The subject is men’s undershirts. It’s not a taboo topic, right? It’s just not spoken of with any frankness.

They are beautiful, functional, essential, an integral part of a man’s wardrobe. They signal elegance, cleanliness, and sophistication. Yet men typically don’t wear them anymore.

6196_thumbThis should change.

Here’s the deal with undershirts. Your grandfather wore them. So did his father before him. As long as men could afford to do so, and the shirts were available, they wore them. It’s underwear … except for the top of your body.

I’m not going to pretend to be impartial on this point. Men, for the love of God, wear undershirts! We are a prosperous nation. Undershirts are a buck each. There are no excuses.

Undershirts are a buck each. There are no excuses.

There are five reasons for undershirts:

  1. An undershirt keeps your real shirt (a buttoned shirt) clean from your own body sweat. Yes, face it, you sweat. It’s part of life. Keep it off your nice clothes and allow a nice absorbent cotton shirt to take the heat. Undershirts are part of the clothing infrastructure.
  2. An undershirt keeps your deodorant from getting all over your shirt. You really don’t want pit stains on a nice shirt. It should be free from all of that. A shirt should be a thing of elegance. An undershirt keeps it that way.
  3. An undershirt keeps your skin (and chest hair) from showing through on your shirt. Unless your shirt is really thick, this is a serious issue. If it is thick, or textured, you don’t want that rubbing directly against your skin.
  4. An undershirt provides a canvas for your shirt to look right in color and texture. Shirts are intended to be worn with something underneath. Undershirts smooth out the look, granting a certain beauty. Once you start wearing one, you feel it, and you will never give it up.
  5. It’s just gross not to wear an undershirt.

On the last point, yes, it is a personal bias. But I’ve been wearing them since I was perhaps 15, and I started under the influence of others. Once I got the hang of it, the failure to wear them strikes me as deeply alarming, even disturbing.

The failure to wear an undershirt strikes me as deeply alarming, even disturbing.

There are three general types of undershirts, all white: crew necks (my favorite), v-necks, and ribbed tanks (the “wife beater”). All three have a role. The tank-style undershirts are right for knit shirts and casual wear but do not deal with the problem of pit stains on the shirt. The v-neck is probably suitable for a casual shirt without a tie. With a tie, you need the crew neck.

It is normally assumed the undershirt should never show. I don’t agree with this. There is nothing wrong with a crew neck undershirt that peaks above a casual shirt without a tie. It is a preppy look with optics that suggest a high level of clothing knowledge. Working in men’s clothing as I did for years, I’ve seen the finest dressed men wear this look very well.

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When did it happen that men stopped wearing undershirts? There is a street-level myth that it all happened when Clark Gable in “It Happened One Night” in 1934 took off his shirt to reveal no undershirt. There is some evidence that the sales of undershirts fell after the movie came out.

But there was a Great Depression going on. The sales of virtually everything fell in those years.

Still, the question remains why Gable was not wearing a shirt in that famous scene.

clark gable undershirt

The purpose of that scene was to show his chest. Bare. That was the whole idea. This movie was made before the Hollywood moral code came into practical effect. The scene would not have the same effect if he had on an undershirt, obviously. In the plot, the couple were supposedly not courting each other; they just ended up in the same room because of circumstances. His nudity was inadvertent, not intentional.

They began to make a comeback in the 1980s when sanity returned, but only among a high-brow set.

Regardless, such a scene would have never been made even five years later. So this really was an outlying event, and there is really no evidence that suggests it killed the undershirt. My best guess is that the undershirt died in the 1970s with the onset of the “leisure suit” and other ghastly clothing choices for men, among which were the polyester, big-collar shirt that showed chest hair.

Everything that happened during that period of men’s clothing, including the high-heeled patchwork plaid shoe, deserves to be forgotten. That goes for the failure to wear undershirts.

They began to make a comeback in the 1980s when sanity returned, but only among a high-brow set. This is even true today. Wearing them now is an easy way to go from the unknowing rabble to the knowing and well-bred set with nothing but the choice of a $2 shirt.

What does the undershirt grant you? A sense of security, a comfort, a cleaner look, a cleaner wardrobe in general.

I know what you are thinking, guys. Are undershirts sexy? The simple answer is: Yeah! Need I cite any more than the famous scenes from “Streetcar Named Desire”? Marlon Brando knew what was what.

marlon brando undershirt

So rush out now, get yourself to the local big box, and snag a package of five or so. It will be the single biggest clothing upgrade of your adult life. It’s the start of a new life of dressing well.

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