If you are anything like me, you’ll treat the T-shirts in your wardrobe as an afterthought. Whether you’re committed to all things style-centric or couldn’t care less about the contents of your wardrobe, there are much more exciting things to consider first when it comes to clothing; sleek coats, sharp suits, luxe sneakers.
You could also be forgiven for thinking that all T-shirts are more or less the same; plain cotton or striped jersey basics to pick up on the high street without paying much attention, and to throw on during those days in the week when you don’t have to make much effort.
Au contraire. It might be a simple piece of design, but the humble T-shirt is still worth paying close attention to – it can either flatter or confound. Get it right, and you’ll channel the looks of James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause. Get it wrong, and you’ll look like Ricky Gervais playing, well, Ricky Gervais…
With that perilous dichotomy in mind, here are ten tips to help you to see this staple in a fresh light. It was the great Giorgio Armani who said that “the T-shirt is both the Alpha and the Omega of the fashion alphabet”. Here’s why he’s not wrong.
Focus on quality
My mother always says that the simplest things in life are the hardest to get right. Not necessarily the case with puzzles or recipes – but this maxim does apply to clothes. Certainly, with something as understated as a T-shirt, it pays to invest in a product that’s been made with care.
British brand Sunspel was founded in 1860, and makes T-shirts that are a cut above; sewn in the company’s Long Eaton factory from a unique cotton jersey, known by the mythic name of ‘Quality 82’. Said jersey is constructed from long staple Pima cotton (the longer the length of the yarn, the finer the quality of the fabric) that is handpicked and then double-spun. The result is a T-shirt that’s smooth, strong and yet baby-bottom-soft to the touch. If you’ve yet to try one, you should.
Cotton T-shirt, £70, sunspel.com
Get the fit right
There were a couple of questionable T-shirt trends wafting their down the men’s fashion week catwalks earlier this year, chief among which is the current fad for wearing oversized tops.
It’s inspired in part by designer menswear’s current 1980s and ‘90s revival, but it only really works if you’re tall and skinny - as, funnily enough, models tend to be. For the rest of us, a classic T-shirt should be form-fitting – not too large, nor too small.
You don’t want something that’s so shapeless it swallows you up, but you also don’t want to wear a top that’s stretched dubiously tight. A T-shirt with a good clean fit is always flattering. If in doubt, J.Crew, Officine Générale and Oliver Spencer offer nicely fitted tees that are an easy go-to.
Cotton T-shirt, £67.50, officinegenerale.com
Swap white for cream
The plain white T-shirt is a timeless classic, no question. But, if you’d like to give the look an update, try an off-white T-shirt instead. I know this might sound odd, but cream and ecru colours are warmer and softer than bright white, which can often look a little harsh against the skin.
There’s also a trend towards earthy colour palettes in men’s style right now – there’s plenty of olive green, dusty pink, brown and beige designs out there. Neutral tones work a treat with these colours, and look surprisingly modern in tonal combinations. Whether you wear a cream T-shirt under a checked brown blazer or a beneath an army green cotton overshirt, you’ll be surprised by how swish this looks.
Braedon T-shirt, £80, John Smedley
Wear T-shirts with tailoring
This leads nicely to my next point; a well executed T-shirt can be surprisingly sharp. It’s no secret that dress codes are growing more relaxed, and in a world where a shirt and tie might only be something you wear three or four times a year, layering a T-shirt beneath a suit can be a great way to dress down a suit.
T-shirts under tailoring look the part for what I like to call “cocktail dress” – they’re great for smart events, dinners out or drinks dates. It’s even a thing on Savile Row, both Richard James and Gieves & Hawkes have styled lightweight suits with simple plain or printed T-shirts this season, and it really does work.
A T-shirt as suit accompaniment, as seen at Gieves & Hawkes
Show your stripes
A T-shirt is also an easy way to inject some fun into your wardrobe. Quirky striped T-shirts have made a return to mainstream menswear in recent seasons, and this summer you’ll be spoilt for choice. Independent brands like Folk and YMC are offering some great hoop striped designs in two-tone colour combinations, and even hip heritage brands like Kent & Curwen are in on the act.
A striped T-shirt like this can become the focal point for your outfit, and take you right through into autumn and beyond. Wear beneath a chambray shirt with jeans or tapered chinos now, and swap in some shorts when it warms up.
Striped T-shirt, £51, kentandcurwen.com
Try out terry towelling...
Cotton terry towelling might sound like a bizarre choice for a T-shirt, but it’s both switched-on style wise, and practical. Towelling fabric is super-lightweight thanks to its loose ‘terret’ weave, which makes it comfortable in the heat. Plus, Terry cloth T-shirts were big in the ‘50s an ‘60s, so if you wear one today you’ll get automatic style points for your ‘Riviera chic’ look.
Orlebar Brown is never short of terrycloth T-shirts, and Antwerp based knitwear maker Howlin’ has some great two-tone designs as well. Give one a try with a pair of shorts on holiday.
Terry Hiking shirt, £115.50, drakes.com
....And garment dyed T-shirts
The other thing that brands are experimenting with is garment dying, which lends a T-shirt a relaxed washed look. As the name suggests, garment-dyed T-shirts are quite literally dyed once the tee has been sewn together, as opposed to being stitched together from pre-dyed fabric, as is conventional.
Layer yours under a breezy linen button-down with a pair of pleated chinos for a put-together look. John Lewis’s new garment dyed T-shirts are bang on the money, available in a range of soft pastel colours. They’re even offering a duo of indigo dyed T-shirts that will fade with wear for a vintage look.
John Lewis & Partners garment dye T-shirt, £25, johnlewis.com
Look at linen variations
You don’t have to restrict yourself to pure cotton in the summer. A linen/cotton blend is a little thinner and more airy than pure cotton, so it’s great for warm weather. True, it’ll crease a little more, but that’s linen for you.
French maker Armor-Lux has been making superb cotton/linen T-shirts in Brittany since 1938, with thin two-tone stripes and a soft, slubby texture.
Armor-Lux T-shirt, £29, endclothing.com
There’s more to T-shirts than crewnecks
A T-shirt can be any top with T-shaped silhouette; from a long-sleeved cotton knit or jersey, to a Henley collared shirt with a buttoned neckline. The polo shirt is another close relation to the classic T-shirt, and simple pieces like this striped knit from Altea can make for a chic alternative. Treat these as relaxed layering pieces and wear with everything from white jeans to pleated linen trousers, and from unstructured Italian blazers to overshirts.
Altea cotton polo shirt, £180, trunkclothiers.com
Experiment with prints
Last, but by no means least, few garments in menswear are more synonymous with prints. From naff novelty catch-phrases (don’t wear these), to symbols of community, political dissidence and outright rebellion, the T-shirt has seen the lot.
If the plain T-shirt isn’t your thing, you could get into some of the fun graphic designs out there. From Gieves & Hawkes’s tropical-inspired parrot prints, to a statement variation from Neil Barrett, or an understated take on brand allegiance from Scandi brand NN07, they’re more interesting, but easily wearable and not overtly brash.
Gieves & Hawkes printed T-shirt, £112, farfetch.com
For more men’s style advice, visit telegraph.co.uk/men/style/