In Berlin’s central Mitte district, young men in beards and tight pants can be seen on almost every corner. In trendy bars and galleries, it is clear the dress code of the last two decade – jeans, T-shirts and sneakers – has not changed.
Only one aspect of the look has been modified: Suddenly, many hipsters are wearing white T-shirts.
It was particularly noticeable that young men who set the tone in Mitte are wearing unprinted, and, at first glance, completely anonymous white T-shirts.
Have the much-ridiculed and despised hipsters of Mitte lost interest in elaborate clothing? Is the white T-shirt part of the so-called “Normcore” fashion trend, a combination of “normal” and “hard core,” in which a demonstrative display of unpretentiousness is celebrated?
A far more interesting question is: Does the white T-shirt represent a romantic search by young and spoiled men for clothes that look so reduced, minimalist and empty that absolutely nothing can be read into or derived from them?
Is a white T-shirt devoid of history, rebellion or affirmation, a negation of the desire to be young, stupid and beautiful?
Let’s first start with a brief history of the white T-shirt. It is conceivably the simplest of all garments. The classic T-shirt has a straight, slim cut, a round collar and short sleeves at an almost 90-degree angle to the body, forming the letter T.
“There are two types of fashion – one embellishes the body, while for the other type the body has to be beautiful. The white T-shirt clearly belongs to the second type.”
Originally an undergarment, white T-shirts were worn by rowing teams at universities on the U.S. East Coast in the 1920s. During World War II, the U.S. army wore white T-shirts by the thousands. Similar to how Coco Chanel had made her Chanel outfit from jersey material, underwear became ordinary clothing.
After the war, white T-shirts became part of American popular culture. James Dean, in the film ”Rebel Without a Cause,” and Marlon Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” became icons for it. Together with denim jeans, boots and a black leather jacket, the white T-shirt completed the classic rebel look. Since the greaser look of the 1950s, there hasn’t been a youth culture for which the white T-shirt wasn’t essential.
An important step toward acceptance was made when then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy was photographed in a white T-shirt in 1960. As a fashion accessory, the white T-shirt first appeared in the 1990s, introduced by designer label Dolce & Gabbana. Most recently, it has been seen paired with long skirts at the prêt-à-porter shows of Raf Simons for Jil Sander.
Nowadays, everyone wears it. With its neutral look it is the ultimate statement of objectivity, practicality and unobtrusiveness. The white T-shirt isn’t making an anti-statement. In fact, it is the clearest statement possible. In fashion, an unfashionable statement is simply impossible. Whenever a garment has the aura of non-statement it becomes the object of near-hysterical affection in high fashion.
In a highly regarded essay, British fashion critic Suzy Menkes had complained about the fact that fashion writers were diverting attention from the real stage, the runway, by wearing excessively garish and complicated outfits. In a counter move, Emmanuelle Alt, editor-in-chief of Vogue Paris, was the first in 2012 to appear at fashion shows in a deliberately understated anti-fashion outfit, wearing jeans, a white T-shirt and white Stan Smith sneakers by Adidas. Phoebe Philo, the head designer for Céline, later wore the same look.
It’s a fashion paradox. Since the white T-shirt became officially established as an anti-fashion accessory it has transcended it and became a high-fashion statement. The white T-shirt found its sublime expression as a high-fashion accessory at Valentino in Paris last year. It was oversized, had boxy shoulders, was made of a Neoprene-like material and produced so expensively that it acquired an element of haute couture. Priced at €380 ($500), the Valentino T-shirt was an instant hit and sold widely.
Who wears white T-shirts nowadays? Some people come to mind, for instance the German artist Wolfgang Tillmans and Brazilian daredevil Christian Rosa, the new star at Berlin’s Contemporary Fine Arts gallery. The controversial rapper Eminem and the king of all hip self-promoters, James Franco, wear white T-shirts as well. Berlin’s nightlife workers also wear it, hoping that the aura of art will rub off on them.
“There is a certain grand ennui behind the popularity of the white T-shirt due to market mechanisms and the need to constantly reinvent things and sell them as new versions.”
It’s odd how art and white T-shirts are so closely aligned. Incidentally or not, the white canvas and white T-shirts are both inventions of the 20th century. Perhaps the archetype of the white T-shirt hipster is the abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, photographed dripping paint onto a canvas in 1948.
A small poll among German artists or intellectuals resulted in some interesting observations. Barbara Vinken, a clever and elegant literary scholar in Germany, said: “I like to rave about the white T-shirt.” According to Ms. Vinken, the T-shirt ties in with the esthetic of antiquity – chest plates on bare skin. Of course, the white T-shirt also conforms to the less-is-more code of modernity.
Martin Mosebach, a German writer who has idiotically been derided as a dandy, said he did not own white T-shirts. They are unfit for the body of older intellectuals, he said. “There are two types of fashion – one embellishes the body, while for the other type the body has to be beautiful in the first place. The white T-shirt clearly belongs to the second type.”
German fashion designer Kostas Murkudis, last employed by the German-Italian casual clothing maker Closed, sees the white T-shirt as a reflection of the fast pace and two-dimensionality of our time. There is also a certain grand ennui behind the popularity of the white T-shirt, said Mr. Murkudis, due to market mechanisms and the need to constantly reinvent things and sell them as new versions.
The ultra-hip, Minneapolis-born artist Nik Kosmas, who has lived in Berlin since 2006, is known for his appearances in Berlin’s nightlife scene accompanied by beautiful women, his penchant for Hip-Hop from the American South and his extremely sexy pole-dancing abilities. Like any self-respecting hipster, he had no comment. For Mr. Kosmas, the white T-shirt is like taking a breather – you don’t have to think about it. The artist pointed out that he hadn’t had a drink, taken drugs or smoked since last September. After our conversation, we went for a drink together in the Kreuzberg neighborhood, far away from Mitte. The artist was wearing a black T-shirt with thin lettering printed on it.
This article first appeared in Die Zeit. It was translated by Christopher Sultan. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org