The Endless Possibilities of a White Tee

Written by Alfred Bong
May 25, 2020


Be it a 1980s vintage tee or a white cotton tee from the ever-ready Uniqlo, we all have a basic white tee shirt that we can lay back and depend on.

The one that is suitable for in and out of the house. The idea of a white tee shirt is seemingly pedestrian and mundane, but in the hands of a designer can take on different forms and shapes to create something unexpected. Designers from the past have pushed the quotidian garment into boundaries that it has never stepped in. Be it the material used or the intentional atypical construction, we will be exploring the past and investigating the endless possibilities of the classic white tee.

To set some rubrics, we will only be looking at plain white tee shirts. No screen print graphics, no patchwork detailing or even any colour other than white. The intention is to examine how designers have taken the classic garment in its purest form and find-tune it into something special. Blasting a graphic is the easy way to create something out of the norm but the devil is truly in the details. With that being said, here are some of the tees that we will be examining.

Rick Owens SS15 Unstable Double Layered tee

A staple Rick Owens layering piece. The run-of-the-mill tee appears boring on the first look, resembling a basic longline tee that feels like it was stuck in the 2014 Fear of God era. Upon a close inspection, you will notice that unlike a regular tee, there are no bottom hems or stitches. The ends go around the body once, wrapping around the back and ends by the side hem. This allows the fabric to overlap each other at the front, creating a double layered tee. The viscose-cotton blend drapes and creates a silhouette akin to a shirt stretched and tucked by the side. Rick Owens’ intentional construction allowed the form of the fabric to stay ‘frozen in motion’, creating a permanently wrinkled pleat that stands out from a regular tee. 

Helmut Lang SS04 ‘Dragonfly’ tee

For the SS04 season, Helmut Lang titled the show as ‘Dragonfly’, basing his entire collection on the characteristics of a dragonfly - the exoskeleton and its flying motion. Structurally, barring the inept scrap cotton that dangles across the chest, the tee is indistinguishable from the ones on Uniqlo mannequins. The haphazard and structureless detail looks to be a random fluff but in reality acts as a mule for his narrative. 

While in motion, the overlapped raw seams comes to life, rebelling and jouncing against the structured white tee. A similarity is drawn to a flying dragonfly, with the fragile wings dancing up and down while the main exoskeleton stays in the same shape. The vaguely connate relationships by no means represents a groundbreaking or innovative idea. Lang however, through a simple touch of detail, nails it and shows the correlation in an apprehensive manner.

Olivier Saillard Couture FW18

The idea of the show can be explained in a few phrases - a bunch of massively oversized tee shirts, a historical couture technique and a desire to upcycle and reinvent the ‘boring’.

To prepare for the Couture FW18 show, French historian and curator Olivier Saillard scoured around the internet for XXXL white tee shirts to reimagine. His total expenditure of 450 euros sees a bigger fraction of money spent on shipping compared to the cost of the tee itself. For the designing process, he adopted couture techniques from the late French coutrist Madame Gres, one of the most important figures in the couture scene during the mid 20th century. She pioneered a technique that allowed fabrics to wrap and drape on the wearer, complimenting the female body through a furious attention to detail. With the help of an artisan that worked personally with Madame Gres back in the 1960s, the huge oversized tee shirts were carefully sewn, pleated and draped. The excess fabrics were twisted or pleated, allowing the cheap fabrics to lay delicately on models, elevating the T-shirts into an elegant haute couture dress. Despite the unfamiliar medium that the artisan had to begin with (uncut cotton vs sewn shirts), the plain white tee shirts still found themselves as an unlikely canvas for old-school techniques to ressurge.

These “T-shirts” can, perhaps, serve as a thinking point for everyone to reconsider the everything around them. It is up to the future generation, the one that u see on the black screen, to redefine the boundaries that were set beforehand.


Recomended Viewing

    Olivier Saillard Couture FW18

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