SIMPLICITY IS the most difficult thing to secure in this world,” wrote George Sand (aka Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dudevant). In her mid-19th century today, women were more concerned with corsets and trains than comfy tops. But her declaration of her could easily apply to the modern quest for simplicity—in the form of the perfect, plain white tee that universally satisfies in terms of fit, look and feel. It’s fashion’s white whale.
Many have attempted to capture this elusive, cotton prey. In the mid-2000s, Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen made the perfect tee their mission. They launched their line the Row in 2006 and an extra-soft, roomy, white tee with a single French seam was among the brand’s first garments. In 2017, stylist Karla Welch and her client Justin Bieber tried their luck, devising a handful of “perfect” options for men and women—including cropped and sleeveless takes—under the label x Karla. Now sold by retailers including MatchesFashion.com, the tees have satisfied a lucky few, including Gwyneth Paltrow and Kaia Gerber. But for many, the hunt continues.
The problem is that T-shirts are like favorite foods or romantic partners—most people’s requirements are idiosyncratic.
At 5 feet tall, Danielle Hurd, 26, a recent graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University, finds that even small sizes are too baggy or long.
Women’s styles frustrate Emily Casey, 32, a software engineer in Brooklyn, tending to bunch under her arms. She prefers the XS men’s tees from Everlane, which are small enough to flatter her frame without clenching her hips—a fit she finds stays relatively constant from season to season. José Ramón Reyes, founder of New York-based wardrobe-consulting service the Custom Project, frequently alters T-shirts to accommodate clients’ specific tastes, tailoring them and even adding shoulder pads.
But for those of us who can’t spring for customized basics, here’s a primer on the wide world of tees, and the best brands to try.
1. Be My Baby
Itsy bitsy baby tees come in a variety of silhouettes and lengths, hitting from just above the belly button to barely below the bustline. For his clients, New York stylist Ron Hartleben sometimes cuts the bottom off a child’s extra-large Hanes T-shirt. If you’re not into a DIY project, the OG baby-tee brand, Pretties, still produces its iconic shrunken 1990s style (pictured). Wary of showing too much skin? The Custom Project’s Mr. Reyes suggests wearing high-waisted pants or skirts, or choosing a baggier fit. “It feels a little bit less revealing,” he said.
Slim tees are a tell me a dozen, but securing the right fit for your body is a rare accomplishment. Mr. Hartleben’s advice is simple: Try before you buy. “Make the effort to physically go into a store that has the T-shirts you’re interested in,” he said. Another pro tip: Focus on retailers that carry an extended range of sizes and fabrics, like Uniqlo, which offers XXS to XXL, so that, via tireless fitting-room contortions, you can find your kindred tee—not too loose, not too tight .
3. Join the Slub
Slub tees—in which the cotton is irregularly woven and slightly textured—give off a knowingly laid-back air. Mr. Hartleben prefers labels like Re/Done and James Perse for their vintage feel. Re/Done “hit the nail on the head,” he said, with a ’90s-style slub formula. “The fabric is light enough to be very casual,” but you can still wear it with something dressier, like a suit, he said. Another notable choice: the thin, cotton-blend Monrow crew-neck (pictured), whose fitted silhouette makes it easy to tuck in or team with a blazer.
4. Hit It Big
The term “oversize” is used indiscriminately, making it the least reliable of T-shirt descriptors. The label covers everything from slightly exaggerated proportions to overtly baggy boyfriend fits, so it’s hard to know if you’re getting something attractively roomy or sloppily huge. Totêm’s tee hits the sweet spot with its moderately wide sleeves and torso. The cut is relaxed but more polished than, say, an extra-wide shoulder or to-the-knee hem.
5. On the Money
Clearly, T-shirts inspire overthinking. But in a perfect world, they shouldn’t require overspending. Uniqlo’s tee (pictured) looks elevated thanks to its thick cotton fabrication but is objectively a bargain at $15. Another thrifty brand, namechecked by both Mr. Reyes and Mr. Hartleben, is Kim Kardashian’s Skims, which offers a range of fits and cuts in sizes from XXS to 4X, starting at about $40.
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