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Strength in Simplicity: The White T-shirt

Ever since Marlon Brando and James Dean burned their way both onto the big screen and into popular cultural consciousness in the early Fifties, the white T-shirt and jeans look has been synonymous with the Hollywood rebel.

Brando came first with A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and The Wild One (1953) before Dean confirmed the trend in Rebel Without A Cause (1955). Between them, these leading men changed the perception of what was cool.

The plain white crew-neck T-shirt and jeans ensemble became a timeless classic, immune to the shifting tides of fashion, conferring immediate personality on its wearer without him having to do or saying anything – just as the suit does at the business end of the sartorial spectrum.

Jeans and T-shirts are everyday casualwear now, but until the Fifties, this look was very much a working-class signifier. Only men who did manual labour – who worked on construction sites or tinkered with engines – wore denim and stripped down to reveal their undershirts. Then, in the wake of World War II, a wave of soldiers returned wearing their army-issue white T-shirts as outer garments, as a symbol of manhood, of getting things done, of strength and industry.

Inspired by those pioneering pin-ups for a new generation, Brando and Dean, Fifties kids began to go against the prim-and-proper Sunday-best suits and dresses of their parents’ generation. For the first time dressing down was cooler than dressing up. The teenager was born – and the T-shirt was their uniform. Each tribe could interpret the blank canvas of a white tee for its own purposes. Beatniks like Jack Kerouac wore them to show their disdain for proper society – as did greasers and bikers and rock’n’rollers.

But more than anyone, Dean was the Hollywood poster boy for this new movement, especially after his tragically early death in 1955, aged just 24. The trailer for his final film, Giant, released posthumously, calls him ‘the star who became a legend, who spoke for the restless young as no one has before or since’. That description – and all those nonchalant, defiant images of him that live on – still holds up 60 years later.

Other icons soon followed. Elvis Presley idolised Dean, appropriating elements of his look – not least the workwear – and took up acting in an attempt to follow in his footsteps. Later, John Travolta in Grease and Henry Winkler as 'The Fonz' would also give this rock’n’roll rebel look the thumbs-up.

US actor Steve McQueen (R) takes a break during the international motorcycle race "Six Days" at Erfurt
US actor Steve McQueen (R) takes a break during the international motorcycle race "Six Days" at Erfurt, German Democratic republic (GDR) in 1964.

In 1955, the photographer Eve Arnold captured a young, enraptured up-and-comer in the Actors Studio – the only one in the audience dressed casually in jeans and white tee. His name: Paul Newman. Throughout the Sixties and Seventies, Newman and Steve McQueen were the custodians of cool. Men wanted to be them; women wanted to be with them. And almost every photograph taken of them is afforded an ageless quality by the simplicity of what they’re wearing. Their look is as fresh today as it was back then. Just ask David Beckham.

Importantly, young women also embraced the liberating casualness of jeans and tees. Some of the most iconic and photographed stars in the world – from Grace Kelly and Brigitte Bardot to Sophia Loren and Marilyn Monroe – helped to feminise this look. And modern-era rebels such as Kate Moss and Lana Del Rey keep it alive today.

Just as a well-cut tee can flatter the well-upholstered male frame – think Clint Eastwood in Every Which Way But Loose (1978) or Ryan Gosling in Only God Forgives (2013) – so contour-hugging cotton tucked into high-waisted jeans helps to accentuate a woman’s hourglass figure.

The white-tee-and-jeans combo was, is and always will be a visual shorthand for free-spirited youth and rebellious cool.

Dan Rookwood is the US editor of

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