A brief history of the men's undershirt

Written by Yvonne Roach
Co-founder and chief organiser
Picture of co-founder Yvonne Roach


When looking back into the history of undergarments, it's fascinating that the first undergarments were not designed to help keep us warm, insulate us or protect the body from the elements. The original purpose was to protect our outer layer of clothing from touching the body, to protect the wearer's skin from scratchy outerwear and to keep outer layers clean. This is because regular bathing and washing did not become common until the 18th century. 

It was mainly the rich and noble who were able to wear undergarments. Working classes were probably lucky to have a single shirt as, historically, textiles were expensive and precious goods.

Around the 15th century, men of nobility started to wear parts of their shirts exposed; the collars and cuffs. Detachable collars and cuffs were in vogue. Using detachable collars and cuffs meant that only the visible parts had to be washed. So, in reality, what we know as a shirt today would actually have been considered an undershirt! 

As time moved on gentlemen (or noblemen) would only wear a shirt as their first layer or undergarment. If they were too cold, they would tend to wear more outer layers or overgarments. However, the poor, working class and peasants would sometimes wear a tunic. This is what we think later developed into the sleeveless vest we know today. Usually, this vest was made of wool or flannel to help keep warm. 

In the US, the so-called ‘union suit’ was an overall style undergarment that was patented in 1868. It was a bit like an all in one baby-grow, and although first worn by women, it was later adopted by men as well. The union suit was normally worn by the blue collar, rural demographic, as opposed to the rich.

Picture of men's and women's union suit magazine advert

Photo- Tias.com

This brings us on to more modern times. At the beginning of the 20th century, the U.S. Navy issued what we would recognise today as the modern T-shirt, to be worn under uniforms. These were crew-necked, short-sleeved, and buttonless, and were first made from wool and then from white cotton. In hot climates, or when performing dirty jobs, it was common for sailors to wear just the undershirt (to stay cooler or to save uniforms from soiling) and this is believed to be the beginnings of the T-shirt.

Navy personel in their T-shirts

Photo - House of Fraser

In WWII soldiers started to wear undershirts on their own as a form of outerwear. While it was not considered to be in good taste to start with, by the fifties Hollywood stars such as Marlon Brando and James Dean wore them in public. This is how the T-Shirt as we know it today became a success.

Men's undershirts are now going full circle as smart, elegant male dressers understand that wearing a T-shirt underneath their shirt does not work well. Purposefully designed lightweight, breathable undershirts are coming back into vogue as men look for comfort and style.


Image of modern crew neck undershirt

Today, undershirts are worn for many different reasons:

1. To keep warm 
During the cold months an undershirt can help to keep you warm. Modern viscose or modal fabrics make for a very comfortable extra layer. They are stretchy for a hugging, second-skin type fit. They keep chilly air away from the skin surface preventing heat loss in cold air. At the same time, they are highly breathable so you don't overheat. 

2. To look after shirts 
Sweat and deodorants stain on your shirts. Undershirts help protect your shirt from sweat and deodorant stains by being a physical barrier between your skin and your shirt. The oils from your skin and the components of your deodorant are trapped before they reach the fine cotton. 

3. To preventing sweat through 
Undershirts are sweat-absorbing and can help to avoid ugly sweat stains. Viscose and model fabrics are particularly good at absorbing water, and yet they feel lightweight and comfortable to wear. In warmer climates, it is common practice to wear an undershirt to minimise sweat marks.

The use of modern fabrics with specific qualities like sweat absorption and inhibition of bacterial growth means the humble undershirt has come a long way. In the last ten years new independent undershirt brands, such as ours (Robert Owen Undershirt Co), have advanced the design of men's undershirts, incorporating better fitting design, thoughtful placement of seams, and super-soft fabrics to make sleek, hidden and lightweight sweat absorbing undershirts. Many of these new undershirt designs have unique features built in. For instance, our Oxford Sweat Protect undershirt has double underarm panels to help with sweat absorption, plus a pocket into which an optional sweat pad (sometimes called sweat guard or dress shield) can be fitted to turn it into a sweat proof undershirt. Our Chester design is a slimmer fit undershirt with extra length, so it stays tucked in and making it the best undershirt for tall men.

The undershirt has been around for some time, in many forms, but always with the same sensible purpose. Modern fabrics and good design have moved this humble undergarment into a new realm of comfort fit for the 21st century. You may be surprised just how useful they are. We think we make the UK's best men's undershirt. Try one for yourself today.


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