The Perfect White T-shirt: Still a Pain in the Ass
Years ago, when Vogue used to issue monthly decrees on what items were "key" for the season, the "crisp white shirt" appeared like a repeated mantra. I never owned a crisp white shirt, and I felt guilty about it. I couldn't even imagine wearing one, although I could see how useful it might be for the "professional woman."
Now, in the absence of those strict style edicts, we are still guided by our Inner Vogue Editor. We need a Perfect White T-shirt, and we will settle for nothing less. By perfect, we mean it has to meet a list of requirements that justify this hellish quest. If only we can find that holy grail, we will bite the bullet and spend whatever is necessary, even shelling out for two or three, as insurance against some mishap that will make you start the search all over again. Because obviously, when you find your t-shirt, it will be discontinued in the blink of an eye.
One woman's perfect may not be another's, but most of us agree on its general attributes. It has to be pure cotton but not just any cotton. It has to be soft and thin, but not too thin. It has to drape just so, without being too fitted or too boxy. The short sleeves have to hit at just the right point: too short, and it's a dreaded muscle sleeve, too long, and it throws off all the proportions.
It has to be long enough to tuck in, but short enough to wear untucked. The crew neck can't be too high on the collar bone, or too low either. It can't be finished in a wide ribbed knit band, otherwise you could just get a cheap tee from H&M or K-Mart and call it a day. Slub cotton, the kind with a slightly irregular weave and a little texture, is okay for some things, but not the Perfect White T. Pima cotton is nice, but organic is best for ultimate softness.
The Perfect White T is not the one you wear around the house. It's the one you wear when you're wearing something expensive or flashy or a little stuffy or self-conscious. It says, "Fine, make your judgements but fuck you, I'm cool enough to wear it with the Perfect White T," which of course trumps everything.
Gwyneth once compiled a list of Perfect White T's on her Goop website, and it was ridiculed for some insane price points. If it's $250, it is no longer a t-shirt, it's an insult to common sense and human decency. Kanye created a white t-shirt that sold out at $120, which now seems like a bargain.
I've now looked at countless blogs that offer lists of Perfect White T-shirts, and it's amazing to discover how little overlap there is. One list ranks Petit Bateau as the number one pick, citing "perfection in multiple categories, including cling, density, and feel." Another blogger insists that an $80 t-shirt by Re-Done is unlike anything in existence and worth every penny. One raves about Uniqlo while another trashes the same item.
Since you've read this far, let me share a personal anecdote that haunts me after twenty years. I went on a date with an acclaimed artist from Latin America, who was also a certified babe. He was tall, dark and handsome with shoulder length black hair and beautiful cheekbones. We sat down in a restaurant and he proceeded to praise his gleaming white t-shirt. He discussed the difficulty of finding just the right one. As he went on, I wondered how soon I could get away from this lunatic. A serial killer would have been less off-putting.
So I'm aware of a certain hypocrisy in being picky about t-shirts. It's such a trivial First World Problem. And yet. It's a mug's game but one I can't stop playing. I have a couple of Perfect T's, and I'm still on the lookout for a MORE perfect one. Here are my own recommendations.
James Perse, priced much too high, between $65 and $110.
Velvet, also pricey at $75.
Rag and Bone, $85 but look for it at discount chains for $29 or less
There you have it. If you resent spending this kind of money and you have some spare time, look through the boys' t-shirts at thrift shops, where an x-large or a child's 16 will fit a slim woman, or buy a cheap men's 3-pack and wash fifty times, stretching and soaking them until they're soft enough to fool Kanye West.