The story of the white T-shirt
An essential. A design classic. A perennial. The white T-shirt is an undisputed every-item. But how did it become an icon of style? And what does it mean now? Author Lauren Cochrane finds out.
‘The white T-shirt is an ever-present item, worn by millions of different people each day, each in their own way.’
An essential. A design classic. A perennial. The white T-shirt is an undisputed every-item. But how did it become an icon of style? And what does it mean now? I wanted to find out – along with jeans, trench coats and hoodies, the white T-shirt is the focus of one of the chapters in my new book, The Ten, which deep dives into the history of classic items. From its beginnings as underwear to the uniform of teenage rebels and a billboard for slogans, here’s the story of the white T-shirt.
If, these days, a crisp white T-shirt is the height of style, its first ‘ancestor’ wasn’t seen at all. T-shaped garments were underwear in the medieval era, simple practical garments worn under more ornate and public-facing clothing. T-shirts as we know them first appeared in the Victorian era and were worn only by men. White T-shirts were part of a uniform for those in the armed forces and adopted by sportsmen at Ivy League colleges in the US. It was these associations – of heroes and of athletes – that, in the late forties, helped the T-shirt transform from something hidden to an item to show off.
COMING OUT INTO THE WORLD
The white T-shirt had several factors on its side when it first became truly fashionable in the 1950s: it was relatively affordable, it was worn by Marlon Brando and James Dean, and the establishment’s association of the T-shirt with underwear meant it came with a satisfying scent of scandal. This proved the holy trinity to the decade’s new cohort, the teenager. Young men had a capsule wardrobe of white T-shirts, blue jeans and biker jackets, and enjoyed a soundtrack of rock'n'roll.
It was in the next decade, the 1960s, when women began to wear white T-shirts too. This was down to a general relaxation of dress codes, but it was also Jean Seberg’s expert modelling of gamine chic, wearing a white T-shirt and black trousers in the influential 1960 movie, ‘A Bout de Souffle’. An association with effortless elegance continued in the following decades – see Jane Birkin in the South of France in the seventies and Diana Ross, stripped of makeup, in a white T-shirt on the cover of her ‘Diana’ album in 1980.
By this point, white T-shirts were established as a place for literal statements too – enter the slogan T-shirt. Katharine Hamnett used hers to protest nuclear power on a visit to Downing Street in 1984, while the smiley face covered ravers’ T-shirts in 1988’s Second Summer of Love. But whether you wanted to stand out or blend in, the white T-shirt’s versatility meant it was becoming what we recognise today – an ever-present item, worn by millions of different people each day, each in their own way.
‘From Jane Birkin to Diana Ross stripped of makeup, in a white T-shirt, on the cover of her ‘Diana’ album, the tee is synonymous with effortless elegance.’
WHAT THE T-SHIRT MEANS NOW
These days, the white T-shirt is seen as a design classic. As such, it has been part of recent style movements – that of normcore, but also of minimalism – while maintaining its timeless appeal. It’s become the site of activism – with the return of the slogan T-shirt – but, as a cotton item popular around the world, it is also at the centre of the debate around sustainability and production methods. Brands like COS, who create their signature white T-shirts from organic cotton, are leading the change. These are the kind of designs that prove we might take these T-shirts for granted, but – in fact – good ones last. What was once underwear all those years ago, has become the foundation of our wardrobes now, and forever.
Words by Lauren Cochrane
The Ten: The Stories behind the Fashion Classics by Lauren Cochrane is published by Welbeck on Thursday 29th April 2021.
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