Birth of the Cool: James Dean and the Meaning of the Plain White T-Shirt

The white T-Shirt isn’t just a wardrobe essential, it’s a crucial piece of cultural history. Here’s the story of James Dean, beautiful rebels without causes, and a sartorial revolution.

James Dean in a publicity still for Rebel Without a Cause (1955).

Rebel Without a Cause hit US movie theatres in 1955 and a generation of American teenagers flocked to see it. They loved the film but, even more, they loved its star. It was James Dean’s first and only movie as the top billed actor, and he was already dead.

The 24-year-old had been killed in a car crash just three weeks before the film’s release. He was to join that pantheon of actors and singers, Presidents and Princesses who taste fame early, die young, and around whom post-mortem myths, legends and memories are woven. For James Dean, his legend was to be the beautiful, surly anti-hero; the patron saint of disaffected working class American youth, and the epitome of a new kind of cool.


James Dean had already made an impact in his previous film, East of Eden, but it is the image of Rebel’s anti-hero, Jim Stark, wearing a white T-Shirt and blue jeans – teamed with a bomber jacket – that first comes to mind when we think of him.

It was an image of masculinity about as far removed from that of Hollywood’s traditional leading men as could be imagined. This was American workwear given star quality; nothing could have been more different to the suave appearance of so many male film stars of the 1930s and 1940s – a look carefully cultivated and fiercely protected by the major studios. Think Cary Grant in a perfectly tailored suit.

James Dean was no Cary Grant. He wasn’t the kind of boy you could bring home to meet your mother. Quite literally: Dean’s relationship with Italian-American actress Pier Angeli lasted barely months after Angeli’s mother decided he was a wholly unsuitable suitor, citing fast cars and his T-Shirt attire as unacceptable traits. (Never get on the wrong side of an Italian mother).


James Dean at Griffith Observatory, 1955. Image credit.


The less than kempt, rough and tumble American workwear look certainly upset parents, especially fathers. American GIs, once back home, had their own memories of having had to wear a regulation white T-Shirt while on active service in WWII. They didn’t want reminders, they wanted to put the war behind them.

Arnold R. Fesser, oiler – October 14, 1944. Image: US Government archives.

The war generation was finding it hard to accept that their offspring seemed determined to reject the values they had been fighting to uphold. Worse, teenagers were also beginning to reject the domestic lives and routines that their parents had dreamed of rebuilding in the post-war years. To make it all the more baffling, the American economy was booming. This mattered to people who had been children during the Depression. Who, in their right minds, wanted to revolt against new-found comfort, affluence and conformity?

Yet that’s exactly what James Dean and his generation of rebels without causes were doing – and they were doing it in blue jeans and white T-Shirts.


James Dean was the most beautiful pioneer of white T-Shirt-clad angst and youthful rebellion, but he wasn’t the only one. Marlon Brando caused a sensation in A Streetcar named Desire, Paul Newman smoudered in The Hustler.  Before long, any number of Hollywood stars and idols could be seen wearing one, on and off-screen.

Paul Newman in The Hustler (1961). Image Credit.

Marlon Brando in A Steetcar Named Desire (1951). Image credit.

Then there were the musicians.  In Europe – and in Paris, in particular – things were stirring. Young Parisians wanted their own version of Jack Kerouac’s Beat Generation: they were reading Camus, discussing existentialism and listening to jazz.

In mid-1950s Paris, no jazz musician was cooler than Chet Baker, a contemporary of James Dean. Just two years separated the actor and the trumpeter-singer in age and not only did they share the distinctive sharply chiselled features that the camera loves, they looked equally good in a white T-Shirt. Like Dean, the young Chet Baker possessed a rare, languorous beauty and an androgynous appearance, which appealed to women and men, pretty well equally.

Chet Baker, photographed in 1953

And of course rock and roll, the ultimate manifestation of teenage rebellion, was also on a relentless march, led by Elvis Presley. Interviewed in 1956, the King acknowledged the debt he owed to Dean and Brando, in terms of a deliberately crafted rebel image: “We’re sullen, we’re broodin’, we’re something of a menace.”


Angry parents notwithstanding, the cultural ascendancy of the white T-Shirt was unstoppable. The symbol of youth, rejection of stuffy conformity and working class vigour was rapidly adopted by the wealthier classes. Soon even the President could be photographed wearing underwear as outerwear.

The white T-Shirt became not so much mainstream as universal, permeating every part of human society; worn anywhere and everywhere by men and women of all ages, from all walks of life. Now it’s worn at work, at home, at the gym, at weddings, on catwalks and underneath tuxedos at film premieres.

And yet it’s never quite lost that hint of James Dean and his generation of rebels without a cause.

Bruce Springsteen, 1978

So what should we conclude is the meaning of the white T-Shirt, if it has a meaning? Perhaps it is the white T-Shirt’s very plainness and simplicity that offers a clue. It is, after all, the sartorial equivalent of a blank canvas. We can project onto it any narrative, any fantasy that we wish and successive generations have done just that. We can dress it up with a jacket , we can dress it down with shorts; we can wear it to impress or disappear into a crowd. However we wear or accessorise it, the plain white T-Shirt, despite its long and many-faceted history, still offers effortless style with an edge.

Like James Dean, the eternal 24-year old, the white T-Shirt is forever young and forever cool.  It’s the reason we love it and won’t let go.

Sunspel’s Classic Cotton T-Shirt in white

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