Among Top Gun’s numerous moments of accidental humor, the legendary beach volleyball scene where Iceman, Slider, Maverick, and Goose took their battle from the skies to the sands is hard to beat. Three of the four men are shirtless, all (well, maybe not Anthony Edwards) fine specimens of virile manhood. At match point, Cruise nonchalantly walks off the court, pulls on a perfectly fitting, crisp white T-shirt, throws on a shearling trimmed leather jacket, and roars off into the sunset on his Kawasaki Ninja, female flight instructor in his sights. It’s the quintessential ’80s movie scene, and it highlights the undeniable truth that when it comes to men’s fashion, the strongest statement can often be made with the simplest of garments. And it doesn’t get any simpler than a plain white tee.
Originally meant to be worn as an undergarment, the T-shirt became a symbol of 1950s youth rebellion when young men followed James Dean’s lead in Rebel Without a Cause—ditching their button-downs and the stuffy values of their parents’ generation in the process. Half a century later, it’s the perfect casual menswear piece, a blank canvas that doesn’t detract attention from the man himself, but highlights all he has to offer. Guys like Cruise or James Dean, above, can wear them fitted to exemplify their chests and arms, while lanky guys can wear them roomy and long to show off their height (and hide their muscular shortcomings). They’re still best when worn as they were back then, with cuffed denim and Chuck Taylors, or beige chinos and bare feet, though I have a friend who wears his box-fresh, paired with slim gray suit pants and sneakers. Another friend insists on ripping the neck stitching to give his a lived-in feel, and I like mine washed 1000 times and faded to near-transparency. Wear them often, wear them hard, break them in and buy some more, because there’s an added bonus: the white tee is as cheap as it is essential. You can own at least one for each day of the week without ever breaking a hundred. Or a sweat.
Isaac Hindin Miller runs Isaac Likes, our favorite style blog in New Zealand.