For those who may have been following my recommendations for a while, you’ll know that I’m a big fan of the Uniqlo Airism. It’s cheap, it works great, and it’s pretty much the only thing I’ve used since discovering them. That being said, they aren’t perfect. They’re not super stretchy, the legs can ride up, and the fit could be improved. Still, they were so much better than anything else I had ever tried that I was happy to abandon the search for good underwear altogether and never look back.
But I got an email recently, referencing an article I had written previously about how stupid it is that all the travel underwear out there is terrible, literally titled “Our travel underwear doesn’t suck.” It was from Tommy John, a company that guarantees their underwear is the best you’ll ever try. They’ve just released their “Air” line of underwear and undershirts, and they sent me a couple samples to try out. I’ve actually used Tommy John before (their modal boxer briefs are wonderfully comfortable), but I’m always on the lookout for technical fabrics, and that’s what this one is.
Here’s what they look like up close:
The short version: These fit better in every way, though I also ran into some durability issues early on. They’ve got a $48 price tag, and that’s not something everyone can handle. But if you’re on an uncompromising quest for the perfect fit, I think this is it.
Now, what I could do is start talking about the product itself. But I don’t want to do that. What I’d like to do is start out by saying that everything you’ve heard about underwear is wrong.
Why, you ask? Well, whenever I hear people talking about underwear, they’ll talk about “support,” saying that all good underwear should provide really great “support.” But that’s ridiculous. “Support” is what happens when you lift something from underneath. You don’t want to be “supported.” You want to be surrounded.
Most irritation is caused by the contents of the front pouch coming into contact with the leg. Every time you take a step, it hurts. But if the contents of the front pouch are properly surrounded, they are also immobilized, and they can’t escape the confines of the front pouch at all, and will never come into contact with the leg. No irritation, no rearranging, no nothing. That’s the way it should be. The only way it should be.
The Uniqlo Airism does this fairly well, but the Tommy John Air does it better.
This is not just going to be a side-by-side comparison. There’s an objectively correct way to do underwear, and I’m going to illustrate it, step by step, so that you too can complain whenever you have to put up with the exact opposite.
Advantage #1: Properly contoured front panel
Take a look at the fabric fold right down the middle of the front panel:
Placing a seam right there means the front pouch is actually kind of pyramid-shaped, meaning it accommodates and surrounds the protrusion that emerges from a male body in exactly that spot. The Uniqlo Airism does this too, though I think the TJ Air’s is slightly roomier, but on this particular point I think it’s similar enough to call it even.
Other brands…which shall remain nameless…place a flat panel there, instead of a three-dimensional one. If that sounds crazy to you, that’s because it is. Since it’s completely flat, it’s more likely to smush things backward, instead of surrounding them on all sides, thus creating a lot of…ahem…”lateral drift.” You reeeeallly need that front panel to be three-dimensional, because you are three-dimensional right there. If not, the front pouch isn’t a pouch at all, and nothing is contained within. Its contents will spill into the leg chamber, and frustration will ensue.
That fold, by the way, does not place a seam next to the skin; there’s a double layer of fabric there. The outer layer pushes the seam inward, and the inner layer pushes the seam outward. That means no skin contact with that seam, which is as it should be.
Advantage #2: Less penguin waddling
Take a look at the TJ Air next to the Uniqlo Airism (both in size medium), which look quite similar at first glance, but have a number of differences:
Obviously the legs are longer, but that’s because this is the long-leg version of the Tommy John boxer brief; they make a short-leg version that’s similar in length to the Uniqlo Airism.
However, the TJ Air’s legs also appear longer, because the crotch is about 1″ higher, which is incredibly helpful. You know that penguin-waddle that happens when your pants are too low? Well, it happens with underwear, too. If the crotch is too low, you’ll pull everything out of position whenever you take a wide step. If the crotch is up as high as it can go, this doesn’t happen, which is a point in the TJ Air’s favor.
And no, it doesn’t make things feel cramped; since the front panel is three-dimensional and holds things forward, there’s no problem there.
