`The single most powerful fashion metaphor of the century,' American Vogue has called it. Most men have at least one in their wardrobes - many women, too. It's helped shape the images of several generations of post- war stars, from Marlon Brando and Paul Newman to Bruce Springsteen and Damon Albarn. The white T-shirt and its iconography, by Dylan Jones

The T-shirt, or at least the T-shirt as we know it, was born in the theatre. When Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire premiered in New York on 3 December, 1947, Marlon Brando took to the stage wearing a pair of indigo trucker's pants, a malevolent leer and a bright, white capped-sleeve T-shirt wrapped around his incontestable frame. It was the first time it had appeared publicly as anything but an undergarment; not because of director Elia Kazan's prior stage direction, but because Brando had worn one - and only one - to rehearsals.

The actor may have copied his impoverished peers (play-acting in each other's apartments, wearing little in the baking Manhattan heat), though it's more likely he saw an ad for Sears, Roebuck. The American company began marketing the T-shirt as an "outergarment" - or at least something which had an identity of its own, rather than hiding underneath a denim work shirt, an army uniform or a pair of oil-sodden overalls - during the 1930s, advertising it as a "gob"-style sailors' blouse, forever infusing it with romantic, nautical associations.

Brando later immortalised the T-shirt on screen, both in the film version of Streetcar in 1951 and in The Wild One three years later, when it was paired with a battered black leather jacket, much to the delight of nascent teenage rebels everywhere. Twelve months after, Jimmy Dean borrowed the look (substituting a red cotton windcheater for the black jacket) in Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without A Cause, and all hell broke loose. Cool had arrived in the shape of a skimpy piece of white cotton, and we loved it.

Fundamentally, the white T-shirt became the easiest entry point into blue collar American style, a style which was used and subsequently abused by every aspiring Hollywood glower-monger: Paul Newman in Hud, Steve McQueen in The Sand Pebbles, Paul LeMat in American Graffiti, John Travolta in Grease, Richard Gere in anything, even the loathsome Don Johnson in Miami Vice (pairing it with loose, Armani linen suits, sleeves often rolled way up to the elbows). The great James Caan wore one to great effect in most of his early roles. Perhaps the most underrated actor of his generation (Michael Mann's 1981 masterpiece, Thief - aka Violent Streets - is proof, in case any more were needed), Jimmy Caan wore his white T as though it were just another layer of skin, a talent best seen in The Godfather when - playing Sonny Corleone - he delivers his famous soliloquy about brother Michael (Al Pacino): "Listen," says Sonny. "I want somebody good, and I mean very good, to plant that gun. I don't want my brother coming out of the toilet with just his dick in his hands." This address would have been powerful enough by itself, but as Caan was wearing a sleeveless, high-necked vest, the effect was tenfold.

The white T-shirt was so ubiquitous during the 1950s and 1960s that even the bookish got in on the act, Arthur Miller and Truman Capote sporting one whenever the (photo) opportunity arose. Strongly influenced by GIs enrolling in colleges after WWII, preppies cottoned-on too, appropriating it for their own, highly particular uniform (madras button-down shirts, monogrammed polo tops, Sperry Top-Siders), transforming the garment into a collegiate staple. So successful was this submergence that by the mid- 1960s it seemed like it had been attending Yale for years - had, in fact, become a "classic". Even Jack Kennedy wore one! In Nik Cohn's remarkable history of British post-war menswear, Today There are No Gentlemen (1971), the designer Tom Gilbey said: "Most of all, I'm influenced by the American campus look: it's so classic and immaculate. Jeans and a T-shirt, big bumper shoes, bermuda shorts - nothing is wasted: it's perfect."

It was still around in the 1980s, when design in general was getting seriously fussy, as well as seriously expensive. This was largely due to Bruce Springsteen, though it was Annie Leibovitz's iconic cover of Born in the USA (1984) which rubber-stamped his image: a studded cowboy belt, a pair of Levi 501s with a red baseball cap hanging out of his right back pocket, and - how could any self-respecting Mojo reader forget? - a white capped-sleeve T-shirt, bristling with intent and muscle.

In fact, if there were any justice in the world, the 1980s should really have killed off the T-shirt, as the often cynical marketing of retro-active consumer durables, such as Bass Weejuns, Wrangler, Budweiser, Ray-Bans, Brylcreem, Zippo and the like, turned the 1950s look into just another slot-machine phantasm, available on every street corner in Britain in small, medium and large. As revivals appeared with increasing regularity, so the past became as accessible as the present - often more so - an off- the-peg homage to the repetitive nature of youth culture, while retro plunder turned into a national pastime.

The T-shirt was impervious, though, surviving the decade and emerging stronger than ever, re-classified - absurdly enough - as some kind of timeless classic (there's that word again), like the Norfolk jacket, the Chesterfield overcoat, the Hunter Wellington boot or the Cartier Santos watch. According to American Vogue, it is now "the single most powerful fashion metaphor of the century". And to be fanciful about it, that, possibly, is the crux of the whole matter. Until the 1950s, Western dress was still severely under the influence of 19th-century formal - best bib and tucker, and all that - playing a crucial role in society's definitions of gender, class, in those days even age. But the world was a different place after 1945. The jigsaw had been so dismantled that life began anew, and the culture of "culture", and all that came with it, suddenly determined how we saw the world and how we saw each other: art, pop, cinema, fashion, media, "style", blah, blah, blah. It was easier to be what you wanted to be, as suddenly the world was a place which embraced the idiosyncratic, the individual and - yes, yes, yes! - the young.

Nowhere was this most apparent than in the world of fashion and street style, where the codes were being scrambled with alarming alacrity. You wanted to look like an English cavalry officer or a day-glo nun? Fine. A renegade biochemist or shrink-wrapped beatnik, a pinched little mod or gregarious new bohemian? Take a ticket and join the queue.

Perhaps this is why so-called style items like the "classic" white T- shirt have improved their currency: as individualism becomes commonplace, regimented, we to revert to things we can believe in, in much the same way as we turn to Bath Olivers, Daddies Sauce or a trusty pair of brogues.

Admittedly, it's only a T-shirt, but then that's the whole point, isn't it? An insidious badge of quiet good taste. Giorgio Armani is never seen without one, nor Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Philippe Starck, Kate Moss, Damon Albarn or the young Texan heart throb Matthew McConaughey, come to that. These days, everyone owns one (even Bill Clinton), but not everyone makes a virtue of it or flaunts it as though it were a tattoo.

The white T-shirt has unfortunately also become something of a walking billboard, a canvas onto which the most crass and vulgar things are now printed: garish graphics and unremitting slogans which announce the membership of every type of socio-economic cult worn by everyone from nightclub dahlings and suburban b-boys to Falstaffian cab drivers and lairy sports fans.

The slogan T-shirt is, however, a rather shallow exercise. As writer Fran Lebowitz so succinctly put it back in the 1970s, when we were already beginning to tire of the cacophony, "If people don't want to listen to you, what makes you think they want to hear from your sweater."

Really. Being white says so much more

As long as it's white (clockwise from top left): Smooching, New York in the 1950s; trailerpark trash, Yosemite, California, 1966; Brooklyn gang, 1959; Elvis joins the army, Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, 26 March 1958; Rumble on the Docks, 1956; Yankees' slugger `Jolting' Joe DiMaggio with autograph seekers, Miami Beach, 23 February 1948 Star-struck (from left): New York, 1955. Paul Newman at the Actor's Studio; Taipei, 1965. Steve McQueen on location for The Sand Pebbles; Sean Connery sleeps off the Sixties

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