I enjoy, as a genre, any interview that accompanies the launch of a new clothing line – it is an admirable world of aggrandised nonsense. Take super-stylist Karla Welch, who has just collaborated on a collection with Justin Bieber.
This new range? Seven plain white T-shirts. In fact, supermarket-bought T-shirts “reimagined” (cut up and put back together) to best suit the star’s taste. And pray, what’s wrong with a normal white T-shirt? According to Bieber, the T-shirt he wanted “literally didn’t exist in the marketplace”.
Now I love a tee more than the next person, and arguably more than Bieber. My favourite is from Cos. Soft, firm, it hangs beautifully, and unlike thinner tees, your man boobs and beer belly don’t poke through. In fact through some dark magic they somehow make you look skinnier. And at £12 a pop, you can’t go too wrong. But the idea that a T-shirt could, to paraphrase Bieber, “push boundaries”? Maybe my commitment to Cos was stopping me from charting new territory.
This might all sound a little overblown, but this item is fairly fundamental to a man’s wardrobe: “I guess because it’s versatile, anyone can wear a white T-shirt and not be judged,” says Elgar Johnson, the fashion director at GQ Style.
There is no such thing as a plain white T-shirt. Tiny, almost imperceptible differences between them can be life-changing. It’s also the last of the great men’s staples. So many of the sacred cows of trendy menswear have been slaughtered in recent years: skinny jeans, beanie hats, bright macs, bomber jackets, hi-top trainers – all unavoidable a few years ago, now tacky and uncool. Yet the white T-shirt prevails.
They work because while white is a statement colour – if you went to a party wearing a bright white outfit, you are basically saying: “Look at me, I have arrived and I am very good at not spilling drinks on myself.” – a plain T-shirt is a deeply innocuous piece of clothing. So it lets you be both nonchalant and exceptional: the perfect crime.
To realise its power, simply think of its sworn enemy, the navy T-shirt. Imagine a man in a navy T-shirt and navy jeans: his favourite band is Kings of Leon; he hasn’t told his wife he loves her in six months; he has given up on life. You try to know more about him but you cannot, because he is already fading from view, disappearing into his own stock photo existence.
By contrast, the white T-shirt is essential not just for the summer hipster, but suits the tattooed punk, the dad that dates, the stylish hip-hop head: it is the very pinnacle of versatility, available on every high street. It is also democratic. “They look good on men and women, pop stars, royalty and builders – whoever,” says Elgar Johnson.
With that versatility and flexibility in mind, I went in search of the perfect white tee, trying a different one each day of the week.
I start my week with a Sunspel short-sleeved crew neck in white. Sunspel is an upmarket brand with a heritage, the sort of place people go to treat themselves to a pair of expensive boxers when they get a promotion. A few friends tell me their T-shirts are the best out there. At £65 a go, they really should be. The top is unbelievably soft and I feel richer as soon as I put it on. It definitely would be perfect with an overshirt or suit jacket, but it feels too much like a posh undershirt to wear on its own.The quality of the Sunspel is all the more noticeable when I try the offering from Arket, a kind of upmarket knicknacks and basics store from the people behind H&M, which has just launched in London. Their tee is thin and scratchy, and see-through, so every hair on my chest is visible. It is so uncomfortable I have to take it off after five minutes and go back to a Cos classic.
On Wednesday, I go by the maxim that anyone who only sells one thing must be bloody good at it, and opt for online specialists The White T-shirt Company. In Bieberesque fashion, it claims to have “started with a simple goal – to design and make the perfect white T-shirt. A wardrobe classic made without compromise to quality, style or ethics.” It’s a soft, thick shirt that hangs nicely, but the look is a bit too basic, like a 1970s gym kit.
I give David Gandy’s M&S white tee a go next. It is the least flattering of the bunch, a sort of half-hearted V-neck, with a hospital-gown fit. But its softness almost makes me cry. This is the perfect bed shirt, as long no one can see you.
There is not an outfit that doesn’t work with a white tee: suits, jackets, pyjamas … But the classic is just on its own, with blue or black jeans, harking back to the man that made them so popular: James Dean. His simple, untailored white T-shirt worn in Rebel Without a Cause led to soaring sales in the US, particularly at JC Penney, where it was rumoured Dean’s T-shirt came from.
The winner in my test comes at the end of the week from Swedish basics online store Asket. Unlike the other tees, they have offerings in five sizes and three lengths. I opt for the large-long tee and it’s perfect: thicker than the others but still quite soft, with that right James Dean-y look that means you can wear it on its own.
Supermarket and discount T-shirts still remain some of the best available; the Bieber shirts are going to be XL Hanes T-shirts taken apart and stitched back together to make them longer – you can buy a seven-pack of them for about a tenner. I have a bunch of the Hanes ones at home and I can see the appeal: the cotton feels workmanlike, almost industrial. But it is a good thing they are cheap, as you get through them quicker than dishcloths – it takes just a drip of moussaka or a wash warmer than a baby’s bath water and they’re ruined for ever. Stains expand as they reach them, like oil on water.
If you are rolling your eyes at this point, I know, they are just bloody plain T-shirts. But let me just say that at the end of the week, I did a blind feel test with five new tees, a Cos classic and my long-suffering girlfriend. She correctly recognised every one straight away. When she got to the Arket one, she said “eugh!” and threw it across the room.
Besides, there is still a level above that I haven’t reached – the designer white tee. Kanye West made a white tee with APC that cost $120 (about £90); Rick Owens, the US furniture and clothes designer, has one out this season for £179. Really though, those shirts already fail, because a white T-shirt cannot be kept for life: imagine shelling $430 for a Gucci washed cotton tee (a real thing), only to dribble down juice from a lamb shish, ruining it for ever. That’s the thing about a white T-shirt, they are transient. If you’re as dribbly as me, you have to buy one a month, so you might as well get it right.