Just as an orchestra needs a conductor to make the various sounds cohesive, a wardrobe needs T-shirts to glue everything together. No matter what season we’re in, T-shirts play an integral role in our aesthetic, from simple undergarments to canvasses that beg to be looked at and admired.
In many ways, the humble tee hasn’t evolved a great deal from its early origins as a standard military under layer (the first manufactured T-shirt was invented some time between the Mexican-American War in 1898 and 1913, when the U.S. Navy began issuing them as standard undershirts).
It wasn’t until 1920, when F. Scott Fitzgerald used the term ‘T-shirt’ in his novel This Side of Paradise, that the world truly got to know the versatility of this simple but perfect garment. Then as now, the T-shirt remains the glue that helps us combine the many and various elements of our collective wardrobe, so we’ve shortlisted some of our favourite types that we believe no man should be without.
The (Perfect) White Tee
Immortalised by style icons Dean, Brando and McQueen in the golden age of Hollywood machismo, the white T-shirt is about the single most important item in a man’s wardrobe. What could be simpler than a crisp white canvas to offset the rest of your outfit?
It’s the archetypal symbol of unencumbered masculinity, and more versatile than any other single men’s garment. But are all white T-shirts created equally? That depends on the job you want them to serve – a cheap cotton stretch style might be OK as an under layer, but you would want to wear it beneath a slick navy blazer? Probably not.
To get the best from a white tee, look for relaxed silhouettes cut from heavyweight organic, Egyptian or Supima cotton, all of which feel luxurious and can be dressed up or down as you see fit.
The Printed T-Shirt
T-shirts have long been the canvas for statement prints and slogans. Nothing gets the message across like wearing it all over your torso, but we have the echo chambers of hell better known as Twitter for that these days.
Graphic prints, on the other hand, are a great way to inject bold tones and vibrant patterns into a casual streetwear look and hopefully won’t offend anyone. Geometric prints are some of the more versatile styles thanks to their uniformity, but don’t be afraid of breaking up monochrome outfits with a loud statement print.
The Knitted T-Shirt
The era of fast fashion commoditised the humble T-shirt into something cheap and not that cheerful, but the antidote to that throw-away-ism is the knitted tee.
A fine merino wool T-shirt is like manna from casualwear heaven. With a buttery-soft handle, natural drape and all of the oft-touted characteristics of wool – breathable, moisture-wicking, temperature regulating… – the knitted tee makes a fantastic edition to your wardrobe.
It has a textural quality that its more ubiquitous cotton cousin could ever wish for, making it a great option to wear with relaxed, unstructured tailoring.
The Striped T-Shirt
We’re not sure when the first striped T-shirt was pulled over a human torso, but a good guess would probably be around 1868, when the first Breton jerseys were being produced in Brittany for the French navy.
The Breton was supposedly worn by sailors so that they would be more easily spotted if they fell overboard, and the number of stripes is purportedly indicative of the number of battles won by Napoleon Bonaparte.
All we know for sure is that the simple geometry of horizontal lines on a tee instantly catches the eye and helps break up your outfit from a flat one-dimensional look into something altogether more vibrant and interesting.
The Pastel Tone Tee
What the white T-shirt did for unabashed masculinity, the pastel T-shirt did for a more modern approach to the male colour palette. Pink was once, after all, the traditional colour for baby boys, so it should come as no surprise that pastel tones are a muted yet sophisticated addition to a contemporary wardrobe.
While an egg shell blue suit might be too much for most guys, applied to a soft cotton T-shirt it becomes an expressive and versatile garment. Whatever your preference of colour, pastel tone tees add a soft vibrant element to a summer look that you can wear casually or use to dress down relaxed tailoring.
Designer logo tees are the proverbial menswear Marmite – you’re either a fan or a foe. There’s nothing wrong with buying into the brand equity of a label and wanting people to know about it (we’re all self-promoting creatures of one sort of another), but if you prefer an understated and more discerning approach to luxury then you’ll probably want to avoid them.
That being said, certain brands have in recent seasons produced some unique subversions of their own brand language, which is definitely a more interesting take on the genre that you should consider.
The Long-Sleeved T-Shirt
Long-sleeved tees are as old as the hills and have been through many different incarnations. From blue-collar uniform to Seattle grunge uniform, the easy simplicity of the long-sleeved T-shirt ensures its place in the annals of menswear.
With its roots firmly in the workwear tradition, it’s a great piece to layer under a chore jacket or cropped blouson, with the aforementioned Breton jersey being a great example.
Typically made from cotton and with a classic crew neck, it’s an essential garment to add a little ruggedness to your off-duty looks.
The Vintage T-Shirt
Since sustainability should be at the forefront of all of our minds, the vintage tee is a great way to personally impact fashion’s terrible landfill problem. You only need to visit a thrift store to see just how many pre-loved tees there are looking for a new home.
And while the quality of the cotton might not meet the modern organic bar, vintage tees lend your look an edgy authenticity that a brand-new T-shirt can’t compete with. Look for styles with old-school brand logos, rock bands and varsity tees for that rough-around-the-edges casual look.
The Black T-Shirt
Whereas the classic white tee provides a clean sharp canvas to offset the other pieces of your look, the black tee is the achromatic ace up your sleeve. If you’re a fan of the head-to-toe black look, then you can’t own enough of these T-shirts, especially if you like dressing down charcoal tailoring.
Make sure you prioritise good quality organic cotton styles in a midweight cloth as these tend to hold the dye better – a washed-out black tee will only serve to undermine your monochrome efforts.