There are two schools of thought surrounding white T-shirt wearing: those who say it is impossible to keep them in good condition and thus, why invest, and those who truly believe quality is not a myth; that the right white tee can change your life. I have oscillated between both schools at various stages of my life, but have never actually stopped to ask myself: What is the difference, really, between the Hanes T-shirts I used to buy from the pharmacy in three-packs, and generation T by Alexander Wang, which arguably heralded the expensive T-shirt trend?
Are expensive T-shirts really worth their fiscal salt? Determined to find out, I spent the past week arduously wearing T-shirts priced between $5 and $320, acting like a judge committed to the tenets of a meritocracy in one of those dog shows. Let me tell you, the results will surprise you. Floor you, even. This is truly the most important work I will likely do in this lifetime! While I was testing the $50 shirt, I even thought I should submit myself for a Pulitzer. (You just let me know when the hyperbole gets annoying.)
To remain organized and fair, I developed three qualification factors upon which the shirts would be judged: fabric (how soft, rigid, clingy or not), fit (boxy, fitted, short, long) and ability to withstand a full day without becoming haggard. The highest score a tee could accrue is 3, the lowest is negative 3. Let’s begin!
I started with the cheapest shirt, which was by Hanes. You can buy a pack of three for $15 but I warn you, the shirts are very long (-1 for fit). The shirt is 100% cotton and there’s a definite rigidness to the fabric, which I like. It makes rolling up the sleeves and ensuring they stay put, like hairspray on a Texan, an easy feat (+1 for fabric). Unfortunately, it does not tuck into high-waist pants or shorts very well, but could serve the purpose of eager shirt dress if belted and worn with, you know, knee-cap leggings. Very Carrie Bradshaw, if I may say so myself. I wore the shirt for approximately five hours and by day’s end, I smelled like a two-day old onion, which suggests the fabric, though cotton, is not breathable (-1 for ability to withstand a full day without becoming haggard).
Total score: -1
Love the fit on this guy — he is super boxy — and appreciate the boob pocket. I like to stick things in there like singular, dried pickles and Barbie shoes, etc (+1 for fit). Fabric wise, though, it was nearly impossible to iron out the wrinkles, which is cool because metaphorically speaking, it is very Man Repeller (we try not to iron out the literary and cultural wrinkles). For the sake of this test, though, I wondered how useful this shirt would be outside the confines of athleisure. It is also 100% cotton, and considerably softer than the former Hanes tee, so for that it’s -1 re: wrinkles and +1 re: cotton, yielding a score of 0 for fabric. How did it fare the rest of the day? I didn’t smell bad, but I didn’t look fresh either, so it earns a neutral 0 once again.
Total score: 1
This shirt was more eggshell than white, but it certainly still served the purpose of making me look casual-n-cool. It was soft like the Everlane shirt (a good thing, +1), but I prefer stark white to eggshell most days of the week (-1) thus bringing the fabric point to a neutral 0. I found the shirt to be a bit fitted for my taste, though I am sure it would tuck really nicely into a high-waist, A-line skirt, or something sequined or whatever — but then again, it might not be quite “sleek” enough to wear in that way. The crewneck was a bit tight (I tend to like more of my collarbone exposed), as were the sleeves, but the length of was good. Overall, it loses a point for fit (-1) because of the crewneck and arm holes, but wins one for ability to endure a day without making me feel like spoiled produce — it’s organic cotton! Soft to the touch! (+1)
Total score: 0
I feel great in this one. Somehow my shoulders look broader (possibly due to larger arm holes and more rigid stitching at the shoulders?), the fit is quite boxy, the shirt is short enough to be tucked into high-waist stuff but also long enough to be left out without looking awkward. It kind of just floats. The weight of the cotton is medium, so it’s not clingy and it’s not exactly rigid, either. +1 for fabric. Another point for fit (+1) because I feel like a delicate quarterback which is the nicest compliment I have ever given myself. And per its ability to endure a day? 1 tomato-sauce stain (my fault), and some very light pilling; -1.
Total score: 2
Well, this one is practically like wearing angel foreskin. It is by far the softest of the five, but with great softness comes a little clinginess, even though there is not even a single percentage point of jersey in the top. It doesn’t cling so much, but I can see how it might — and there’s no real blousing that occurs when it’s tucked. I am big on blousing. Not the shirt’s fault, but it earns a neutral zero for fit and a 1 for fabric. This is primarily because it is 100% cotton, but makes me feel like I am lathering expensive Row cream over the top of my body or something. As you might guess, it endured a day fairly well — even through an anxiety spiral that provoked stress sweats.
It gets +1 for breathability, which brings the total score to a 2.
Conclusion: Given the scoring, The Row shirt and the 3×1 shirt are technically tied, but I liked the 3×1 one version better. I’d probably wear the Everlane one second, even though it got a 1, which makes me feel like I am a conflicted judge, but it doesn’t matter. Everyone likes T-shirts for different reasons; it seems we are living in the style’s golden age because the offering is so expansive, the standards so high and for the majority of consumers, the outcome is satisfaction (this is not proven, but doesn’t it have a ring to it?).
My only residual question is: How is it that each of these shirts is 100% cotton, but yet feel entirely different from one another?
Photos by Edith Young; market assistance by Elizabeth Tamkin.