How to style a plain white T-shirt, according to 5 menswear icons

It’s a style staple — but it can be difficult to get this wardrobe essential right. From Marlon Brando to James Dean, here’s how to wear a white T-shirt well…

The plain white T-shirt: timeless, traditional — but tricky. It may have simple short sleeves and a basic cut, but somehow this everyday essential manages to serve up plenty of style problems. Does it only really work as a base layer? Can it ever be a given a more formal spin? Is less actually more?

See? Tricky. Thankfully, there are several style icons of the past who managed to master the art of the plain white T-shirt. From Marlon Brando’s capped-sleeve efforts to the dressed-down debonair air of James Dean, we’ve taken a look through the archives to discover how best to style this versatile, fundamental garment. 

Try pairing with understated jewellery, like Robert Redford

The key to pulling off a plain white T-shirt, if Oscar-winning actor Robert Redford is to be believed, is to lean into its simplicity. Built to be basic, the white T-shirt needs no adornments or ornamentation. Indeed, even if you are inclined to add some jewellery, make sure to keep it conservative.

That means, like Redford above, opting for a simple silver chain. It’s a slightly seventies look — but the retro decade is currently enjoying a style renaissance, so you’ll be bang on trend with your slim chain and regular-fit white T-shirt. Now all you need is Redford’s sweeping seventies hairstyle — and a handsome crop of chest hair — to complete the image.

How to style a plain white T-shirt, according to 5 menswear icons

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Wear with formal trousers, like Marlon Brando

Brando’s most iconic look sprung from cinema. In 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire, the actor’s Stanley Kowalski donned a plain white T-shirt as it was intended to be worn at the time; as an underlayer. So, while he had a casual, off-duty look above the waist, his trousers — belts, braces and boots included — were all formal.

Rather than jeans, Brando’s trousers were spun from formal flannel, and themselves put a smart spin on the white T-shirt style. We’d recommend going a little lighter for the impending summer months, and perhaps slipping on a pair of pleated linen trousers instead. 

How to style a plain white T-shirt, according to 5 menswear icons

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Keep things simple with jeans, like Paul Newman

Newman took a different approach. Cool Hand Luke himself wore his plain white T-shirt proudly — using the basic base layer as a way to brandish his characters’ working-class roots. Paired with blue denim jeans, it’s an incredibly simple look — but one that has endured and inspired generations to come.

The style has been worn from icons including Steve McQueen and Bruce Springsteen, but was exhibited by Newman best. Yet, despite the actor also being an advocate of the deep V-neck T-shirt, we’d recommend sticking to his classic round crew collar (and adding a touch of luxury with Brunello Cucinelli).   

How to style a plain white T-shirt, according to 5 menswear icons

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How to style a plain white T-shirt, according to 5 menswear icons

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How to style a plain white T-shirt, according to 5 menswear icons

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Add a signature, statement jacket, like James Dean

James Dean’s most iconic look was anchored by a plain white T-shirt. For the pioneering, landmark drama, Rebel Without a Cause, Dean’s Jim Stark wore the same classic blue jeans and white T-shirt combination as Paul Newman above — but added a bright, bold cherry-red bomber jacket. 

Dean’s thin nylon windbreaker may have looked stylish on celluloid — but we’d recommend investing in something a little more substantial. This way, you can keep your plain white T-shirt in rotation well into wintertime. Opt for a versatile navy Harrington as a way to bulk up the basic.

How to style a plain white T-shirt, according to 5 menswear icons

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Lace up matching white sneakers, like Steve McQueen

And, finally, McQueen. The King of Cool was the Prince of the plain white T-shirt. Paul Newman may have brought the simple style into the movie star mainstream, but it was Steve McQueen who added rough, rugged nonchalance to the look.

Sneakers are key here; similarly simple white shoes to match your T-shirt and bookend your outfit. And, in the vein of Redford’s chain, accessorising from the neck-up. This time, rather than jewellery, a pair of classically shaped sunglasses; such as Persol’s 714s. 

How to style a plain white T-shirt, according to 5 menswear icons

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Want to learn more about McQueen’s iconic frames? Here’s the story of the actor’s legendary Persol sunglasses…

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