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Gluttony on a Budget: The White Tee Makes a Comeback | The Nation

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Gluttony on a Budget: The White Tee Makes a Comeback

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Anika Brown

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May 14, 2008

What happened to style?

As I became reacquainted with my hometown, Vallejo, California, after living in San Francisco for two years, this question ran repeatedly through my head. What happened to dressing with authority, individuality and flair? Even animals, with their rainbow-colored plumes and unique scents, make an effort to stand out from the pack. So what's up with this homogenous clothing trend and its diminished individuality?

Passing yet another sea of billowing white T-shirts and baggy jeans, it becomes obvious that young human males have officially tossed aside nature's rules. Lamenting their laziness and lack of couture creativity, I recently approached my older brother to find out the reasoning behind this uninspired phenomenon.

"What's going on?" I asked. "What's up with the whole white T-shirt thing? Every time I see you and your friends, you guys are wearing the same thing."

"It's just how we dress. You know, like the song, 'White T-Shirt, Blue Jeans, and Nikes,'" he said, quoting Oakland rapper Keak Da Sneak's popular song.

"And it's not the same thing every time you see me...I wear a new one every day," he added.

"You what?"

"I wear a new [white tee] almost every day. You can't really wear them more than once, twice at the most. They start to look dingy. You gotta stay fresh, crisp. The tees are only about $13, so it doesn't really matter."

Clothes Cross Boundaries

All of the members of the white tee fraternity I talked with shared this line of thinking, although only a few took it to my brother's level of wastefulness. These young men were from varied demographics, but shared some tastes and characteristics. They ranged in age from thirteen to thirty-one and represented many ethnicities: African, European and Filipino-Americans. While I didn't ask about their household incomes, judging by their cars, the guys' financial resources were also diverse. This physically disparate group was connected by a shared appreciation for comfortable, unfussy clothing and an admiration for hip-hop and urban culture.

"I don't even really wear G- Unit [clothing] and all that anymore," explained John, a high school senior, "These are so much easier. They're cheap, they match everything. I don't have to think about anything...Just throw on a white tee and a pair of jeans and go."

Ernest, 30, said, "It's how we do it in the V [a nickname for Vallejo]. We keep it gutter." (I tried not to roll my eyes at this one. I have a hard time associating my fellow suburbanites with the word "gutter.")

Chris, the youngest person I talked to, gave the simplest explanation for his T-shirt affinity, "I noticed my favorite rappers wearing them."

Looking at the kid, I wondered if he was partaking in a trend that probably predates his parents.

Same Sentiment, Different Decade

The white tee is the seminal piece of antifashion. It began life as an undershirt, meant to be hidden from the public and relegated to the lower class. In 1951, a smoldering performance by Marlon Brando in the film A Streetcar Named Desire elevated the drab garment to iconic status. James Dean, Elvis Presley, and others soon followed Brando's lead, cementing the plain white T-shirt's place as the official uniform of rebels and troublemakers.

Fifty years after Brando's Stanley Kowalski character made his big-screen debut, the tee has resurfaced on the backs of society's latest group of antagonists--rappers.

The current resurgence began as a backlash against hip-hop's flashy, label-hungry fashion aesthetic that gripped the music industry and fans in the late 1990s to the early 2000s. Since Run DMC's 1986 brand-endorsing anthem "My Adidas," conspicuous consumption and rap music have gone hand in hand. The late-90s' so-called "bling" era, though, brought the obsession to new heights. Pedestrian clothing labels and gold chains gave way to a competitive need for Gucci suits and chinchilla coats. Keeping up with the P. Diddys of the world eventually began to wear thin on both consumers' psyches and their wallets. Thus the emergence of fashion's most egalitarian element: the simple white T-shirt.

The white tee trend, like so many of hip-hop's popular styles, originated in poor, urban neighborhoods, among people furthest away from the genre's newfound "ghetto fabulousness." Soon, it trickled up to the stars who found that the shirt's bareness made their jewels stand out even more. And, as logo splattered tops yielded to blank canvases on red carpets and in music videos, love of the tee disseminated to the masses.

Recent headlines have noted the T-shirt revival, although not for its ingenious turn from cheap to chic. There is a sinister side to the current street cred allotted to the former undergarment that surpasses anything the pouty 1950s antiheroes could dish out.

Schools around the country have banned white tees from their campuses, citing an alleged connection with violence and local gangs. Police claim that criminals use their baggy clothes to hide guns, drugs, and stolen merchandise. Known as "urban camouflage" among law enforcement, the stigma attached to youths wearing the ubiquitous oversized tee and sagging jeans has lead to numerous false arrests.