Advantage #3: A smaller inseam gusset
A gusset is a strip of fabric that goes from one inseam over to the other. Check out the horizontal bands of fabric at the bottom of this photo:
Notice how the Uniqlo’s (on the right) is soooooo much bigger than the TJ Air’s? That is bad. If the gusset is wide enough that the front seam is placed too far forward, it will start scratching against things that don’t like to be scratched. If that seam is placed further back, as is the case of the TJ Air, there is far less chance of the seam interfering with sensitive areas.
I’ve seen designs that do away with the gusset altogether, but if you’re going to use one, make sure it comes nowhere near anything sensitive. Another point for the TJ Air.
Advantage #4: They’re twice as stretchy
I can’t really get a good photo of this, but if you stretch the Uniqlo Airism as far as it’ll go, it’ll max out at about 50% larger than its original size. If you stretch out the TJ Air, it’ll reach 100% larger.
That extra stretchiness means several things; first, it makes things more comfortable, because sooner or later you’ll be sitting or standing in such a way that you’ll push up against the fabric somehow. Since it simply has more give, you won’t feel it nearly is much. It’s also easier doing aerobically demanding movements, which won’t pull them out of place at all. Not only will they follow you wherever you go and stay in place no matter what you do, but they’ll feel less restrictive the whole time.
Potential disadvantage: Delicate fabric
So after a few cycles through the laundry, this happened:
This is unfortunate given the $48 price tag, but I think this is just what happens when you have a soft, thin, meshy fabric. It’s easier to snag. This, by the way, is why you’re supposed to zip all the zippers on all your clothes when you do laundry (especially those metal zippers).
There are definitely tougher fabrics out there, though I can see why they went with the super-breathable, soft, meshy material, but it comes at the price of not holding up as well as some of the slicker, silkier, more opaque alternatives.
Update: A year or so later and these are still doing just fine. No further damage is visible. I’d still recommend keeping these away from velcro, but they’ve been holding up nicely this whole time.
Also, because it’s soft rather slick, there’s definitely some friction to the fabric, which means pants can pull it around a bit, though it’s snug enough that I mostly didn’t notice it once everything’s on.
All the fit factors described above add up to a *flawless* fit. And by flawless, I mean I rarely had to adjust…ever. While I would usually do some rearranging maybe a few times per hour with the Uniqlo Airism, that dropped down to just a few times per day with the TJ Air. Because of the super-stretchy fabric, snug fit, high crotch, well-separated legs, and 3-D front panel, there’s just very little that can possibly get pulled the wrong way. I actually went rock climbing in them for a couple hours, and felt the need to adjust exactly zero times. These are indisputably the best-fitting boxer briefs I’ve ever tried, though it would be nice if they didn’t get snagged quite so easily.
It’s hard to understand minor fit issues without just trying something on, but I hope the descriptions here will not only give you an idea of why these work so much better than so many others, but also what to look for if you’re shopping around somewhere. It boggles my mind how many people out there love the flat-panel “best underwear in the world” option that’s on oh-so many lists, when it’s just so objectively wrong. But oh well.
So if you want a perfect fit, this is it. I don’t think you’re going to find a better one. The synthetic fabric of the Air is what I’d recommend for ultralight travel or sporty activities, while the modal fabric (which they call Second Skin) is great if you want a natural feel.
If you’e still wary of the price (or the potential durability issues), the Uniqlo Airism is still my budget pick, but there’s no question in my mind that the TJ Air will provide a better fit. If you’ve already stocked up on Airisms because of my earlier recommendation and you love them, then you’ll be fine sticking with them. But if you’re running into some of the problems I’ve described above with poorly-designed alternatives, the Tommy John Air will solve them. I think the fit on this one is as good as it gets.
Minor update: I’ve now included this on a list of my favorite underwear, which also goes into detail about why these things work the way they do, so you can better understand how to pick one or another, depending on what kind of guy you are. I’ve also added a dedicated list of travel-friendly options here.