Why Tommy John’s Air is everything underwear should be

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:

Tommy John Air fabric
Slightly meshy, for better breathability and drying times. Oh, and they’re super soft.

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:

Tommy John Air Boxer Brief
Grey is always the best color.

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:

Tommy John Air vs Uniqlo Airism front
Tommy John Air (left) vs Uniqlo Airism (right)

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:

Tommy John Air vs Uniqlo Airism gusset
Gusset wars. TJ Air (left) vs Uniqlo Airism (right).

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:

Tommy John Air pilling
Scratchy scratchy.

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.

Conclusions

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.

Check it out here.

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.

About SnarkyNomad

Eytan is a pretentious English major whose rant-laden sarcastic tirades occasionally include budget travel tips and other international nonsense. You can follow his every narcissistic word on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

View all posts by SnarkyNomad

50 Comments on “Why Tommy John’s Air is everything underwear should be”

  1. One commenter about the Airisms — in your post explaining why they’re superior to Ex Officios — was troubled by the conditions under which they’re made, and I thought that you might address that here (because you did respond to that commenter!). So, I’ll ask: are the Airs made under better conditions, for workers and for “the” environment, than Airisms are, as far as you know?

    1. I’m not familiar with the specifics, but this particular one is made in Jordan. I can’t say I’m too familiar with the differences, though. I like buying from brands that have good labor practices (and a lot of that is in the USA, though not always), but I’m not always able to keep track of each one.

    1. Yeah, that was kind of unfortunate. I doubt it’s going to tear apart, but it’s super thin, soft, and meshy, so it’s easier to snag and abrade than the opaque, silky-smooth surface of other ones. But that’s kind of why I did a what-to-look-for review in addition to just reviewing this one specifically.

      1. When women machine wash fine quality underwear we put it a mesh bag for protection. mesh bags are cheap and weigh almost nothing. If you are handwashing, not necessary.

  2. SN, I find this post rather troubling. I am not someone who does newsletters, your blog is the sole exception, because I can’t stand the pay for play review style that happens in this day and age. This review is such a softball that I am writing this out of concern.

    What gives? These underwear are nearly four times as much as your previous favorite and you are calling them the holy grail. Sure, cost may not be an issue, but you were so casual about the dramatic difference that it cautions me. For that price difference these should be bulletproof. I understand that design matters a lot but this review felt like a backroom deal.

    I hope this won’t be a trend. I trust your opinion and have made several large purchases with your recommendation in mind. Don’t get comfortable and be one of those shoddy reviewers.

    1. I see all that and respect it. I’ve gotten myself into a position where I’m able to test things out, and let people know about them, but there’s a lot that I haven’t talked about, because it’s just not quite suitable, or there’s something about it that isn’t quite right. I get a lot of offers that I just say no to in the first place. The only things I accept are things I’m looking forward to using, and the only things I review are things I’m looking forward to recommending.

      In the case of these, I had already bought from Tommy John before, and the fit was perfect; but I only had the modal fabric, which is nice, but not necessarily suitable for the sort of travel that I talk about. So when I saw they were offering a quick-drying fabric, I was already thinking of buying them anyway, before I had ever spoken to them. I was very happy with the way they fit, and right away it was obvious that they solved all the problems that I had described with the Uniqlo. A few people here and there had said they had run into the same problems; legs moving up, not a forgiving enough fabric, and so on. If I’m going to declare something as the absolute best, it had better be the absolute best, and the Tommy John does so many things better that I can’t maintain an unqualified recommendation of something else if I’ve found something that’s better in those ways. So that’s why I thought it was appropriate to say that these felt significantly better in terms of fit and comfort, but that I rather quickly ran into durability issues, and mentioned them pretty straightforwardly. I feel like a backroom deal/softball review would be one where I just didn’t mention the durability issues at all. Plus I wanted to make this into a “what to look for” type of post, not only for customers looking to buy something, but also designers looking to build something. I’ve gone back and edited a few sentences so the intention is a little more clear.

      I can definitely see the frustration at seeing something recommended so highly that’s both expensive and might fall apart at some point, so I thought I’d just be straightforward about both those downsides, and maintain a recommendation of a significantly cheaper alternative for those who have no interest in the pricey one. That’s where I was coming from, so I hope that seems more reasonable.

    1. Yeah, one of those laundry bags might be a good idea. And yes, the fabric is stretchy enough that I think it’ll accommodate quite a bit of variation.

  3. Thanks for the review. How do they fare in terms of smell after a full day of wear? Do they have any of the anti-odor properties that Smartwool or Icebreakers have, by chance?

