The White T-Shirt

A History of The White T-Shirt

As per Ape’s Ten Commandments of Menswear – simple wins. And it doesn’t get more simple or versatile than the white t-shirt. Originally deemed underwear as part of an all-in-one undergarment, the white t-shirt separated itself at the end of the nineteenth century when two-piece underwear became popular. Nevertheless, it was around the time of World War I in 1913 when the white t-shirt truly came into its own. Issued as an undergarment for British and American naval personnel, it kept sailors’ arms free for deck work aboard their ships – and was worn alone to avoid soiling their uniforms. In the Navy it became known as a “Gob Shirt”.

Major Breakthroughs

The next major breakthroughs for the white t-shirt breezed in during the early twentieth century. With British brand Sunspel (Thomas A. Hill and Co. back then) introducing the white t-shirt as a lightweight cotton essential for warmer climates. Meanwhile across the Atlantic Ocean, Fruit of the Loom and Hanes were manufacturing their own versions of the white t-shirt. All still as underwear mind. The white t-shirt was also being used as an undergarment that would absorb sweat and prevent shoulder pads of American football players from causing chafing.

A Vintage 1959 Hanes Advert

A Certain Machismo

After World War II the white t-shirt became a stand alone piece. Deemed acceptable as an ‘outerwear’ garment, worn in place of a casual buttoned shirt. It’s military heritage bought with it a certain amount of machismo, another reason for the white t-shirts’ popularity. However, it’s the basic white t-shirts’ simple design, versatility and blank-page quality that resonates. It can denote a hard-working-class status, symbolise rebellion, athleticism and sexiness all in one unique go.

Why White?

Originally, white was an inexpensive option for the British and American navies. It required no dyeing. And dirt and stains were impossible to hide too, which encouraged discipline with seamen battling heat in tropical climates and aforementioned uniform soiling dirty jobs. There was of course the introduction of logo emblazoned white t-shirts, and t-shirts in every colour you can imagine. However, the clean, basic and historic constitution of the white t-shirt make it the long-standing, all-conquering hero. A theory cemented by movie legends, and icons of style and sex-appeal; Marlon Brando and James Dean.

Crew or V-Neck

The ‘James Dean-style’ crew neck is still the most timeless style available. The classic. So for us, it’s a no brainer – wear the crew neck every time. There’s an argument for a v-neck or scoop neck (lower neckline) suiting men with either a slim or overly muscular frame. However, we say opt for a crew neck t-shirt all the way. Characterised by a round neckline and no collar.

James Dean ‘owning’ the white t-shirt in the 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause

Fit and Material

Material is easy, choose 100% cotton every time. Colour we’ve addressed, opt for white. Fit is less concrete however. Too baggy, excessively wide sleeves or conversely, too tight – can all look unkempt.

Sleeves should land halfway between your shoulder and elbow. With the shoulder seam (where the body attaches to the sleeve) falling where your shoulder ends and drops off down your arm. Choose a slim or tapered fit if you’re body confident. Never skinny-fit or longline. If you’re carrying a little Christmas weight then choose a classic fit.

The white t-shirt should sit at the top of your hips, no longer or shorter. And remember, above all else – it should be comfortable for you to wear.

Three of The Best


The Men’s Classic Cotton T-Shirt in White from Sunspel is some what of a legend in its own right. Given Sunspel’s pivotal role in the birth of this universal wardrobe staple, it would be remiss not to include it. Not only for its heritage but its construction quality earns it a place in our top three. Made in England using long-staple cotton it boasts unparalleled softness, lightness and comfort. Sunspel’s crew neck has a classic fit and only the most essential of details. It’s figure-flattering, not boxy and is a delight to wear.

£65 from SUNSPEL

Mr P.

You just know that when it came to developing MR PORTER’s signature Mr P. tee, they pulled out all the stops. And they did. Their Cotton-Jersey T-Shirt feels as comfortable as it looks. Cut from lightweight cotton-jersey that has been treated with a silicone wash makes for exceptional softness. Designed with a regular but well fitting cut.

£55 from MR PORTER


For the price, Uniqlo often can’t be matched. And their 100% Supima cotton T-shirt is no exception. It’s superfine but thick enough to wear on its own or for layering. And luxurious jersey provides a smooth feel, natural brightness and powder white colour. It boasts a smooth silhouette from the chest down to the waist, with sleek shoulders and armholes. While a narrower seam fold and stitching ensure a more delicate, flattering neckline.

£9.90 from UNIQLO

How to Wear The White T-Shirt

The white t-shirt can be worn anywhere, from a tenement in New Orleans (Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire) to the red carpet. Wear it with a suit and sneakers to ‘cool-up’ a smart casual ensemble or our preference, keep is simple. Team with blue or black jeans and beige or white sneakers. Add a casual bomber jacket on cooler days.

Alex Mill Loopback Cotton-Jersey Bomber Jacket in Navy, £200 >

ARKET Slim Rinsed Indigo Jeans, £59 >

C.QP Racquet Sneakers in White, £240 >


The truth is, any brand worth its salt will ensure its version of the white t-shirt is impressive. It’s an essential, a basic which must be gotten right. Whilst taking all of the above into account, remember that fit trumps all.