Josh Sims extolls the virtues of a popular garment that has gone from nautical
workwear to wardrobe staple
It is, superficially at least, the simplest item in the wardrobe. It is minimalistic and yet iconic, suggestive of rebellion and youth, or perhaps that you’re just off to bed. It’s been a blank canvas for statement and for salesmanship, protest and pop culture. And for a long time it never even saw the light of day, being considered under rather than outerwear. The T-shirt, and specifically the white T-shirt, is sartorial ground zero.
Naturally, like many good things in fashion, it has its origins in a more functional setting. Indeed, some time around 1913, on the eve of the First World War, the US Navy allowed the wearing of a new, cropped-sleeve undershirt, ideal to wear during the sweaty work of ship’s maintenance, or to leave the arms free while manning the guns. White was chosen, somewhat counter-intuitively, because its readiness to show the dirt would help encourage hygiene; because it required no expensive dyeing and, well, because it went well with navy darlings. And yet, the Americans made it in wool flannelette, which took an age to dry.