    1. For some reason I just haven’t run into trouble with underwear smelling bad, even if I have trouble with the same fabric causing problems in t-shirts. I know that’s not very useful information, but it just doesn’t happen for me. So that’s a plus, probably.

        1. I expect it’s just a matter of different body types. You’ll probably have to find something that has an anti-odor treatment, and if none of those work out well enough, then it’s probably a good idea to make the jump to merino wool.

  4. Uniqlo actually does have a longer airism mesh boxer (thigh length) but it seems they are not always available in all seasons, unlike their regular rise and low rise airism boxers – since I can’t find them on the Uniqlo US site right now, which is where I first saw them.

    But I got mine while I was in NYC a few months ago. No more riding up problems.

    Also not available in all markets either, tried looking for them in Manila, but they’ve never heard of them here, they only have the low rise, regular rise and ankle length ‘steteco’ versions.

    1. Yeah, I have those too, and they work pretty well, though they’re missing a few of the other fit details of the Tommy John. Certainly not bad, though.

      1. Hi SnarkyNomad,

        Where can you actually get the long versions of the Airism these days? I’ve tried Japan, New York, San Francisco, and they just don’t exist anymore in 2017. Do you happen to know a Uniqlo that has them? I can’t even find any on eBay.

        Thanks,

        Luke

  5. I considered these for my sons but the more I think about it the more I think it’s less about comfort and more about greed. Too bad.

    1. I won’t defend the price, and other companies do a direct-to-consumer model that ends up being cheaper, but if they don’t do it right, you’ll just end up throwing it out. I’ve been trying to avoid “this is good enough” purchases that eventually get replaced in favor of “this is just right” ones for a while, and they often end up working out a lot better.

      1. I do believe that a really good pair of undies is worth ‘more money’ than all the cheap uncomfortable ones, but $48 is way over the top, so that most can’t even afford one pair. That’s why I used the word ‘greed’, it’s just obvious. And I happen to think it’s sad.

  6. I do believe the Uniqlo Airism boxers are discontinued. I’ve been to 2 stores, and the salespeople have confirmed this. They’ve replaced it with Supima Cotton boxers (sigh).

    1. Weird, because Uniqlo Singapore still has them in stock. I think it’s a seasonal thing. They’ve disappeared every winter, and come back every summer, for a couple years now. Try eBay in the meantime. There’s always something there.

  7. If you’re willing to spend that much money on a single pair go over to TAD and get their merino wool briefs. Fewer seams, superb quality, American made, and durable wonderful wool. They’re so amazing. I will admit I felt a little ill spending $38 on underwear the first time but they’re worth it.

    1. I definitely love merino wool, so it would be a great option, though I tend to like the smoother synthetic material a little better, since it doesn’t get caught on pant fabric as much, so it stays in place better. Obviously if it’s snug enough then it’ll be okay, but I’ve gone through so many different products over the years that I kind of just want to be done. But if you like it, then that’s definitely a good sign that it wasn’t one of the bad ones.

  8. …and why did you send me this story for the second time (first mid Nov and now early Dec.). This post really seems like an advertisement

    1. There are two mailing list options; one is to get each new post emailed one by one, and another is to get everything sent just once a month, with everything that was published that month coming in all at once. Some people sign up for both, so there’s a bit of redundancy, but you can undo that by unsubscribing from whichever one gets sent that you don’t want.

    1. That should probably feel great when it shows up. Kinda weird how they have that multi-colored band around the collar…but oh well.

    1. You can’t get Uniqlo over there? I thought they had some UK stores and so on. But you can also go on eBay and find a lot of it for only slightly higher prices than normal.

    2. Hey,

      you can definitely find some Uniqlo shops in Europe.
      But I´d suggest you to have a look at Decathlon, they sell Kalenji´s brief, 3 for 12€, which are, imho, even better than the Airism (look and feel more robust).
      I tried both and I stick to Kalenji´s.
      Haven tried Tommy´s though.

      Peace

  9. Hi European travelers,

    to you that live in the beatiful Europe, I would also recommend to check out the underwear made by Kalenji, sold at Dechatlon.
    I own a few pairs of the Airism briefs, and they´re fine in my opinion, but they get kind of loose at the end of the day.
    These briefs (various shapes) made by Kalenji are snug, look solid, pack small and on top of hat you can get three of them for just around 12€. Which is 4€ each.
    Prretty good, uh?

    Peace

    1. +1 to Kalenji.

      Got a pair of Kalenji boxer briefs – one in black and one in white and they are perfect. Wash them while I shower and they dry in 12 hours flat here at McLeod Ganj. Only thing I would change is not buy the white one as it gets dirty far more easily and thanks to Murphy’s law, on my long travels spanning multiple days without shower I always end up in the whites.

