Fashion In Film: The T-Shirt

Sophia Satchell Baeza,

Originally worn as an undergarment in the 19th century by miners and stevedores, the T-shirt as outerwear look was adopted by the U.S. Navy during or following the Spanish-American War. As Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Marlon Brando popularised the white tee as outerwear, closely following on the look in The Wild One (1953). Once James Dean wore the tee with blue jeans and a red leather jacket in Rebel Without A Cause (1955), the T-shirt’s fate was sealed as an icon of rebellious adolescence.

In its simplest form, the T-shirt (so called because of its shape) displays a message that reflects the wearer’s values. The 1960s peace movement rediscovered it as a medium for political statement, so we have that era to thank for all those knob-ends waxing lyrical in a Che Guevara tee. In the mid-'80s, artists like Keith Haring and Katharine Hamnett (with her “Frankie Says Relax” design) chose to revive its use as a canvas for social change. Then, round about the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, things went all ironic and by the noughties it was all “Vote for Pedro” and Juno’s snarky “Slinky” tee.

The T-shirt is an iconic item of cinematic clothing, and still a favourite means by which film fans express their cinematic allegiances (think of all those “The Dude Abides” tees). So let’s run down our favourites.

Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)

After Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta) accidentally blow off a guy’s head in the car, gangster The Wolf (Harvey Keitel) makes them strip off and change into corny surfer tees, all the better to ridicule and rid them of their gangster glitz: “They look like a couple of dorks,” Jimmy (Quentin Tarantino) says. “They’re your clothes, motherf***er”.

Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973)

While Brando and Dean get much of the credit for breaking hearts in a crisp white tee, Martin Sheen’s white-T-and-jeans greaser look deserves an honourable mention. As Kit, his outfit represents his outsider status in the South Dakota town where he meets and falls in love with teen Holly (Cissy Spacek) before going on a cross-country murder spree.

Sammy's Super T-shirt (Jeremy Summers, 1978) 

Sammy Smith (Reggie Winch) is a vertically challenged 12-year-old with a lucky tiger T-shirt. He dreams of great physical feats, until one day, a scientist imbues his tee with special powers.

À bout de souffle (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)

“New York Herald Tribune!” Jean Seberg’s Gallic intonation and cute pixie cut still captures the hearts of film fans everywhere, partly aided by a monochrome Tribune tee, as she saunters down the Champs-Elysées, ready to bump into a brooding Jean-Paul Belmondo.

Notting Hill (Roger Michell, 1999)

Putting aside Hugh Grant and another suspicious ethnic cleansing of a multicultural area of London FOR ONLY A MOMENT, this film annoyingly has an Important T-shirt Scene. Spike (Rhys Ifans) is wondering what T-shirt to wear on his date with Janine: the options are “I Love Blood”, “Get It Here” and “Fancy a F*ck?”. Hmm – amazing it worked out, really, but then again, it is a Richard Curtis film, so anything goes.

The Universe of Keith Haring (Christina Clausen, 2007)

Keith Haring – the New York artist and social activist whose distinctive work captured the zeitgeist of the '80s NY club scene, used the T-shirt as one of many canvases for his work. Some of his most famous icons include the barking dog, the glowing baby and the three-eyed smiley face.

Real Genius (Martha Coolidge, 1985)

The '80s were a good time for the ironic slogan tee. Chris Knight (Val Kilmer, a year before Top Gun) is a senior year genius at Pacific Tech working on a chemical laser. His flatmate and he develop a weapon so powerful that a jealous rival hands it over to the military. It’s official: Kilmer’s “I Love Toxic Waste” tee is the bomb.

Revenge of the Nerds (Jeff Kanew, 1984)

Nose-picking ne’er-do-well Dudley 'Booger' Dawson’s "Give Me Head Til I'm Dead" makes its intent fairly clear. Booger’s other classic tee is a red and white “HIGH ON STRESS” number.

