An emblem of easy rebellion, stylistic neutrality, and personal freedom, the white t-shirt says so much with so little. Model Gigi Hadid plays it punk with a fashion classic.
Hello, sailor. Nice shirt. Beginning in 1913, men deployed by the United States Navy were handed a snow-white surprise along with their standard-issue uniform. Farm boys—scared, new, letters from girls in their pockets—were the test market for the T-shirt. Now these kids were sailors, suddenly, wearing a shirt made for days and nights spent shoulder-to-shoulder on ships and submarines. The T-shirt was a model of minimalist efficiency previously unseen in military uniforms: soft, light, slip it on, whip it off. Fits close to the skin, stuffs into your hip pocket. And following its introduction, the aesthetic of battle was forever changed.
Crusade, conquest, or invasion, warriors of the past had always dressed the part: crested helmets, bearskins, suits of armor, body paint, feathers. Each war entailed its own war drag. But all that began to change in 1913, as demonstrated most dramatically by the fate of a breed of soldier known as the Zouave. First recruited by the French in 1831, the Zouave, from Algeria, were members of the Zouaoua, a tribe of Berbers
that lived in the Jurjura Mountains.
For uniforms, the Zouave wore what can only be called finery: turbans and tasseled fezzes, pantaloons, short jackets decorated with embroidered trefoils, and brightly-hued cummerbunds and sashes. The Zouave were totems of the romantic warrior. They epitomized a proudly visual and external concept of war—and of the warrior. Gorgeous and complicated, Zouaves were also thought to be the best fighters. When a Zouave marched double-time onto the field, with the lightest, quickest step, he inspired copycat regiments in wars the world over. There were Brazilian Zouaves in the Paraguayan War, and American Civil War Zouaves. According to Civil War General George B. McClellan, the French Zouave was “the most reckless, self-reliant, and complete infantryman that Europe can produce…the beau-ideal of a soldier.” Zouaves instilled fear in the same way a male peacock outdoes his rivals: by looking fantastically fierce.
By the time of World War I, navy men were asked to be “sea eagles”—robotically efficient killing machines—not peacocks. Male vanity had turned inward; war was tactical and planned, intellectualized. The idea of battle being beautiful was diametrically opposed to the idea of uniforms being useful. In the Victorian era, according to historian Michael J. McAfee, “military art…[depicted]…immense fields of battle, miraculously devoid of smoke or confusion…As a result, the Victorian mind was able to view war through a veil of romanticism and hide from sight those aspects it preferred not to see.” In the 20th century, however, the world traded all that grace for lethal function. Victorian sensibilities, McAfee writes, “died in the muddy Flanders fields in 1914 with thousands of brave soldiers…,” and likewise the Zouave, “a product of Victorian sentimentality…could not survive the 20th century in the same form.”
From then on, fighters would never again preen their feathers, only point their weapons. During World War I, nine Zouave regiments fought for France. They were the end of the line. Wearing their very best outfits, the Zouave were living relics, dressed only to combat their own obsolescence. Meanwhile, America’s sailors sweated it out in white cotton tees. Behold a new vision of victory.
What does a wet, white T-shirt want? To be peered through, but not taken off. To remain eternally wet. It’s a coquette’s ploy, a pretense that the nubile girl wearing it was simply soaked by the surf, caught in the rain. Not her fault, after all—and what’s everybody looking at anyway?
The popularity of the wet T-shirt look is usually credited to British actress Jacqueline Bisset’s performance in the 1977 film The Deep. Diving for buried treasure, Bisset is depicted in scuba gear and a white cotton T-shirt, rendered completely see-through underwater. Were she nude from the waist up, she would just be naked. With a well-fitting, pristine, white cotton T-shirt clinging to her breasts, she is better than naked. Her demeanor, back on the boat, is no less perfect: speaking in a crisp, pretty British accent, she seems not to know just how titillating her still wet, still clinging T-shirt clearly is.
Classic striptease plays on the notion that the art of seduction is a precise skill. Novices need not apply. Sexual allurement is like a novel, a sparkling fiction: each garment plucked off builds the plot, leading to its climax. The wet T-shirt contest, however, wants none of this. The wet T-shirt is not a novel, but a page inscribed in invisible ink: one must wet it through to discover its hidden meaning. Like the Navy sailor in his white T-shirt, the woman in her wet T-shirt was initially prized not for her precision or expertise, but for her pure spirit, for wearing her heart on her sleeve. What made a woman in a wet T-shirt contest so compelling was that she offered her body up for delectation, but was not being paid to do so. She did it just because she wanted to. Quoted in New York Magazine, DJ Doug Christian recalled being the judge at what is considered the first commercial wet T-shirt contest, held in 1975, at Pierre’s restaurant in Metairie, Louisiana: “There was one woman who lost and complained that she was bigger than the others…I think she was a stripper. This was supposed to be an amateur contest.”
The modern incarnation of the white cotton T-shirt is neither uniform nor seducer’s scrim, but a war-torn garment that looks as if it has seen many battles. One finds it tattered and loose, falling off the body in a louche cascade of cotton worn thin. The T-shirt is the guise of contemporary existence, the one truly democratic garment. It belongs to no specific class or culture, because the only person a T-shirt can truly belong to is its owner. Like the Little Prince’s wild fox, our T-shirts are tamed with time and wear, so that each one is imprinted with the unique, indelible scent of its master. And that never really disappears, no matter how many washings.
This is what makes the T-shirt a thing to possess, to write on, to fill up. A hero in a white T-shirt has literature etched on his form. He transcends literature to become cinema. Two characters serve as example of this: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, from the 1955 novel Lolita, and Truman Capote’s Joel Knox, from the 1948 novel Other Voices, Other Rooms. These Gemini twins of prepubescent desire and predatory lust are almost interchangeable: the same tragedy of orphanhood (the death of the mother informs both narratives), the same (real or attempted) loss of innocence. Lolita was “Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock,” but moreover she was sylphlike, a child-woman unencumbered by adult sophistication. Capote describes Joel, through the eyes of a truck driver, as “too pretty, too delicate and fair-skinned; each of his features was shaped with a sensitive accuracy, and a girlish tenderness softened his eyes, which were brown and very large.” He is, essentially, James Dean on training wheels.
The two are also fantasy characters of impossible youth and beauty. A T-shirt, virgin-white cotton, ripped, inside-out—this suits them. And that’s what their authors depict them in. In Other Voices, Other Rooms, Joel has gone to live with his eccentric, immobilized distant family. For a picnic with Randolph, an older relation with whom Joel negotiates an unrealized erotic tension, Joel wears “a thin T-shirt (turned inside out) and a pair of summer knickers with most of the buttons busted off the fly.” In Lolita, Nabokov writes a poem for Lolita in the voice of Humbert Humbert, imagining her dancing with another man: “Oh Dolores, that jukebox hurts! / Are you still dancin’, darlin’? / (Both in worn Levi’s, both in torn T-shirts, /And I, in my corner, snarlin’).”
In their busted-open knickers, worn denim, and ravaged T-shirts, Joel and Lolita are iconic images of provocative, androgynous youth. Both have effloresced, but neither is yet adult; they stand on the precipice of becoming—and this is what gives them such magnetism. Their T-shirts are blank canvases for their burgeoning identities to show through, all lean lines and soft, new nipples. To imagine Joel and Lolita in their thin, torn, inside-out T-shirts is to envision subjugated wholesomeness dressed in its own reflection—the epitome of what we might call “chic.” Though stained and dirtied, the white cotton is pure.END
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createdAt:Thu, 27 Apr 2017 13:47:47 +0000