Traditionally made from heavyweight cotton, thermals are a bit more old-fashioned than their high-tech, base-layer counterparts, but if you’re not trying to scale a snowy mountain or jog outdoors in January, they are comfortable and effective as insulating layers during winter. Many find natural fibers such as cotton to be more breathable and comfortable than other fabrics, and the textured knit gives it a classic vibe. In search of the best thermal shirts, we consulted nine store owners, menswear experts, and stylists, and came up with a dozen options.
Celebrity stylist David Thomas and owner of menswear store Standard and Strange Neil Berrett both mentioned this Uniqlo thermal as a great budget-friendly option, and it comes in a range of classic colors. You might want to size down, because it’s a looser fit. If you want to get creative with layering, Thomas likes wearing a vintage T-shirt or short-sleeved button-down over the thermal.
Adam Levy at Dave’s New York tells us this thermal from Indera Mills is a customer favorite. “They’re economical, so they are great for workers who wear them every day and can buy them in bulk.” Like the Real McCoy’s military shirt (listed below), this one is woven in a raschel knit. Less bulky than the traditional waffle knit, this would make a great cold-weather undershirt if you want something a little slimmer with a more body-hugging fit.
For something more contemporary, Thomas likes this thermal henley from Rag & Bone. (While a crewneck is the most classic option, a waffle-knit henley is still definitely considered a “thermal”). “A close cut is good,” says Thomas. “If it’s too loose, you’re in danger of looking like you’re wearing underwear.” Since thermals are a “military style,” Thomas says you should avoid wearing it with other military-influenced items like cargo pants or combo boots. “Otherwise, it starts to be a bit costumey.”
Stylist Ilaria Urbinati, who dresses Armie Hammer and Bradley Cooper, recommended this thermal henley in an earlier interview with us. It has more of a vintage feel but with a slimmer fit. If you’re wondering what to do with the buttons, Thomas has some simple rules: “Top, never buttoned; middle, sometimes; bottom, always.”
Brian Davis, owner of vintage store Wooden Sleepers, says this L.L. Bean shirt is his favorite. “I stock and enjoy vintage military shirts from the ’60s and ’70s, but those are harder and harder to come by.” Traditionalists might not call it a thermal, technically — it’s made from a cotton-merino wool blend and a plain (rather than waffle) weave — but it sticks to the general idea.
Daniel Lewis, co-founder of Brooklyn Tailors, is a big fan of cotton thermals. He prefers one with a “not tight” but relatively close fit. For insulating purposes, you want “ribbed cuffs that hug your wrist to keep cold air out, and it should be long enough in the body to sufficiently overlap your pant waistline.” This one, from Velva Sheen, is his favorite. “It’s everything it should be without any gimmicks or fuss.”
The Japanese brand the Real McCoy’s came up time and again. “For thermal shirts, I think they’re the best,” says writer and photographer Ryan Willms. “Their knitwear and jersey is so, so good. They keep it simple but reference the best original stuff in my opinion.” Pretty much everyone agreed that while this is the closest you’re going to get to the definitive thermal shirt, it can be hard to get your hands on because they’re produced in very limited quantities, woven in Japan on vintage machines. It’s why they’re so high-quality, but it’s also why they’re so hard for stores to keep in stock. At the moment, the best option with the widest range of available sizes is to order directly from the Real McCoy’s store in London, which makes for a slightly complicated shipping and return process. (We’ll update this once we find a U.S. store with a restock).
Another thermal from the Real McCoy’s — this one always sells out at Standard and Strange. “It’s a reproduction of vintage U.S. military thermal shirts, just made much, much better than the originals,” says Berrett. “It’s technically not a waffle knit,” he adds, but rather “a three-dimensional raschel knit, which ends up being warmer and a hell of a lot more expensive and difficult to make.”
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