The Classic Sartorialist: Style down to a T

It is the simplest piece of clothing in every man’s wardrobe: the classic T-shirt. If worn well, it can exude ease and relaxation as well as a keen sense of fashion.

The earliest T-shirts actually originated in the 19th century women’s reform movement. As an alternative to constricting undergarments, women fashioned what nowadays is called a “onesie” to break free from corsets. It wouldn’t take long, though, for men to adopt the comfortable flannel undergarment.

By the late 19th century, men were wearing one-piece “union suits” under their everyday work clothes. A few years later, miners and stevedores trying to escape hot conditions began cutting them along the waist into separate tops and bottoms.

The final step in the path to what we currently consider a T-shirt came during the Spanish-American War when the U.S. Navy issued crew-necked, short-sleeve, button-less shirts for sailors to wear underneath their uniforms. Aboard submarines and marching through hot climates, men took to wearing just their Navy-issued undershirts in order to keep their uniform jacket clean.


Upon returning from the war and picking up the plow, soldiers carried on the tradition. Cheap, quick to throw on, and easy to clean, the T-shirt became widely popular by the Great Depression.

Today, the simple T-shirt comes in a variety of cuts, colors and styles. Knowing how, when and where to sport each of them can distinguish you from the crowd.

Solid crew

The most basic of T-shirts, the crew neck has of late played second fiddle to the increasingly popular v-neck, but it still retains a place in every man’s summer wardrobe. The key to a refined crew neck is fit. Almost every T-shirt should hit just below the waist, falling no farther than the bottom of your belt loops while the sleeves should hug your arm around mid-bicep. A well-made and well-fitted white T-shirt looks great on any hot summer afternoon.


Printed graphic tees are a dime a dozen, and most aren’t worth even that. Trade in those 5k and summer vacation souvenir shirts for some more stylistic graphic tees from Hobbs, 700 Massachusetts St. They’ve hand-selected some great retro tees inspired by classic '50s styles. Some of my favorites include their timely collection of Sol Angeles national tees that allow you to support your World Cup team in style (multiple countries available, $54).


With two or three buttons stretching from the neck to mid-chest, stripped henleys are the perfect summer evening out T-shirt. As the sun goes down, you can button up if temperatures drop (Gap, $26.95).

Brewery shirt

As a craft beer lover, I’d be leaving out a large portion of my own go-to summer T-shirt collection if I didn’t mention that every man needs to own at least one local brewery shirt. Perfect for a night at the bar or a weekend beer festival. Free State Brewing Company, 636 Massachusetts St., doesn’t disappoint with a well-designed logo T-shirt that contrasts its signature Prairie Falcon on a heather gray background ($15).

— Nicholas Cunigan is a Ph.D. candidate in early American history at Kansas University. He blends classic fashion with modern details on a low-cost budget.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.