As many of you know, I am an insatiable gear junkie whose standards can never be reached with anything short of exquisite perfection. You’d think the reason for my constant dissatisfaction would be my unreasonably high expectations, but the real problem that constantly shoves thorns into my sides is the failure of oh-so-many gear companies to achieve even tolerable mediocrity. And the most excruciating problem in this regard has been the inexorable search for the world’s best underwear.
You’d think that this sort of problem could be rather easily solved, as men have been wearing underwear of one sort or another for hundreds of thousands of years, but, sadly, humanity had yet to implement a widespread solution to this childishly simple challenge that was to my satisfaction.
I have already detailed the ridiculous ordeal that is the outdoor industry’s excuse for performance underwear, which is a ludicrous hamster wheel of $30 failures arriving one after another, which has sapped my vitality and broken my spirit in ways that would make mothers weep.
But no longer. The search is over, for I hath discovered The One. The Holy Grail of underthings, the El Dorado of unmentionables. The best men’s underwear in the universe.
For only $10.
They are the Uniqlo Airism boxer brief, and I am ready to buy a dozen of them, rid myself of all other underwear in a fiery conflagration of spiteful disdain, and never bother with any other underwear ever again.
Be happy for me.
What the Uniqlo Airism gets right
I don’t see what’s so difficult about all this, but somehow everyone on the planet seems to fail miserably at a frequency of 100%. It’s incomprehensibly annoying. But this is what underwear needs to do:
- Boxer brief. It’s the most sensible combination of immobilization and socially acceptable appearance.
- Snug fit. Tight enough to stay in place, but forgiving enough that you forget it’s there.
- Silky smooth. A frictionless fabric would prevent a pair of pants from pulling your underwear around all day.
- Properly shaped front panel. We’re men, after all.
- Ordinary appearance. If I’m not on the advertising department payroll, then I’m not advertising for you.
- Comfy fabric. I generally prefer quick-drying synthetic fabrics because I enjoy traveling, but comfy and absorbent natural fabrics have their place too. Having both options would be ideal.
I could very well cut this short right here, and simply mention how the Uniqlo manages to hit all these points, but I’d prefer to go into crushingly boring technical detail, so I’ve decided to match the Uniqlo up against another so-called “best underwear ever” contender, whose praises are sung far and wide, but whose shortcomings are numerous and excruciating.
So here we are: The Uniqlo Airism vs. the Ex Officio boxer brief.
One of the major problems with the Ex Officio is that it does not come in a size small. It’s labelled small, but it’s just nonsense. It’s a full two sizes bigger than the Uniqlo, and still too loose anyway.
The Uniqlo also has another objectively correct feature which the Ex Officio does not: Accommodation for masculinity.
Notice the folded seam right along the center of the front panel:
This creates a contoured fabric pouch that…ahem…surrounds this region appropriately, thus eliminating the problems of lateral drift and skin-on-skin discomfort, and reducing the need to rearrange constantly.
The Ex Officio’s front panel, on the other hand, is entirely flat. Though it will naturally form something of a shaped front panel simply by stretching in whichever direction it needs to go, it can’t do this as well as something that includes a properly shaped front panel to begin with.
Fit is admittedly rather subjective, but these specific differences are just objectively superior. The folded front panel, combined with availability in more sizes, mean the Uniqlo will be far more likely to work for more people. It seems optimized for smaller guys, however, so that’s something to keep in mind.
It’s also worth mentioning that the Uniqlo is shorter (both in the legs, and in the rise) and has a wider waistband (by circumference) than a comparable size of Ex Officios. I don’t find these differences to be objectively good or bad, but they’re worth mentioning. Plenty of people will prefer the lengthier fit, and it would be nice if the Airism’s legs were maybe an inch longer.
As mentioned, I’m split on whether the world’s most perfect underwear would use a quick-drying, moisture-wicking fabric, or a more natural and highly absorbent one, or a blend of the two. Since the available options are usually garbage in any case, I’ll take whatever I can get.
Both the Uniqlo Airism and Ex Officio are quick-drying, moisture-wicking underwear, designed for athletic pursuits, though they use different materials to achieve this:
- Uniqlo Airism: 86% polyester, 14% spandex (with minor variations for different colors)
- Ex Officio: 94% nylon, 6% spandex (with variations for heathered colors)
But it’s really the texture that’s different. Compare the waffle-like surface of the Ex Officio to the flat surface of the Uniqlo Airism:
Not only are the Ex Officios loose to begin with, but their incredibly textured surface produces a great deal of friction, meaning that a pair of pants will pull them in all sorts of different directions, requiring constant rearrangement to keep them in place.
While it’s true that the Ex Officio’s textured surface could potentially be more comfortable when damp (by reducing the percentage of fabric in direct contact with the skin), it’s the inside of the fabric that should be this way, while the outside should be slick and smooth. But even if you flip them inside out (EMS makes a boxer brief like this, but they use a horrific waistband and aren’t that great anyway), they’re still too loose to stay in place, even with the reduced friction.
By comparison, Uniqlo’s Airism literally feels like silk. It’s exquisitely smooth and frictionless, and can’t get pulled around by other layers at all. This doesn’t mean it requires no adjustment; just that the amount created by friction will be reduced to zero.