Teen Wolf (Rod Daniel, 1985)

Stiles (Jerry Levine) wears a series of colourful slogan tees in yet another '80s slacker film (in the great hall of T-shirt fame, surely the '80s gets a special accolade). His yellow “Life sucks then you die” is pretty good, but everyone’s fave has to be “What are you looking at dicknose?”

Young Adult (Jason Reitman, 2011)

Mavis Gary (a perfectly snarling Charlize Theron) is a child-woman who doesn’t want to grow up, and this is perfectly emphasized by her Paris Hilton-in-downtime outfit of green trackies, a pink handbag and that “Hello Kitty” T-shirt. Key CV item? Her character was described by the Daily Mail as a “cold-hearted scheming sociopath with an unwarranted superiority complex”. If they say so!

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (Stephen Herek, 1989)

Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) love their tees, either loose, white and cropped like Bill's, or emblazoned with some hard rock iconography, like Ted's Van Halen number, matched with a very dodgy looking waistcoat. Brace yourselves, amigos, for a most triumphant film.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston (Jeff Feuerzeig, 2005)

This documentary about the lo-fi American musician Daniel Johnston covers his musical career and struggles with mental illness. Johnston’s rise in popularity was partly attributed to Kurt Cobain wearing a T-shirt featuring the cover image of Johnston's album 'Hi, How Are You', which appears in the film.

Do The Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)

While Mookie (Spike Lee)’s Brooklyn Dodger’s jersey may be equally iconic, it’s Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn)’s colourful “Bed Stuy Do Or Die” tee that really confirms his radical position within the community. While blasting out Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”, his tee identifies him as “a figure who asserts black solidarity and rebellion to preserve the community” (Kellner, 1995, 161). Lee also uses colour-coding and iconic images of black or white cultural heroes, to correspond characters to their T-shirts.

Chungking Express (Wong Kar-wai, 1994)

Lonely snack bar worker (Faye Wong) harbours a secret crush on the mysterious and unnamed cop (Tony Leung), who visits the snackbar to seek the comfort of familiarity. Forget wearing your heart on your sleeve, she wears it on her chest. 

Kids (Larry Clark, 1995)

Clark’s tale, written by Harmony Korine, captures a day in the life of a group of teens in NYC, with shocking consequences. The boys’ skate shirts and Ruby (Rosario Dawson) and Jenny (Chloe Sevigny)’s worn pastel tees worn with jeans perfectly represent the vibe of laid-back '90s NY street life.

Woodstock (Michael Wadleigh, 1970)

It all started to try and save the brand image of RIT dye. Advertising whizz kid and manager of RIT, Don Price had the savvy idea to expand the market from old biddies dyeing their undies to a hipper crowd. RIT financed the tie-dyeing of thousands of T-shirts which were handed out to fans and rock stars like Janis Joplin and Mama Cass. Who knew the ultimate symbol of hippiedom and antiestablishmentarianism was funded by a dye factory? See the tie-dye (and other protest tees) in action in the greatest festival documentary ever.

Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, 2001)

Enid Coleslaw (Thora Birch)’s bright blue Raptor T-shirt is one of many iconic looks of everybody’s favourite despondent comic book gal.

Dazed and Confused (Richard Linklater, 1993)

Almighty stoner-perv David Wooderson (Matthew McConnaughey) likes the young ladies. And we like his Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes tee.

(500) Days of Summer (Marc Webb, 2009)

Since time immemorial, lovers have flirted through their cultural references, and indie poster boy Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is doing just that to make Summer (Zoey Deschanel) fall in love with him – through the sporting of two Joy Division T-shirts: Love Will Tear Us Apart and Unknown Pleasures. Something tells me that listening to too much Ian Curtis won’t bode well for the romance.

Mystery Train (Jim Jarmusch, 1989)

Elvis-obsessed lovers Mitsuko (Yuoki Kudoh) and Jun (Masatoshi Nagase) are travelling in Memphis on a blues pilgrimage. While trying to take home some hotel towels, Jun and Yuoki see there isn’t any space in her bag because of a pile of a hundred T-shirts. And she’s not getting rid of one: “They’re part of my collection”.

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