Creating the Look

This is easily the most accessible trend around; anyone can jump on the bandwagon. While jeans and sneakers complete the look, the key component is a loose-fitting white T-shirt. You can find them at the drugstore, a department store--even your local gas station is likely to carry them. The price is right, too. Three dollars each, five for ten dollars; the most expensive shirt I found sold for thirteen dollars.

By its own definition, the plain white tee is exactly that--no graphics, patterns, or emblems allowed. Its simplicity makes distinctive traits almost impossible to catch with the untrained eye, but the ardent connoisseurs I interview filled me in on what to look for.

First, the tee must be bright white, what rappers like Keak Da Sneak call "coke white." High-quality brands dye their fabric with Ciba, a chemical known for its colorfastness. Thickness is also crucial as heavier cotton--ideally between 170 and 180 grams per square meter -- ensures that the garment keeps its shape. Lastly, size is another important characteristic. Regardless of height, heft, or age, no one seems to go near a shirt smaller than extra-large.

Size, however, goes beyond standard classifications; there are other variables to think about, namely length and neckline. The typical undershirt is around 33 inches long, but many young men prefer something a bit longer to hide their underwear (which has a tendency to show when you wear pants halfway down your backside). The neckline should be comparatively smaller than the rest of the shirt. Sporting a top bigger than your natural size might make you look like a tough guy, but wearing a boat neck or deep-V certainly will not.

As you can see, the preferences of this target market extend beyond what the standard undershirt has to offer. Thus, brand differentiation and loyalty does exist with the more innovative companies that have stepped in to cater to their audience's needs. Popular brands include Triple-A, Lux T, Galaxy, and Pro 5.

Scanning the Stores for Answers

I was surprised to find that the majority of the people I interviewed buy their tees at Vallejo mom and pop businesses rather than major retailers like Target or Marshall's. Price and assortment were the main reasons for eschewing the big guys, but a few interviewees stated that the smaller stores' atmosphere was more enjoyable.

Merchandise and clientele were pretty much identical to one another at the smaller independent stores I checked out. The stores' stock included budget-priced men's street wear and inexpensive brand-name clothing knockoffs like Bathing Ape and Ed Hardy. Each had a small Rocawear and Sean John T-shirt selection, and all three had stacks of blank tees greeting you as you walk in.

"Oh yeah. Those are our number-one sellers," said Christine, manager of My Style. "Nothing else we carry comes even close. We go through a new shipment in about a week."

Ali, a sales associate at New Fashions, told me the same holds true for his store. "Without a doubt this is why people come in the store. Some customers come in every day to buy one of those blank T-shirts. Others buy ten at a time. I don't know why, but they can't seem to get enough."

"Sure, they buy their T-shirts here, but they don't buy much else," James, an associate at Cavallo, the third store I visited, informed me. "They'd rather go to the malls for everything else."

Glancing around the store I was a little confused. Cavallo and the other businesses clearly cater to a well-represented niche market. For a little more insight I decided to head back to My Style, where Christine had shown genuine interest in my assignment.

"No, the guy you talked to is absolutely right. The shirts, for all their popularity, have really made it hard on business. The profit we make off of a $5 or $13 item isn't enough to keep the doors open. And our customers aren't interested in our other products."

And why should they be? For this target market, a plain white tee has the same style cache as a $30 brand-name shirt--except that the white T-shirt matches everything and is a third of the price.

This fact has the fashion police almost as skittish about the tee trend as the real boys in blue. Hip-hop has transformed, contributed to, and uplifted the fashion industry as much as it has impacted music. Hip-hop heads are notorious label hounds, adding exposure and clout to posh designers and new upstarts alike. The logo-less wonder has become a threat to the fat cats that have benefited from the affluenza plaguing the genre. The genius and addictiveness of the decidedly boring wardrobe staple lies in its inexpensiveness. Almost everyone can afford to wear it once, throw it away, and get a new one. It is gluttony on a budget.

For this reason, employees at all three stores were pessimistic about the T-shirt losing its appeal anytime soon. I, for one, see hope. I polled my female friends and, there was a consensus that us girls are officially over this bland, pervasive look. We want and need something new. Inevitably, where the girls go, the boys eventually follow.

Anika Brown, 22, is a Fashion Merchandise major in San Francisco. Her interests include turning a critical eye to pop culture and looking at the deeper effects things like music, fashion, and the media have on our lives. When not writing or doing homework, Anika designs T-shirts for her website Ananse.

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