      Decathlon is big here in India (and apparently Thailand) as well and their products have been such a life saver during my backpacking trip through India that I try to route my journey periodically through a city which has a Decathlon store.

  10. have you tried terramar mesh pro? the waist band is ugly but other than that they seem very comparable to these for less than half the price and they have odor control as well. not as good as merino but nothing synthetic really is.

    1. That looks promising. I might try out a few more options and try to do a top 10 at some point, but it’s such a frustrating process knowing how terrible many of them usually are, but I might see if I can do it.

      1. i have about 7 pairs of these. if you do try them out, make sure you get the ones with blue waist band ugliness rather than red waist band ugliness. at least for me, the cut was different in the reds and always leads to very unwelcome moments o socially unacceptable butt picking. the blues are a dream though. i usually stick to merino now but always take at least one of these with me for travel as they dry much quicker.

  11. The Uniqlo Airism boxers are in-stock on their website right now. I just bought seven pairs and six V-neck undershirts. I considered your recommendation here, but I can’t sink $48 into a pair of boxers.

    1. That makes perfect sense. I’m happy to recommend the Uniqlo Airism as a great budget option, but there were a couple issues with it, which I think the Tommy John Air improves upon. So if I’m going to say something is the absolute BEST, it had better be the best, but the Airism is still the best value.

  12. I was so happy when I found the Uniqlo Tencel boxers that you mentioned in your previous pick (although it seems you removed the reference to the Tencel version in the article?). I went to buy more the other day and did not see any in the store. It’s possible they were discontinued. Bummer. $48 for a pair of delicate synthetic material boxers is fairly absurd, in my opinion. The material is very cheap, so what is behind the cost? At that price point I have a couple of pairs of Merino wool boxer briefs for backpacking trips in which I want to have clean, natural fiber material that won’t smell.
    It would be great if you could do a post on the best non-synthetic boxers under $10 (for those of us that like a drawer full of boxers to wear throughout the work week.

    1. Yes, the Tencel version disappeared from their site, so I removed it from mine. I think if you want something cheap and non-synthetic, there’s a company called Comfortable Boxer Briefs that offers very Tommy John-like modal boxer briefs for a very reasonable price. I haven’t tried them yet, but I might pick some up at some point.

  13. Yes, I am still a Uniqlo Airism fanboy, but you are right, the whole range is getting better. Where I am getting annoyed is in the advertising, of the sort ‘go round the world with 2 pairs of underpants!’, and the mania for travelling with only a jacket and nap sack. A Kickstarter outfit has recently been over 500% funded, boasting that you can travel with two Tshirts, 2 pairs of socks and 2 pairs of pants, none of which apparently need washing for at least 46 days, even if you wear them to the gym.
    https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/unbound-apparel-the-ultimate-travel-hack–2/x/10827786#/
    I would love for you to test this, and apart from the obvious anomaly that you would be fairly cold in most parts of N America and Europe in our winter with only the above apparel for warmth, I tend to travel with spare shoes, trousers and jackets not to mention my laptop, iPad , phone and 3 different chargers. Comfort and convenience over all!

    1. It’s possible, but I generally don’t like doing it this way. There are plenty of other ways to get dirty besides body odor, so I don’t like going for more than two days in a row wearing the same shirt. I think a more reasonable minimum would be three sets of clothing, which also helps if something gets ruined or lost. There’s also the convenience of being able to use a laundry machine, but having only one set of clothes available at any time doesn’t work so well with this. If you pay by weight, it’s fine, but if you pay for the load, it isn’t. Plus there might be a day or two of a delay in getting it back in time, which is also going to be annoying if you only have one set of clothes and they get dirty. Sink washes make this easier, and in some ways it’s not so bad, but I think most people will prefer to have a week’s worth of clothing, and do laundry once a week. I think that’s the sweet spot for the average person.

  14. I’m still with the Airism, and no complaints even after a round the world and lots of hand washing. However the riding up is a weakness, but acceptable at the price, and I certainly won’t stand for $48 for the Tommy John’s even if I could find them without US postage and Euro import duty.
    I just received this in an embedded advert in a news article, and hope you or another reader might test them. I realise it’s an ad, but they look to have thought things through.

    https://www.mackweldon.com/c/reallycomfortableunderwear?utm_source=dailypnut&utm_campain=mmoct&utm_medium=native

    1. I’m planning on branching out into some of the other big-name brands, which I’ve avoided since I wanted to concentrate on quick-drying fabrics, but I’ll probably do it sooner or later anyway.

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