The T-shirt makes many statements

Times Staff Writer

Watching the demonstrations move down Wilshire Boulevard on Monday, I was once again reminded of the power of the T-shirt, the most democratic of all garments. In recent years, white T-shirts have been associated with gang activity, but on Monday they conveyed a message of peace and acted as a canvas for humanist slogans.

Worn by hundreds of thousands of protesters, the T-shirt functioned as a uniform, one still being worn on the streets days later, giving visibility to a group that had been invisible.

The T-shirt first arrived in the U.S. after World War I, when servicemen adopted the undershirts from French soldiers, finding that they made their wool uniforms more comfortable. After World War II, the T-shirt became a clothing item in and of itself, and a means for showing support for political candidates.


Hollywood actors popularized T-shirts in the 1950s, when they became identifiers for rebellious youth. Who can forget James Dean in his white shirt and red jacket in “Rebel Without a Cause,” or Marlon Brando in his torn white tee in “A Streetcar Named Desire”?

In the 1960s and ‘70s, T-shirts were a medium for messages -- feminist, antiwar, pro-labor, you name it. They were supplanted by Polo shirts in the 1980s, only to reappear in the 1990s, buoyed by street-wear brands such as FUBU and Sean John.

Today, the T-shirt really is all things to all people. American Apparel sells them for $15.99 at Whole Foods. Balenciaga’s spring runway collection includes a regal black tee embroidered with “Devils in Balenciaga” for $2,590.

The search for the perfect tee has become a lifelong shopping quest, giving the T-shirt a fetishist quality. Designs have all the subtleties of premium denim, thanks to Juicy Couture, C&C; California and the other L.A. labels that first cut the straight-line garment into body-hugging shapes and created entire lifestyle brands around them.

Three Dots recently opened its first U.S. store in the chic Melrose Heights shopping district with an ample supply of tie-back tank dresses, jersey circle skirts and tees in every color and cut ($38 to $198). The brand’s new creative director, Yuchin Mao, came directly from Helmut Lang, and it shows. For her first collection, she was inspired by couture techniques to create a bandeau dress with soft tiers and a long tank top with micro-pleating on the bodice that mimics the effect of a corset.

Meanwhile, the Michael Stars brand is moving into cashmere. In July, its first cashmere T-shirts ($198 to $265) will hit stores. And although others tried, designer Michael Cohen’s feel the best yet -- just the right weight for layering.


The T-shirt is anything but basic at Clu, an L.A. label that is gaining star clients by the minute (Keira Knightley dropped the name on the Academy Awards red carpet). Designers Seung and Jin Lee take a sculptural approach to rayon jersey, with seams that trace the muscle lines. For fall, they used an earthy palette to create a heather gray elongated tank top with subtle color blocking and a jersey mini-dress with asymmetrical ruffles. Clu is available at Fred Segal Flair, Maxfield, Ron Herman, Bloomingdales and Neiman Marcus.

There is even a new take on the ubiquitous rock ‘n’ roll reissue shirts first made trendy by Trunk Ltd.’s Brad Beckerman and now available everywhere -- including Target. A company called Worn Free is selling replicas of shirts worn by music legends, such as John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” shirt.

Among the endless reinterpretations of the T-shirt, perhaps none has inspired as much controversy as the lean, ribbed tank top that has become known as the “wife beater.” Splendid is taking back the term. Shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Not a wifebeater” are $40 at, with half the proceeds going to the nonprofit organization to raise awareness of domestic abuse.

In our midst

Last week, several heavyweight designers hit Los Angeles, beginning with Ralph Rucci, who was honored by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Costume Council. Rucci, who is based in New York, is the only American designer since Mainbocher to show as part of the Paris haute couture calendar. He lectured to a crowd of more than 300 at the museum. He talked about his influences and his definition of couture: “The clothes must be weightless.”

On Sunday, British designer Zandra Rhodes was honored by Woodbury University at the design school’s annual scholarship gala in Beverly Hills. After the students showed their graduate collections, it was Rhodes’ turn.

With her signature pink hair, theatrical makeup and Andrew Logon mirrored jewelry, the designer herself is something to behold, and it was a treat to see her fall collection here. Models danced and floated down the runway in ethereal dresses and tunic tops that showed off Rhodes’ incredible textiles -- very 1970s, very Ossie Clark.


Rhodes splits her time between London, where she runs the Fashion and Textile Museum, and San Diego, where she designs costumes for the opera. Her work is featured in “The Magic Flute,” which opens tonight.