When I see a man out in the world going about his day wearing a (correctly fitting) plain white T-shirt, I offer a quick nod of support. After all, here is a man who doesn't need to wear anything more eye-catching up top than the simplest garment there is. Here is a man who understands how clothes should fit, and yet doesn't need to draw a lot of attention to himself by advertising his affections for some band, a funny logo, an interesting film. This guy is his own guy.
Here, after all, is a man who is decidedly not wearing a super tight/sheer, look-at-my-pecs T-shirt. Nor is he wearing a hideous beefy tee that destroys all possibility of being even kinda sexy. Wearing the (correctly fitting) plain white T-shirt is the Goldilocks of male attire. Not too hot, not too cold. Right down the middle. Maybe sort of working that from-the-1940s angle. And as such, it's super appealing.
Of course, I see the oddity in finding this nonchalant, middling effort appealing (even though it's my favorite thing my husband wears). The white T-shirt is kind of the most generic thing around. An undershirt. Anti-fashion. A thing sold in packs by the dozen for cheaper than many women spend on one pair of good underwear (though certainly available at luxury levels).
Perhaps the only thing more generic than just wearing the (correctly fitting) plain white T-shirt is wearing the (correctly fitting) plain white T-shirt with (correctly fitting) dark denim. This is the uniform of youth in the '50s, and happens to still be the greatest thing in the world to this day, for just about anyone at any age.
But it's the (correctly fitting) plain white T-shirt that really dabbles with greatness. For one thing, happy birthday, you! The plain white T-shirt turned 100 on June 15. Or at least, we know that the Navy first ordered up undershirts for its men in 1913.
Apparently, F. Scott Fitzgerald was the first person to use the term in print, say fashion historians, which is kind of, er, fitting. Get it: He was a dreamy writer and I'm arguing that plain white T-shirts are dreamy?
ANYWAY. Later, the idea jumped over to the Marines and WW2 pilots, but somewhere in there in the decades between the wars, fashion was becoming more informal, sportswear surged in popularity and things like the polo shirt were taking hold. Says the LA Times piece linked above on the shirt's anniversary:
In 1938, Sears sold what it called a "gob"-style tee (slang for Navy seaman) for 24 cents each. The ad proclaimed: "It's an undershirt. It's an overshirt." In '42, one of the earliest printed T-shirts — Air Force Gunnery School, worn by a strapping student — made the cover of Life magazine. During World War II, Army soldiers so liked their own T-shirts that they opted to wear them instead of the Army-issued tank-style undershirt, according to the 90th Infantry Division Preservation Group.
Color me gobsmacked.
But this military association is key, because as such, the plain white T-shirt still carries with it the simplicity and utilitarianism of working-class wear but with that hint of something more. It is unassuming, no-frills, all function, much like its good friend denim whose origins began in the coal mines.
It used to be called the skivvy shirt, and I have to wonder if it seemed shocking at the time to convert something considered disposable underwear to outerwear the same way pajamas as fashion alarms "decent folk."
But when the (correctly fitting) plain white T-shirt leapt onscreen with Marlon Brando, well, I don’t have to tell you why that was good. And then it spread to James Dean, and we all understand intuitively that that was good, too. I doubt there was so much as a thread of possibility that it would ever be stuffed back into the underwear drawer, and it has continued to be associated with a certain kind of iconic, if rebellious or troubled, image of a man ever since (including its incorporation into hip-hop fashion).
Of course, the thing doesn't hold up for shit, it shows stains like you wouldn't believe, and most are in tatters after a few months even. Not that these are arguments against it. A certain worn-in look but not dissolved is preferable (again, Goldilocks).
But the simplicity and the surprising beauty of the (correctly fitting) plain white T-shirt, and all uniform-like clothing, is that it renders the wearer more visible and more iconic by virtue of taking all the attention off what you're actually wearing. It's a blank canvas, but a canvas that happens to scream simple, iconic beauty. (And that's true for men or women wearing it.)
When you are only wearing a (correctly fitting) plain white T-shirt up top, you may as well be wearing nothing, only with all the armor of wearing something. Somehow, like Brando's acting brilliance, it both conceals and reveals, proffering toughness and vulnerability all at once.
So it's no surprise that a new study found that men wearing plain white T-shirts are considered 12% more attractive in a recent study. And get this, dudes who were already good looking only got a slight bump in hotness levels by putting on a white T-shirt. It was actually less attractive men who saw the biggest jump in appeal (take note, Normies).
Putting a large black letter "T" on the shirt helped up the hotness factor, not because it stands for TESTOSTERONE, but because it highlighted the shoulders and de-emphasized the gut, which was probably why it aided the less than fit men in the study so much more.
Science says it's because the shirt can "create an illusion that broadens the shoulders and slims the waist, producing a more V-shaped body, which is a top sign of masculinity."
But I say it's all more abstract: A man in a (correctly fitting) plain white T-shirt, by virtue of rendering the canvas of his attire so ambiguous, offers maximum room for projection into the origins of his mystique. He could be a lot of things: He could be into rockabilly or other retro trends. He could be cheap. He could be broke. He could be unimaginative. Or he could be some excitingly aloof but sorta troubled man — your Brando. You know, if you're into that sort of thing.