I can’t be the only one fond of saying how rarely the math I “learned” in school applies in my daily adult life. Yet there’s a nagging problem it feels like I need differential calculus to solve, and I sort of can’t stop obsessing over it: How much underwear should I own?
The issue arose largely due to the last piece I wrote about undergarments. Loyal readers may recall that I came late to the revelation of boxer-briefs; ever since, I’ve been integrating them into my wardrobe with the eventual aim of phasing out regular boxers entirely. This process was far from perfectly engineered, as I found out when it became challenging to stuff all my underwear into the single drawer they share with my socks. It appeared I had reached a threshold — critical mass, as it were — and was dealing with a new problem: excess. For as soon as I noticed the space problem, it dawned on me that several pairs of underwear had fallen out of rotation entirely. I do laundry quite a bit, meaning that comfortable and flattering undies might get worn once a week as the older, coarser, ill-fitting, and garish options awaited their turn in vain.
All told, I have 25 pairs (10 boxer-briefs, 15 boxers). Enough in theory for three weeks, even though I do about six loads of laundry in that same span of time. To determine how average my stockpile was, I did some web research. The people giving advice about this tend to agree that at least 20 pairs strikes the ideal balance between cost, convenience, and storage. Going by these estimates, I’d be more than justified in tossing four or five of my least-favorite boxers, and given my overzealous washing cycle, it shouldn’t be an issue at all. I knew, however, that the answer couldn’t be this simple, so I organized a couple of very unscientific social media polls to see what my friends and followers thought. As with many private questions posed to a public group this way, the responses revealed a staggering range of quirks and behaviors.
To begin with, I really shorted the idea of underwear hoarders. In my head, more than 30 pairs was absurd, but a solid contingent reported owning 40. I read about a guy who has 60 (divided by thirds into plain white boxer-briefs, “sexy” colored types, and Under Armour workout shorts) because he’d been in an accident and afterward humiliated in the hospital when they removed his jeans to expose racecar-patterned underwear he’d had since he was a kid. For some, this is a shameless laundry-avoidance technique; others just like the security of having extra undies on hand at any time. In either case, this style of underwear collection values the peace of mind that comes with a virtually unlimited supply. “‘Infinity’ would be the optimal amount,” as my friend Brad put it.
It would be irresponsible not to mention the gender factor in this. Not only are women pressured and conditioned to buy a wider variety of specialized underwear than men — be it lingerie or simply the hot new fashions — they also maintain a stash of what my friend Emma calls “period underwear.” These are, she says, “a woman’s oldest, crappiest, comfiest, best-shaped-for-the-contours-of-a-pad underwear.” They are more likely to bear permanent stains, and they aren’t, ideally, shown to an intimate partner. For that reason, Emma has roughly 40 pairs total, but other women claimed upwards of 100 pairs. No man confessed to owning nearly that many, although my friend Robert assured me that gay culture ensures a healthy diversification as well.
Then again, some women make do with far less. Lisa Marie, who usually goes commando, estimates “15ish” pairs. Laura is basically content with 12, “but I do laundry about once a week and discard all of them once a year. I wish I had less fancy and more comfy undies for sure and will avoid extra nice pairs unless totally necessary.” And men can be downright minimalist: Joey says 10–15 is plenty, while my colleague C. Brian Smith loves his My Pakage underwear so much he handwashes it every other day, completely ignoring the other 9 pairs he has in reserve. Sam just doesn’t wear underwear, full stop: “Always seemed redundant and never looked or felt right with skinny jeans.” And to think I once believed a week’s worth was barely enough.
Is there no “correct” amount of underwear, then? Mileage certainly varies. Nonetheless, slightly more than half of my Twitter voters indicated that they possess 15 pairs or fewer — which assured me that I wasn’t crazy for getting overwhelmed by my 25. (One acquaintance did chide me to check my “depression privilege,” which is to say the mental health to face laundry day before pairs 15–25, and he was right to do it.) But even those sitting on 30 pairs or more acknowledge that some rarely see action, so it really does come down to a state of mind and a sense of preparedness. A few of us love to play it risky; others would able to flee the country and not run out of clean underwear for the next three months. What’s important is to figure out who you are and how much underwear you need. Personally, I’m coming around to the idea of wearing different undies every single day for a year. I’m just gonna need a bigger laundry hamper.