Notice how the Ex Officio’s waistband looks like a strip of elastic, while the Uniqlo’s looks like soft fabric:
Not only is the Uniqlo’s waistband softer, but it’s also more pliable, making it far more forgiving. And, as mentioned, it’s also significantly wider (not top to bottom, but in terms of circumference) than the Ex Officio’s, which seems to have far too small of a waistband compared to how loose the rest of it is (though admittedly this was not much of a problem for me).
Again, fit is subjective, so I won’t spend too much time on this issue, but I found the Uniqlo’s waistband to be far more sensibly sized, and, when combined with the fact that it was more easily stretchy and felt less like a waist-sized rubber band, significantly more comfy as well.
This is the one area in which I can see potential room for improvement. And I say potential, because it hasn’t been a huge problem for me so far.
The Uniqlo has an inseam gusset, which means it has two seams going between the legs rather than one. This is potentially terrible if designed improperly, since the forward seam starts encroaching upon areas that are highly sensitive, and the rear seam can start approaching awkward territory as well.
Inseam gussets work for guys that are fairly small when not “in use.” If you’re at full size all the time, you might run into trouble, so keep that in mind.
This might be largely irrelevant to most people, and rather subjective, but I prefer the Uniqlo’s appearance, for the following reasons:
- No logo. I hate being a walking billboard for brands, and although Ex Officio’s waistband logo is subtle enough that I don’t mind, Uniqlo’s is completely nonexistent.
- More colors and patterns. Uniqlo has solids, stripes, dots, plaids, paisleys, and all sorts of other choices. Ex Officio has admittedly been doing well enough in this regard, but it doesn’t look like they’ve ever attempted the following:
- Subtlety. Again, it’s not like it’s a big deal, but I much prefer the fact that Uniqlo’s underwear looks like normal underwear. Most performance underwear is designed to be flashy, fluorescent body armor, with bright colors and racing stripes all over the place. I much prefer the quieter neutrality of boringly dark grey, which is offered not instead of, but in addition to, the snazzy ego-boosting crimson that Uniqlo also provides.
Again, it’s not that Ex Officio does poorly here, but Uniqlo’s underwear is utterly indistinguishable from normal underwear, which is practically unheard of in the world of high-tech clothing, and refreshingly welcome.
From the front:
And the back:
Again, it’s not a huge deal, but I adore the normalcy of the fabric texture, the seam placements, the lack of logo, and wide range of colors and patterns of the Uniqlo. It’s nearly impossible finding performance clothing that looks like ordinary clothing, so I’m just happy to see someone doing it.
Finally! Someone came along to prove that high-tech gear doesn’t have to be obscenely expensive. It’s pretty much all made of polyester anyway, which is blended with cotton because it’s cheaper than cotton, and yet 100% polyester performance apparel is more expensive somehow? Lame!
The Uniqlo Airism is $10 to the Ex Officio’s $25.
There’s simply no reason high-tech gear needs to be expensive, and I’m glad I never have to pay ridiculous prices for fancy underwear ever again.
The Ex Officio isn’t that bad. I’ve seen others go up to $50 a pair, and they were barely mediocre anyway. I’m looking at you, Arcteryx.
And since this is a travel blog, let’s take a look at a few travel-specific characteristics while we’re at it:
There’s no contest here. The Uniqlo is hands-down superior.
By the way, that’s a Uniqlo in a large, and an Ex Officio in a small.
It might not matter to certain people, but for ultralight backpackers and carry-on only travel junkies, space is constantly at a premium. Not only is the Uniqlo smaller overall, but both its fabric and waistband are thinner, allowing it to fold down to a smaller packed size.
I wish I had a scale to compare the weight. Maybe someday.
7) Drying time
This was a tie. Despite the differences in fabric content and texture, they both dried quickly after a hand wash. Eight hours, indoors, on a cool day.
This is practically mandatory if you’re hoping to reap the benefits of minimalist travel, which requires frequent washing, often by hand. But it’s also quite useful in hot weather, so that moisture won’t accumulate until you’re soaked from head to toe.
So, is the Uniqlo Airism still the best?
Since writing this review a few years ago, I have indeed come across a few options that I prefer, but they’re all in the range of $30-50, meaning they’ll be out of reach for quite a few people. If that’s what you want, take a look at a list of the best men’s underwear I’ve found thus far (and a dedicated list of travel-specific options here). But if you want a really solid pick at a decent price, I think this is as good as it’s going to get.
Each and every detail, from the shaped front panel, to the snug fit, to the frictionless surface, to the (comparatively) dirt-cheap price, to the subtle appearance, to the quick-drying fabric, is exactly what I’ve been trying to find for a decade. If I had to change anything, I’d prefer a slightly softer, more pliable fabric, an extra inch in the legs, a higher inseam, and a more forward-protruding front panel. But even with that in mind, I still reach for these all the time. I’ve gone through dozens of different options from all sorts of brands, big and small, and all of them have left me dissatisfied, but these have remained a favorite since I first tried them.
So if that all sounds great, get ’em here. They’re seasonal, so they’re only available in the summertime, but check eBay in the winter, where they’re always available.
Well, I hope you’ve all enjoyed
getting in my pants hearing my thoughts on this matter. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go burn the rest of my underwear in a cathartic bonfire.