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The White T-Shirt Makeover
s the first few models walk down the runway at Jil Sander’s Spring/ Summer 2011 show, rows of jaded critics and editors suddenly sit up straight. All eyes are on the models, who are wearing plain white T-shirts paired with dramatic floor-length skirts. The white T-shirt has arrived. Vogue US praises designer Raf Simons for using the most basic of tops to downplay the preciousness of eveningwear. The plain white T-shirt also anchors Simons’ liberal use of bright sherbet colours, making his collection “sophisticated, not garish”. Suddenly, it is chic to mix high fashion with the plain white T-shirt. Simons’ collection makes its way to Tinseltown, where actress Kate Bosworth sports a crisp white T-shirt and mint green skirt at the Hollywood Style Awards. On the red carpet – where elaborate dresses dominate – Bosworth stands out in her minimalist look, showing that a plain white T-shirt can make the same impact as a ravishing gown. The allure of the plain white T-shirt has been around long before Simons popularised it. In the film Rebel Without a Cause (1955), James Dean exuded masculine charm in his plain white T-shirt and leather jacket, sending young men scrambling to copy his cool nonchalant style. The plain white T-shirt, originally an undergarment, became a symbol for rebellious youth of the 1950s who rejected old-fashioned values by wearing their innerwear on the outside. In the 1970s, actress Jane Birkin gave the punkish white T-shirt a bohemian spin by pairing it with bellbottoms and a straw basket as an accessory. Despite their different styles, Dean and Birkin used the plain white T-shirt to convey the values and fashion trends of their time. People might take for granted the plain white T-shirt as the most fundamental of wardrobe basics. But the simplicity of the plain white T-shirt means it can be transformed into anything, even art. Ritchie Chan, director of 27
Actress Kate Bosworth, in Jil Sander at the Hollywood Style Awards.
PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
James Dean in ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ (1955).
PHOTO: THE T-SHIRT BOOK
creative studio Triple Major, is the brainchild behind Project White T-Shirt, an art exhibition. He says: “The project aims to redefine the plain white T-shirt as we know it.” The plain white T-shirt becomes more than just clothing for the human body. Swedish label Doktor Doktor sticks 2,000 marshmallows on a white T-shirt, a concept that Mr Chan says is interesting “because the designers try to connect food and fashion to construct something appealing”. Another designer, Anntein, creates a white T-shirt for horses to wear. By encouraging innovation, Mr Chan’s project shows how it is possible to revamp the plain white T-shirt to suit any purpose. As a blank canvas, the plain white T-shirt also highlights the wearer’s
physique instead of stealing attention away from it. A bare-chested young Tom Cruise sealed his status as a teenage heartthrob in Top Gun (1986), when he shrugged on a crisp white T-shirt and a bomber jacket after a testosterone-driven volleyball match. “There is an underlying sexuality about the colour white,” says Gerald Tan, a stylist at Style: Men magazine. The plain white T-shirt showcases the raw masculinity of men like Cruise. “Sexy to me is showing more with less, and the simplicity of the plain white T-shirt achieves that,” he adds. Despite being basic, the plain white T-shirt can be dressed up or down depending on the wearer’s mood and the occasion. In Singapore where the weather is humid and the dress code casual, fashionistas look to the plain white T-shirt for a dose of casual chic. By adding designer jackets and
accessories, they turn the white T-shirt into a statement of relaxed glamour. “I would wear the white T-shirt under a luxurious cardigan or sweater, and have it peeking out from the collar,” says Mr Tan. Alwin Oh, a fashion photographer, wears a white T-shirt to parties in keeping with his low-key dressing style. “I match it with blue jeans and a nice blazer,” he says. “It is an understated classic look, and shows I don’t have to be flashy to look good.” Meanwhile, there are local fashionistas who make the plain white T-shirt their signature look. Aaron Tan, a writer at Men’s Folio magazine, recalls wearing a white T-shirt, shorts and loafers every day as a student in Perth. “My friends complimented me for looking laid-back yet stylish,” he says. Toety Liang, a stylist at L’Officiel magazine, often wears an Alexander Wang plain white T-shirt with jeans. She says her friends tease her for looking sloppy. “Most people don’t see it as a put-together outfit at all,” says Ms Liang. “I actually do give thought to what I wear, from the buying to the wearing process.” Because it can be casual or formal, a plain white