What may have once been considered vanilla, the white t-shirt is now a solid style star. That’s thanks to the rise of elevated basics, or what’s commonly referred to as normcore, in recent years. Its appeal? Equally at ease topping ripped jeans or a midi skirt, the t-shirt is a true style egalitarian, delivering a quiet confidence and nonchalant vibe to every look. Once you find the perfect white tee, everything else in your wardrobe just seems to come together.
But don’t be fooled by humble appearances — getting a great fit, cut, and fabric isn’t as simple as you’d think. Ask any fashion editor or stylist around and they’ll tell you that the ‘perfect’ white t-shirt is one of the most elusive wardrobe pieces out there. Finding it is like striking sartorial gold. “It’s so hard to find because most basic t-shirts aren’t cut to be fashion-forward, but rather in a general, boxy way,” explains Brandon Frein, fashion stylist and editor with the Chicago-based styling agency, Kit This. “Most standard tees are either too long or too sloppy and oversized.”
Once you come into possession of the perfect white t-shirt, though, it’ll be the most versatile and hardest working item in your closet, she adds. Below, stylists share the secrets to finding the Holy Grail of fashion.
Find the right fit
Not all t-shirts are created equal. Sizing, cut, and the density or weave of the cotton used varies by brand. “Just as there are many different body types, there are just as many t-shirt styles, with a range of necklines, hemlines, and sleeve lengths,” says Arlene Matthews, stylist and editor at Kit This. Start by spending some time in a store trying on different cuts until you find what fits your shape comfortably, she suggests.
For petites, avoiding long and baggy styles in favor of a cropped or shorter length is ideal. If you’re taller, go for a relaxed fit and hemline that hits at your natural waistline to balance your height. Or, try knotting a slim-cut shirt for instant definition and shape. If you’re curvier or have more of an apple shape, Frein recommends A-line tees, as they are non-clingy.
Next, consider the neckline. “If you’re busty, you don’t want a crew neck; try a V-neck instead to elongate your lines,” says Frein. If you have a smaller bust and wider shoulders, she suggests staying away from boatnecks, as they will only add the appearance of more width. A scoop neck on the other hand will show off the collarbone and draw the focus in.
Try the menswear department
Now, this may seem a little contradictory, but many editors will also hit up the menswear departments for XXS to medium-sized tees. The reason? Several in fact. Co-opting those boxier cuts means no nipped-in waists and a more neutral shape, plus there is often a bigger selection. Men’s tees tend to also be made from a heavier weave of cotton, which offers both a little more structure and longevity.
“You can always alter tees to fit,” says Frein, who does this often. “Buy them to fit the shoulders and chest, then have them cut if they are too long or tight across the hips.” Men’s shirts, for the most part, are at a lower price point than women’s, so spending a little extra on tailoring isn’t unreasonable, especially considering how often you’ll wear it.
Wear it well
If the white t-shirt came with one instruction, it would be to wear it spontaneously and effortlessly. Unlike its logo-stamped or statement-driven siblings, it offers infinite styling possibilities. Once you’ve nailed your fit, it’s the piece that transcends the trends and the seasons, to be worn any which way you like, for fashion eternity.
A stylish way to wear it right now, though, is to really highlight that simplicity. “Push the minimalism,” says Matthews. “The Row is famous for this. Pair your tee with a great exaggerated wide pant or this season’s flared jeans.” Frein also likes to wear fitted white t-shirts with fuller pants and skirts: “Something fitted on top to balance the volume on bottom,” she says.
“It’s also great when you don’t know what to wear under a blazer or as a key layering piece under dresses and camisoles,” Frein adds.
Stylist Karla Welch teamed up with t-shirt experts Hanes to create the ultimate universal tee. “I wanted a shirt that I saw on all the heroines in movies from Grace Kelly to Winona Ryder. Tight neck, fitted through body, and a sleeve that’s just right,” she writes.