Why is it so hard to find a good white T-shirt?


Frankie Graddon | The Pool

It’s the final few days of January, which, in the world of fashion, means one thing: summer is here. It might be bitter outside, but February is mere moments away – so, let’s stop discussing the cardigan revival and instead contemplate which basket bag to buy this season or whether we’ll be wearing pool slides again (spoiler alert, we will). I love the arrival of a new fashion season. However incongruous it might feel with the weather, it is a time of renewal and reinvention. It is a time to shop! But the other night, as I mentally compiled my “If I had all the money in the world, what would I buy?” list in front of Dinner Date, do you know what was at the top? A perfectly fitting white T-shirt. And what was second? A pair of indigo jeans that don’t give me camel toe. Yes, the new season might be about to drop, but what I really want – what most of us really want – are those elusive things called "basics".

The Perfect White T-Shirt – whoever invented that idea has obviously never tried shopping for one. As mythical wardrobe items go, this one might as well have a horn attached to its forehead – and yet we persist in seeking it out. “Where to find the perfect white T-shirt?” has 145m hits on Google and counting, while on average we have 14 of them in our wardrobes (I actually have 21). We are obsessed. So obsessed that, when Victoria Beckham wore a boxy white T-shirt for the final bow of her last fashion show, it made headline news. And what was she wearing it with? Sequin knickers and a feather on her head? No, a pair of dark blue jeans. Jeans that didn’t bag at the knee and gape at the bum. Fit-like-a-glove-type jeans. AKA the Holy Grail.

“They’re what most women live in… They might not be revolutionary, but they’re better than that. They’re essential”, says Laura Craik on the subject. It’s true, they are what women live in, or, perhaps more accurately, what women *want* to live in. Show me a woman who doesn’t subscribe to the Jane Birkin white T-shirt/blue jeans ideal and I will eat my proverbial hat (grey marl cashmere, of course).

The Perfect White T-Shirt – whoever invented that idea has obviously never tried shopping for one

The appeal of basics (white T-shirt, blue jeans, camel coat, cotton shirt, grey crew neck, black boots) is obvious. They are Birkin and Hepburn, Coddington and Philo. They are low maintenance and easy – stylish without being try-hard (ironic, given how hard we try finding them). They are the promise of simplicity in a bonkers world. A straightforward answer to the bore that is “What shall I put on this morning?”. An assurance that we will never stand in front of the wardrobe and wail, “I have nothing to wear”. And, thus, we dedicate great swathes of our lives hunting down our perfect iterations.

So popular is our quest for said basics that entire brands are dedicated to providing them (Everlane, COS, Uniqlo), but their popularity has also spawned an obstacle that seeks to get in our way – the concept of the “elevated basic”. Remember VB’s white T-shirt? Yep, that retailed at a whopping £90. Since the birth of athleisure, we have seen the fashion world ingest our beloved basics and spit them back out with chronically expensive price tags: behold the £800 Vetements hoodie.

But do you need to spend a fortune? No. In fact, quite the opposite. My most disappointing white T-shirt was from James Perse, which sells T-shirts ranging from £69-£200. What is advertised as lightweight jersey actually translates to so sheer you could see the washing label on my bra, whereas my new pima-cotton T-shirt from COS is as close as I’ve ever come to Perfect White T-Shirt status (nice cotton, tucks into jeans, not see-through, no capped sleeves) and is £15. Jeans? Unsurprisingly, the nation’s favourite is still skinny style and in black. Topshop’s high-waisted Jamie jeans still come out on top in this department (£40). If you prefer a looser fit, then head to Hush – the boyfriend style is their bestseller.

Shirts, trench coats, boots – I’ve shopped, I’ve tried on and I’ve put them through the washing machine. Below is my edit of the perfect basics – or as close to perfect as is possible.