It's simple. It's clean. It's part of everyone's wardrobe.
The ubiquitous white T-shirt sits in your drawer or hangs in your closet, and you reach for it like an old friend. It's comfortable, it's easy to wear, and you don't have to think twice when you put it on. It works with jeans. It works under a fancy suit. It works as the perfect billboard for your favorite charity or rock band. A no-brainer.
But Alice Harris, author and former fashion publicist, has thought a great deal about this wardrobe staple and shares her observations in "The White T" (HarperCollins, $45), a coffee-table volume with remarkable pictures and a historical perspective that tells us this basic covering has become an American icon.
"One of my first thoughts about the white T is that, during and after Vietnam, it became a sounding board for the disease of the week, the environmental concern of the week, the religion of the week -- whatever your statement was," says Harris, who launches her book Nov. 9 at the Emporio Armani store in New York City. "Whatever your belief that day, you could wear it on your chest."
Harris began collecting information about white T-shirts about five years ago, with the thought she would write a series of articles.
"Then a friend encouraged me to make it a book project. So, for the past five years, that's what I've been doing," Harris says.
The text is minimal, broken into such chapters as: "A Sailor's Tale: Origins of the T-shirt"; "The Proletarian Uniform: Working Class Heroes"; "Brando, Dean and Springsteen: The T-Shirt in Music and Cinema"; "T-Shirt a la Mode: Fashion and Anti-Fashion"; and "The Canvas of History: The T in Politics and Art."
What is most attractive about the book are the photos: a young, sexy Marlon Brando wearing the white T as brutal Stanley Kowalski in "A Streetcar Named Desire," a boyish Truman Capote shown among palm fronds in Key West, a contemplative Sammy Davis Jr. clutching his head after an all-night party in New York.
Most of the shots are of men, but women make their statement. Photographer Herb Ritts captures Julia Roberts frolicking in the surf in a white T and Jockey shorts. Fashion photographer Steven Meisel shoots Lauren Hutton in a V-neck T and oversize jeans. Cindy Crawford and Shaquille O'Neal play with T-shirts and jeans sizes in a publicity shot. Diana Ross looks buff in a sleeveless T and leather pants.
To Giorgio Armani, one of the most influential modern designers, the white T signals a sense of cleanliness, unabashed sex appeal, an anti-status symbol and a means of communication. Armani, who wrote the foreword to Harris' book, is often pictured in a T-shirt, usually a navy one.
The white T-shirt's roots are military. In 1913 the U.S. Navy officially adopted a crew-neck, short-sleeve version to cover the chest hairs of the sailors. It was knitted cotton, had a generous neck opening and no buttons.
The wide acceptance of the white T came during World War II, when they were worn with the uniforms of most soldiers, sailors and Marines. (A group of Marines stranded on the Solomon Islands used their white T's as signal flags and were rescued. A few months later, the uniform changed to a sage green T for camouflage.
After the war, men continued to wear white T's, both for leisure and for work in factories and shops. The blue-collar uniform of steel-tipped boots, work pants and white T-shirt is documented in the book.
This rugged, working-stiff look is an icon that has been reinterpreted by Hollywood in film and in rock music. Think of Brando in leather and white T in "The Wild One," or Bruce Springsteen in his white T, ripped blue jeans and black boots, in front of the American flag on the cover of "Born in the USA," or Henry Winkler as "the Fonz" in his white T and leather jacket in "Happy Days."
This is the anti-status look Armani spoke about.
One of the most chilling images in the book is Lee Harvey Oswald being transferred from jail to the homicide bureau after the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas in 1963. Oswald is handcuffed and dressed in black pants and a white T. He is staring directly into the camera, pursing his lips. Shortly after the picture was taken, he was killed by Jack Ruby.
Political slogan T-shirts came into being in the 1960s, while causes from health issues to environmental concerns were voiced on T-shirts in the '80s and '90s.
Harris' images capture the themes she writes about.
"There are about 500 other pictures we could have used in the book," says Harris, who is donating all of the royalties to the Gay Men's Health Crisis, a New York City-based organization that supports AIDS projects, education and counseling. "It's amazing how much the white T is in our consciousness and our culture. It is really an American phenomenon."
Pub Date: 11/07/96