Despite keeping to long-held traditions, the men’s fashion scene is constantly changing. It can be challenging to navigate these rules. Society doesn’t make it any easier on you because it’s constantly sliding closer and closer to casual wear. Today, truly formal events are far less common, and the definition of business casual varies. Sometimes it means you can wear short sleeves and khakis, which is a deviation from its former interpretation of simply skipping the blazer.
Undershirts can be even more complicated. No one ever sees them, so it can be difficult to know when to wear them and when to skip them. Do they really affect your wardrobe that much? Should you wear an undershirt? What about with a white dress shirt?
In short, yes (though you don't NEED one)! Undershirts weren’t made to be seen. They were made for your comfort. Wearing one can make your outfit feel much better on you and improve the fit of off the rack clothing. They don’t always go unseen, either. The way you wear it will determine whether you look great, or look like a total slob.
Think about how this guy looks:
He'd look a lot sharper if you couldn't see the undershirt. Instead, he looks a little funny, drawing a lot of attention to his upper chest area, right below his collar.
To be fair, he is adhering to an older standard when men used to be required to wear undershirts to work with their ties. These days, many skip the undershirt at work and business environments as dress codes have grown far more casual. This guide will help you determine when you can skip the undershirt, and when you can’t!
What is an undershirt for, anyway?
Undershirts were made to minimize your sweating and eliminate visible pit stains and sweat blotches that stick to you in the heat. It also provides a barrier that can make your dress shirt last much longer because they remain cleaner and may not need to be washed every single time you wear them.
Undershirts can also make your dress shirts look neater (especially if you care for them properly). The extra layer will hide chest hair, ensuring that they don’t show through lighter shirts. Wearing long sleeved undershirts can also make you more comfortable when wearing dress shirts in cold weather. It also allows wearing of similar outfits more often during the year instead of retiring an entire summer wardrobe in the winter.
We will cover more specifics, but as a general rule of thumb for formal environments, if it’s extremely hot outside you can skip the undershirt, but otherwise wear it. Just make sure you don’t show it. Showing an undershirt is akin to showing your underwear. It’s not stylish at all.
Men’s undershirts come in a variety of different styles, and each one has a different purpose. Tank tops are sleeveless and won’t absorb sweat, but they do hide your nipples. These should be avoided because they usually show visible lines through your shirts, and are regarded as casual.
V-necks will let you leave your top button undone without exposing your shirt. These are nice to wear when you don’t want to put on a tie, or are in a casual situation. Unfortunately, these will show lines on fully buttoned dress shirts.
Crew necks were the precursor to tee shirts. These are the most common type of undershirts. These shirts are the ones that should be worn with ties. Don’t wear them if you plan to take off your tie unless you need to hide excessive chest hair or tattoos.
Long sleeved shirts are really great to wear in the winter. These and thermal underwear offer extra warmth. Compression shirts will flatten any lumps or bumps. Below is an example from Uniqlo:
Can I wear colors?
If you’re in formal situations, you don’t want to wear colorful undershirts. Wear one that is the closest match to your natural skin tone that you can find. Any shirt that contrasts with your skin tone will be very visible underneath your shirt.
Dark grey, and shades of brown undershirts blend well with darker skin tones. For lighter tones, you should stick to light grey, beige, or white shirts.
Despite this rule of thumb, wearing a white undershirt under a white shirt is pretty obvious and not at all subtle, so you may look better without one. The same can be said for wearing a grey undershirt with a thin shirt. This combination makes your shirt look dingy and washed out.
What fabrics are best for undershirts?
If you’re wearing an undershirt, the fabric should be thin and stretchy so it doesn’t show through. Using 100% cotton is a great choice. It’s very durable and you can trust the material quality. Try using higher quality cottons, like Egyptian and Pima, which are more absorbent and significantly more comfortable and soft.
Stretch modal blends also work really well, so they’re always a great choice. These options combine cotton with synthetic materials so that the overall look is stretchy but will retain its shape.
Merino wool is made from merino sheep and is really great at absorbing smells and keeping you warm. You can wear the same shirt for over a week without an odor. It’s also good for warmer weather as long as you wear wool with under 190 gsm.
Modern fabrics are more technical. These are usually synthetics that have been designed specifically to be sweat proof and wick up any moisture.
Do not try to use a tee-shirt as an undershirt. These are very thick and loose and they will show right through your shirt. You can do this in the winter if your shirt will be hidden under thicker layers.
How should the fit look on my undershirt?
Good undershirts are tight fitting and have a little bit of stretch to them. This lets your clothes completely hide them underneath. They should also be lightweight, so lines don’t show and make you look bulky. A poor-fitting undershirt makes you look sloppy and creates a bad impression.
The shirt should fit closely to your torso and have very small armholes. This will prevent it from wrinkling and let it absorb the sweat from under your arms before that sweat causes pit stains on your dress shirt. Be careful not to get a shirt that is too tight, or it will make you extremely uncomfortable. The best fit will remain close to your body without restricting movement.
It should also be long enough to remain tucked in all day. A lot of men make the mistake of buying a shirt that is long enough to tuck but forget to test it when they move, bend over, or stretch. If you can’t pick something off the floor or stretch your arms over your head without your shirt coming untucked, find a longer one.
The neck opening on your shirt should be around the same size as the collar of your dress shirts. If the neck opening is too loose, it can bunch up, which looks sloppy and is uncomfortable.
You also get what you pay for. If you buy cheap undershirts, they’re far more likely to be baggy and bunch up under the fabric of your shirt – especially around your waist. Your shirt should smooth out your torso and allow your dress shirt to lie flat across your body. It shouldn't make you look bulky and bunch up.
Can I wear an undershirt by itself?
You can… but you shouldn’t. Undershirts are made very tight, and they cling to your body. This is an appropriate look in casual settings such as going to the gym and running, but can be considered overly casual in other settings.
Because an undershirt hugs your torso tightly, it will also affect the proportions of the rest of your body. It can make your legs look awkward. A thin top and thick, loose jeans will make your legs look unnaturally large. An undershirt also absorbs your sweat and if you have nothing on but an undershirt, then all your sweat will show.
In short, if you’re questioning it, it’s probably better to put on something else or cover your undershirt with something on top.
Undershirt Rules to Live By
Here are the top 10 rules of wearing men’s undershirts.
- DON'T let them show unless they are hiding chest hair, tattoos, or other marks.
- The shirt should be thin, fit closely to your torso, and have a bit of stretch.
- If your skin is light, look for white, light grey, and beige unless you’re wearing a white or thinner shirt where the undershirt can be seen.
- If your skin is dark, wear shades of brown, or dark grey.
- If you have a collar and a tie, wear a crew neck.
- If you have a collar without a tie and a hairy chest… still wear a crew neck to cover chest hair.
- If you have a collar, no tie, and a smooth chest, wear a deep V-neck.
- Tank tops are a poor choice for an undershirt and you should avoid them.
- Your tee shirt is not an undershirt.
- Your undershirt is not a tee shirt.
Popular dress shirts: