IT'S HARD TO IMAGINE JAMES DEAN BROODING IN A bowling shirt. Or Marlon Brando smoldering onscreen in a turtleneck. Or young Elvis swiveling away in a Brooks Brothers button-down. For some men, moods and moments, only one shirt suits to a tee: the classic white T-shirt. Accept no substitutes. "A plain white T cuts across all classes, all age levels," says Alice Harris, a former publicist for Casablanca Records, who decided to salute the unsung undergarment in a picture book, the white T, recently published by HarperCollins. "It's a universal piece of clothing." Harris, who is, admittedly, somewhat T-obsessed—she owns 300 in plain vanilla, plus another 200 or so with logos on them—spent two years sorting through thousands of images, including pictures of the very first T, issued to Navy personnel in 1913. Wearers who made the cut ranged from South Carolina tenant farmers in the 1930s to Rolling Stones groupies in the 1980s, from the criminal (Lee Harvey Oswald) to the comical (Charlie Chaplin), from hoofer Gene Kelly to howler Bruce Springsteen, each and every one wearing white.
"When you wear a T-shirt, it says you are comfortable with yourself," says Harris, who is donating all royalties to the Gay Men's Health Crisis. "Look across the country, and there it is. It's quintessentially American."
And you can take that to the laundry.
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