T-shirt is ideal for a first date, says Aaron Tan. “I would rather wear a plain white T-shirt than a shirt and blazer, so I don’t look overexcited,” he says. “But I pair it with smart black jeans so the girl won’t think I’m apathetic.” Similarly, Mr Oh says his go-to outfit for impressing a girl is a plain white T-shirt and blue jeans. “My girlfriend finds it effortlessly attractive.” Why does the fash crowd love the plain white T-shirt? Christopher John Fussner, designer of local menswear label Sifr, thinks it is because a plain white T-shirt “doesn’t move with trends and is evergreen”. Ms Liang agrees, saying that the plain white T-shirt can easily be reinvented just by cutting its hem or pinning on brooches. While the plain white T-shirt goes with just about anything, it can also
be a faux pas. Ms Liang reckons it is unsightly when women wear colourful bras underneath their white T-shirts. “The focus should be on the white T-shirt, so it is important to get a good flesh-coloured bra that doesn’t show up,” she says. To Mr Oh, plain white T-shirts that are too tight are also unattractive. “It is all about subtlety,” he says. Ms Liang disagrees with the common belief that wearing white adds bulk, while black slims down the figure. “If I am wearing black and I stand against a white background, the contrast will still make me look bigger,” she says. “But when I wear white, I blend in with a bright background.” Though the plain white T-shirt is beloved for its versatility, image consultant Elaine Heng says stark white is not as universally flattering as most people like to think. “It is more suitable for cool skin tones, rather than warm skin tones,” she says. People with cool skin tones have blue veins showing on their arms, while those with warm skin tone have greenish veins. For folks who want to wear white, Ms Heng says hair colour determines which shade of white to choose. “People with black hair look better in pure white, and those with lighter hair colours look better in off-white,” she says.
The simplicity of the plain white T-shirt means it can be transformed into anything, even art.
As the plain white T-shirt becomes acceptable for formal occasions, Gerald Tan says there is a risk of looking underdressed with a poorly planned outfit. “If you want to flout the rules by wearing a plain white T-shirt, have something else in your outfit like a fancy necklace that makes up for it,” he says. “Either that, or you have to be really cool to pull it off.”
Why paying $130 for a basic T-shirt is justifiable – or not
Fashion designer Alexander Wang’s luxury T-shirts are coveted globally despite their high price tags.
PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
t fashion designer Alexander Wang’s boutique in Hilton Hotel, the star is a rack of white T-shirts illuminated by bright lamps. Each hanger is spaced equally by a meticulous hand. You can almost feel the intensity of the sales assistant who had gone through the rack earlier. Why so serious? Flip over the price tag (stiff, good-quality cardboard) and the answer is clear. At $130 a pop, these T-shirts are serious business. Thanks to them, Wang’s five-year-old label catapults into the fashion stratosphere, with the fash crowd coveting his designs. Wang also owes his success to his die-hard fans – dubbed ‘Wang’s Gang’ – who will shell out $130 and above for his T-shirts. Toety Liang, 33, a fashion magazine stylist, says: “I like it so much, I compromise and spend less on other things just so I can have his white T-shirts.” The plethora of white T-shirts at every price divides shoppers into two camps. There are customers like Liang, who owns five of the same T-shirt ($150 apiece) from Belgian label Maison Martin Margiela. But pragmatists shake their heads at such extravagance, insisting there is little need to fork out so much for clothing that will die a natural death within a year. As a stylist, Ms Liang moves in an industry which promotes ostentatious spending. She goes to parties, where fashionistas “style-check” each other to note who wears what. A white T-shirt from Uniqlo is cheap and chic, while a Christian Dior one automatically gets more “oohs” and “aahs” over it. For the fash crowd, brand matters. Considering that the white T-shirt started life as an undershirt, what Wang’s customers are paying for is essentially, well, underwear. “The rationale for buying Alexander Wang is that he stripped down everything to the basics and took care of the quality, the cut, and every seam,” says Rana Wehbe-Flinter, 29, a style consultant. “It is hard to strip down basics even more. That is the strength of Wang’s
