15 November 2009

A State of Undress

Image courtesy of The Library of Congress

Warm breath hits the icy air and you see the wisp that was drawn out of your numb lips flutter away along the winds. The early morning commute during the colder months seems, in my mind, to be one of the everyday exemplars of that timeless battle between Man and Nature. Battle preparations for the most seem to center upon the thick overcoat, whether it be the black woolen Crombie or the bright red North Face. However, I suppose the most basic, and arguably most important, step for me is actually what one wears underneath that cloaking garment, and indeed underneath the daily outfit - undergarments.

When braving cold weather I first and foremost seek to feel cosy. Feeling cosy and comfortable, and looking stylish (I really do dislike that term), is perhaps a contradiction in the mind of most, where fashion seems to require some sense of discomfort. Yet I tend to turn towards traditional undergarments as a basis to build upon for a cold weather outfit. They provide both warmth and comfort, which although unseen, truly to affect the way one wears their outfit as a whole. Indeed with the comfort and confidence of those undergarments, one feels ready for the world. It is important to note however, that by traditional undergarments, I do not limit myself to talking of boxer shorts, vests and socks, but rather the two piece evolution of the infamous union suit, with the undershirt and long johns.

Reproduction via Ballyhoo VintageDaniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood (2007)

What would later become the quintessential casual menswear garment, the t-shirt, actually finds one of its roots in the history and development of the undershirt. These roughly made and closely fitting garments were designed to be worn underneath the shirt and jacket, often going without wash for frighteningly long periods of time. Caked in sweat, draping and creasing intimately with the body and its movement, and serving quite literally as a second skin, these garments were perhaps the most essential in the wardrobe of a man.

In terms of functionality one only needs note the close fit for wearing underneath shirts, helped further by the buttoned crew necks allowing for a tighter cut and extended length for tucking into one's trousers. Indeed because the garment stemmed out of required functionality, the style of the garment remained relatively constant in its historical development. The lack of desire to update the style was perhaps mostly due to fact that the garment was after all never really intended to be seen by others. Of course the undershirt would eventually evolve and its original design decline in popularity with the passing of time, with the vest and basic t-shirt replacing the main bodily undergarment for men.

My main issue with the vest is that whilst it is a warm and comfortable garment, the coverage is often a touch too lacking. Another option which many seem happy to sport is the t-shirt, worn under the shirt in the colder months. However the fit of a t-shirt is for me far too loose to really be of comfort when worn underneath a shirt. As such, although the undershirt may not be of particular merit to most, I find it to be the perfect garment for cold weather.

I suppose that there is not only the comfort factor of the undershirt, with the close fit and warm cloth creating a snug feel for the wearer, but also that sense of history and tradition which I find particularly appealing. A sense of history is always something that I have found to be alluring, and there is something about wearing a garment with a such an intimate story with menswear, which makes me happy.

Isaora Fall '09
Levis Vintage via oki-ni

The natural question for some of my readers may perhaps be where fashion fits into this discussion of the undershirt. Whilst the nature of the garment is essentially one of function, there is in that a wonderful simplicity to be found in its style. Where garments of a basic design are concerned, it is towards high quality construction and materials that eyes must turn. Indeed as I have written many times before, where simpler design is concerned, it is sometimes often harder to actually produce and finish well. With such simple design, the quality truly has to be special to stand out.

In this there are two main routes that a designer can take - one being that of a contemporary translation, and one being that of the historically accurate reproduction. Above I have included examples of two such results, the first being an image from the Fall '09 Isaora look book, and the other being the undershirt from the Levis Vintage Oldest Oldest Celebration pack. The Isaora garment is a contemporary take on the undershirt, in the form of a thermal Henley top, whereas the Levis Vintage piece is a reproduction of one of the first Levis 't-shirts'.

I suppose that what one sees here is two ways in which to wear the undershirt, but also two ways in which to consider the undershirt. Both have the link to history and tradition which I find so appealing, but both also happen to tackle this in a unique way, contrasting in their application, but essentially the same in their concept. Both takes on the undershirt stand out in their own right, and I would personally be more than pleased to wear either piece. Whether the allure of the undershirt for me be from some sense of nostalgia of men's clothing and style from times past, or from the more physical and tangible comfort of the garment itself, I shall certainly be stocking up on some to ride out the next few months in comfort.

Currently playing: We Used To Vacation - Cold War Kids



  1. Sir,

    I have been reading your blog for the last month or so (since it popped up on a recommendation from Google Reader) and must admit that I find it (and this post in particular) very enjoyable. Any conversation on the crossing of fashion with other needs (whether it's self-express, staying warm, or comfortably) is of immense satisfaction to me, as fashion in a vacuum loses some of its appeal for me. Fashion interacting actively with humans usually brings about some of my favorite pieces.

    Lovely writing, I will keep reading!

  2. men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind

    p.s. those words belong to Eliot, not to me

  3. Fascinating DK...the reproduction of one of the first Levis 't-shirts'is truly interesting...Enjoy the history of fashion I must say~

  4. I love reading this post! I love the imagery and descriptions in your post!

  5. oh I love undershirts. They don't necessarily look like that one but I rarely feel comfortable without one.

  6. so essential in deed..I love the under wear leggins for tights, my self with my skirts. Especially, in gray..this is great for our winter days..to be in layers.

    thanks for the notes. I was inspired by an episode of Greek finding it peculair about a "thanksgiving" bootie call here in the states. I was kind of shocked. Of course, Eric has other thing he should be worrying about..like having a baby with Amanda. Yeah, I know..got to keep the soap suddsing.

  7. WOW! Awesome post, my dear! Hope U had a great weekend!


  8. WOW DK such an interesting post!!!

    Hope you had a nice weekend and have a lovely week.


  9. I want one of these! They look so cosy, I like the element of being close to the skin =.] Great post dear,w hope you had a lovely weekend.

  10. Thank u dear !! :) Wishing the same to you !
    And really like this post, and thats like the only thing I like when its getting colder-you can wear all these cozy sweaters and scarfs and stuff. But I do prefer the summer ^^

  11. nothing like a man in thermal.

  12. Being cozy is my favorite. I like stealing my guys shirts :)

  13. funny! i've been obsessed with the photos i find on flickr from the library of congress. my faves so far are of the carnival performers...
    hope youre lovely :)
    xo s

  14. Mmmm.. the snuggliness of a good undershirt cannot be overestimated.

  15. It is always interesting to read a different perspective on fashion, I enjoy your blog so much! x

  16. Being comfy and cosy is important !!

    I adore the same kind of shirts all the guys were wearing in the photos:)

    A must have for every guy then! Ohhh and me too ! I need to start on Christmas shopping so badly now.

  17. superb post, DK. love the history behind these undershirts!

  18. Your writing is amazing. I sometimes rush through the blogs with so many photos but very few do i look forward to read.

    i love the levi's look.