« SIMPLICITY IS the most difficult thing to secure in this world”, wrote George Sand (alias Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dudevant). At its peak in the mid-19th century, women were more concerned with corsets and trains than comfortable tops. But his statement could easily apply to the modern quest for simplicity – in the form of the perfect plain white t-shirt that universally satisfies in fit, look and feel. It’s the white whale of fashion.
Many have attempted to capture this elusive cotton prey. In the mid-2000s, Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen made the perfect t-shirt their mission. They launched their The Row line in 2006 and an extra soft and roomy white t-shirt with a single French seam was among the brand’s first garments. In 2017, stylist Karla Welch and her client Justin Bieber took a chance on designing a handful of “perfect” options for men and women, including cropped and sleeveless cuts, under the x Karla label. Now sold by retailers including MatchesFashion.com, the t-shirts have satisfied a lucky few, including Gwyneth Paltrow and Kaia Gerber. But for many, the hunt continues.
The problem is, t-shirts are like favorite foods or romantic partners — most people’s requirements are idiosyncratic.
At 5 feet tall, 26-year-old Danielle Hurd, a recent graduate of Metropolitan University of Toronto, finds even the petite sizes too baggy or too long.
Feminine styles frustrate Emily Casey, 32, a software engineer in Brooklyn, who tends to slouch under her arms. She prefers Everlane’s XS men’s t-shirts, which are small enough to flatter her figure without constricting her hips – a fit she says stays relatively consistent from season to season. José Ramón Reyes, founder of New York-based wardrobe consulting service The Custom Project, frequently alters T-shirts to suit specific customer tastes, adapting them and even adding shoulder pads.
But for those of us who can’t get into personalized basics, here’s a look at the vast world of t-shirts and the best brands to try.
1. Be my baby
Itsy Bitsy baby t-shirts come in a variety of silhouettes and lengths, ranging from just above the navel to just below the chest. For his clients, New York designer Ron Hartleben sometimes cuts the bottom of a child’s extra-large Hanes t-shirt. If you’re not into a DIY project, OG baby-tee brand Pretties are still churning out their iconic shrunken 1990s style (pictured). Worried about showing too much skin? Mr. Reyes of the Custom Project suggests wearing high-waisted pants or skirts, or choosing a looser fit. “It seems a little less revealing,” he said.
2. Adjustment Decision
Slim t-shirts cost a dime a dozen, but finding the right fit for your body is a rare achievement. Mr. Hartleben’s advice is simple: Try before you buy. “Make the effort to physically go to a store that has the T-shirts you’re interested in,” he said. Another pro tip: focus on retailers that offer a wide range of sizes and fabrics, like Uniqlo, which offers XXS to XXL, so that through tireless contortions in fitting rooms, you can find your favorite t-shirt, neither too loose nor too tight. .
3. Join the Slub
Slub t-shirts, in which the cotton is irregularly woven and lightly textured, lend a deliberately casual air. Mr. Hartleben prefers labels like Re/Done and James Perse for their vintage side. Re/Done “hit the nail on the head,” he said, with a 90s-style slub formula. “The fabric is light enough to be very casual,” but you can still wear it with something more dressed up, like a suit, he said. Another standout choice is the slim cotton-blend crew neck Monrow (pictured), whose fitted silhouette allows it to be tucked in easily or teamed with a blazer.
4. Hit it big
The term “oversize” is used indiscriminately, making it the least reliable of T-shirt descriptors. The label covers everything from slightly exaggerated proportions to overtly baggy boyfriend cuts, so it’s hard to tell whether you’re getting something pleasingly roomy or huge. The Totême t-shirt is ideal with its moderately wide sleeves and torso. The cut is relaxed but more refined than, for example, an extra wide shoulder or a knee-length hem.
5. On the money
Obviously, t-shirts are thought-provoking. But in a perfect world, they shouldn’t require overspending. Uniqlo’s t-shirt (pictured) looks elevated thanks to its heavy cotton construction, but is objectively a bargain at $15. Another thrifty brand, name-checked by Mr Reyes and Mr Hartleben, is Kim Kardashian’s Skims, which offers a range of fits and cuts in sizes from XXS to 4X, starting at around 40 $.
Corrections & Amplifications
Totême is the correct spelling of the brand. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Totêm. (Corrected May 5)
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