brand,” she adds. “For anybody to redo what he’s done, it is obviously plagiarism.” In a New York Times review, fashion critic Cintra Wilson is quick to disarm sceptics by admitting that people who buy an US$89 Alexander Wang T-shirt ought to be pelted to death with US$18 stainless steel water bottles. But Ms Wilson herself is an ardent fan of Mr Wang’s T-shirts. She loves their “narcotic” softness, claiming their prices cannot be compared to ordinary T-shirts. “An US$89 T-shirt that you love beyond reason is easily worth five sensible shirts in the US$18 range,” she says. Quality is one reason why customers shell out more for branded white T-shirts. Wang’s are made from 100% rayon, a fibre which imitates the feel of silk and linen and slips over the head like a dream. Quality counts. Ms Wilson praises the design merits of Wang’s T-shirts, such as a not-tooclose hug of the torso and a nottoo-low scoop of the neck. “It’s not a T-shirt, it’s a zone I’ll always feel passionately kissed in,” she says. Buying designer white T-shirts is also about self-worth, says Chris Lee of design agency The Asylum. When people make more money, they can afford to pamper themselves. But it is not about showing off designer logos. “Since it is just a plain white T-shirt, a bystander cannot discern the difference,” says Lee. “But I hope the wearer can.” Then there are those who are unfazed by designer prices. Laurens van Riel, 23, a Dutch student, says he owns six to seven white T-shirts, mostly from Calvin Klein. “I do not think they are too expensive,” he says. However, photographer Alwin Oh, 33, balks at paying more for branded white T-shirts. As his T-shirts wear out every three to six months, replacing designer T-shirts will be too expensive. To Ms Wehbe-Flinter, a white T-shirt is a “disposable item” and not worth splurging on. “A high-street T-shirt is the cheapest and most basic. You can 33
At $130 a pop, these T-shirts are serious business.
buy and wear it for one season, and the next season buy a new T-shirt which is the same, or slightly different,” she says. Jonathan Ang, 21, a student, reasons that there is no point in spending a lot of money on something so simple. “I wouldn’t pay more than $35 for a white T-shirt, unless I really like it and it means something special to me like there’s a print on it,” he says. To jazz up a cheap white T-shirt, Mr Ang piles on accessories like a tiny toy soldier brooch. Though the brooch is a small touch, Ang takes pride in his attention to detail. While known for their affordable clothes, high-street giants such as Uniqlo and H&M are churning out covetable designer capsule collections with Jil Sander and Marni that send even frugal shoppers snapping up the goodies. Aaron Kok, 24, a national serviceman, is wearing a white T-shirt with a smattering of printed squares across
the chest. He forked out $50 for it, more than his usual budget of $30 per T-shirt because it was from Topshop’s collaboration with Jonathan Saunders. “I think it is justified to spend on designer collaborations, because I pay more for their exclusivity,” Mr Kok says. For odd-job labourer Zheng Eng Chew, 60, white T-shirts are his staple simply because they suit his modest budget, being devoid of any prints or frills that add to manufacturing costs. “A plain white T-shirt is cheaper than a shirt, so I can afford to buy it in bulk,” he says. While Ms Liang loves collecting Alexander Wang’s T-shirts, she admits to feeling guilty for splurging so much on branded basics. By buying duplicates of a T-shirt she wears every day, Ms Liang says she can avoid her friends and family finding out how much she has spent. “They will scold me for spending $100 on a T-shirt. If I wear the same T-shirt, no one will know I’m a spendthrift.”
A T-SHIRT FOR EVERY BUDGET
Swan T-shirt Price: S$5.50 Where to Buy: Yue Hwa Emporium at Chinatown Material: 100% cotton What You Get: A basic white T-shirt, stiff with starch when brand new. After washing numerous times, the cotton softens and moulds comfortably to the body. Swan T-shirts are designed only for men, and have a boxy cutting. The T-shirts only come in white, and typically go out of shape after three to four washes.
J Crew Vintage Cotton Tee Price: S$54.19 Where to Buy: J Crew online store Material: 100% cotton What You Get: This T-shirt was produced after a J Crew designer sought to replicate a beloved vintage T-shirt he wore to bits. Slouchy, with a deliberate livedin softness, J Crew’s white T-shirt provides instant comfort that doesn’t require the wearer to break in his new purchase. It also comes in 11 other colours, and retains its shape after about six months of weekly washing.
Alexander Wang Classic Muscle Jersey Tee Price: S$130 Where to Buy: Alexander Wang boutique at Hilton Hotel Material: 100% rayon What You Get: A slinky T-shirt that skims the body. The fabric is cool to the touch, indicating its high quality. The T-shirt is designed to hang loosely on the wearer’s frame while showing off her curves, and for layering under other clothing. The T-shirt also comes in black and grey, and withstands weekly washing for a year.