Reprinted from Sex and Suits, published by Alfred A. Knopf, copyright 1994 by Anne Hollander, reprinted by permission of the author.
A male fugitive from suits who wears jeans and a tee-shirt is nevertheless still clad in perfectly conventional garments partly consisting of conventional underwear; he is making use of another old tradition of sartorial revolution that brings the unseen to the surface. For women this is now being done with bras and girdles, having been done much earlier with petticoats, peignoirs, camisoles, undershirts and slips. Those have all counted as more scenes in the enterprising feminine drama of exposure; but male underwear is somewhat different. Tee-shirts began as male undershirts; but so in fact did all shirts in the dim past. The shirt-sleeves costume for men still retains a socially forbidden quality in some contexts, held over from the shirt’s ancient days as underwear. But tee-shirts have a stronger one, since they were originally meant to be worn under tailored shirts, an even more intimate protective layer.
Men’s fashion has never used provocative exposure as part of a formal scheme; and shirts, once invisible under medieval doublets, became elegant status symbols when they began to emerge, not erotic elements. The important parts that showed, the collar, cuffs and some of the bosom, were incorporated into the imposing and skin-concealing surface composition, but the rest remained hidden—still underwear, still humiliating as public costume. Traditionally, a man in nothing but underwear is undignified and ridiculous, or vulnerable and perhaps ever sacrificial, but symbolically stripped naked, not enticingly semi-nude.
Nevertheless, half undressed with his pants on and his coat off, he’s an attractive image of unselfconscious readiness for work or play, stripped for action to his second skin, which is there to soak up the honorable sweat of his sport or labor. With the shirt collar open and the sleeves rolled up, he may indeed be very erotically exposed; but that effect, unlike deliberate feminine décolletage, only succeeds by looking artless. A man can thus be attractively undressed in ordinary shirtsleeves and trousers; but he can obviously look even more so in a tee-shirt, the under-undergarment. An extreme naked vulnerability is still there, lurking behind the zeal. The combination is very appealing.
It’s therefore not surprising that tee-shirts were the other phenomenon besides jeans that swept the world in the last third of this century, encompassing all sexes and classes and nations in a universal common nakedness. On top of this artless skin now goes a favored emblem, lexical or not, something that dresses the person in a provisional tattoo, transcending mere clothing. Tee-shirts began skin-tight; but it’s clear that they really make the wearer even more naked if they’re loose and keep all specific bumps and hollows from intruding on the eye. Such freedom from fit only adds to the idea that the wearer is really not dressed at all; just an ambling bare body, casually flashing the message on its chest.
Because poor adolescents in cities also wore the original jeans-and-tee-shirt costume, it had the repeatedly modish look of youthful lawlessness along with its older flavor of honest work. In the 1960’s, it became the new sans-culotte costume, the scary dress of the restive urban masses. Like the original one, it came to stay and develop great variety in all social groups. Tee-shirts and jeans keep their fashionable subversive authority, their ability to weigh heavily among any proposed set of modes and to keep looking new, chiefly because their form is old and familiar, but also because they always suggest the naked man. When women wear them they still suggest Naked Man, the universal human being, dressed in neutral bareness to show that sex is not the issue for the moment.
We live in violent times, and the violent tenor of life is clearly present in everyone’s sartorial consciousness. Ordinary clothing has lately tended to suppress the enlightened modern look based on the assumption of physical safety, in favor of connoting readiness to meet physical challenges or danger—as...