirts when sweat inevitably soaks through. Tank tops are only to be worn beneath work clothing.
- Let your undershirt show. The undershirt is meant to be an invisible layer that hides beneath your visible top layers.
- Only opt for pure cotton. Blends can be just as soft and comfortable as pure cotton, but they may offer other benefits like moisture-wicking, quick-drying, and increased elasticity
- Wear athletic undershirts beneath formal outfits. Athletic undershirts are meant for active, sports use, and are usually made with bright colors and patterns. They'll look terribly out of place beneath your formal clothing!
- Wear undershirts as outershirts. Undershirts are thinner and more lightweight than T-shirts designed for outerwear. They also don't look as good, and will wear out more quickly. Use them only beneath your regular clothing.