With the temperature rising, a plain white T-shirt, unadorned by logo or slogan, always manages to look spectacular when paired with jeans, shorts or even smart trousers – and is especially effective with a tan (including the British lobster variant). You’d think finding a decent, plain white T-shirt would be a simple task for a man who has written for some of the world’s foremost fashion magazines but the challenge of getting one that fitted well, with material that had no ‘show-through’, almost got the better of me.
There are a plethora of high-street purveyors desperate to offload piles of white T-shirts onto your summer shoulders but to paraphrase Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, there are white T-shirts and there are white T-shirts – and you definitely want the latter. My exhaustive search went on for well over a year. This isn’t to say I didn’t own T-shirts during this period; I just didn’t have a pristine white version and the longer I survived without one, the more agitated I became. I bought a few along the way, hoping to strike lucky. One white cotton tee was picked up on the hoof from a well-known high-street giant for under a tenner. Although alarm bells were ringing at the price, they peeled even louder when I got home and tried it on.
It wasn’t so much the size that worried me. I’m usually an M but it was a little tight across the chest; I’d perhaps been a little too keen on downing red wine around this period and may have needed an L to compensate. No, the major problem was the material. It was so thin that it was practically translucent. Gazing into the mirror, I thought: “This looks like I’m in a wet T-shirt competition! I can see everything!” Rather than take the T-shirt back to the store to complain about the shoddiness of the goods, as I should have done, I shoved it in a carrier bag and dropped it off at the nearest charity shop. I’d “owned” the T-shirt for under an hour.
It became apparent that my search for a white T-shirt was as much about the material as the fit. I then entered into a pretty dull trial of every single plain white T-shirt that London’s Oxford Street and Carnaby shopping districts had to offer, lunchtime after lunchtime, until I’d become so despondent that I thought I should give up to preserve my mental state.
At one point, I thought I’d found salvation at Banana Republic on Regent Street. The material of the white T-shirt was certainly thick enough to pass my stringent guidelines – it bordered on the wintry – but if you looked closely, the company’s elephant logo could be spotted, which instantly ruled it out. However, in desperation and no doubt looking like a desperate man, I bought the T-shirt only to find that it shrunk on the third wash and it was last seen when I was decorating the living room. Of course, Banana Republic no longer exists in the UK, which is a shame because I found some superb smart trousers and cardigans there during my Mad Men phase. As for the white T-shirt, my search continued.
My personal love affair with the white T-shirt began in August 1990. I was massively into Manchester bands – I still am – and anyone with an interest in alternative music at this time bought NME, a music weekly, out every Wednesday. I read every single word from front to back cover and would later work at NME. But in a mid-August 1990 edition, my band du jour, Electronic – featuring New Order’s Bernard Sumner and the former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr – had been in Los Angeles playing their first ever live gig, supporting Depeche Mode at the Dodger Stadium. On the front cover of NME were Sumner and Marr on Sunset Strip, posing for legendary Manchester photographer Kevin Cummins. Both of these musical heroes of mine were wearing white T-shirts and they looked immaculate. I was living in South Yorkshire back then. I got the bus into town and bought one the same day.
Maybe clothes were built to last in 1990 but I bought a Watson’s Heavies white T-shirt with a slightly raised neck for £9.99 and with £20 burning a hole in my pocket, I bought a navy version too. As was befitting the era, they were slightly baggy – long in length and sleeve, slightly billowy around the chest, but the material was so robust that I owned both T-shirts until 2009. In the end, I sent them to the charity shop but now I wish I’d kept both as heritage pieces.
Watson’s Heavies continued trading until around 2003. The brand had its HQ in Great Portland Street in London and as a burgeoning writer in men’s lifestyle titles, and soon to become a features editor, I’d pass their offices every day thinking, “Go in and talk to them, maybe do an article about them.” One day, I walked in, only to be told by an unfriendly lady that they only wanted to speak to buyers, not journalists on a voyage of nostalgia. I couldn’t get out of the office quickly enough. Do a google search of the brand now and there is so little information available. It’s almost like they never existed.
I was working at GQ until recently and one morning during my extended exile from white T-shirts, I sauntered into the office of fashion director Robert Johnston, an amiable Scotsman with a liking for a knitted tie and blazer. He thought I’d gone insane when I said I’d been searching for a white T-shirt for over a year. He suggested I try Sunspel. Having just put together a sponsored supplement about the James Bond lifestyle for a fragrance company, I was aware that 007 was a sucker for a Sunspel T-shirt and visited their space on Old Compton Street. There, on a rail, was a Riveira T-shirt made with 100 per cent long-staple cotton. In fact, the T-shirt was originally designed for Daniel Craig in Casino Royale. Perhaps £70 was more than I originally wanted to splash out on a white T-shirt but if it’s good enough for James Bond, then who am I to complain? I’ve got it on right now.
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