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T-Shirts: Friend or Foe

It’s summer and T-shirts reign. Everywhere you look there is a sea of crewneck, shapeless, dreary-colored T-shirts. How did they get to be a staple in so many people’s wardrobes? I keep hoping I’ll wake up and realize it was all a bad dream but no such luck!

So, what is the origin of the T-shirt? I found this at (

“The T-shirt evolved from undergarments used in the 19th century, through cutting the one-piece “union suit” underwear into separate top and bottom garments, with the top long enough to tuck under the waistband of the bottoms. T-shirts, with and without buttons, were adopted by miners and stevedores during the late 1800s as a convenient covering for hot environments.

“T-shirts, as a slip on garment without buttons, originally became popular in the United States when they were issued by the U.S. Navy during or following the Spanish American War. These were a crew-necked, short-sleeved, white cotton undershirt to be worn under a uniform. It became common for sailors and Marines in work parties, the early submarines, and tropical climates to remove their uniform “jacket”, wearing (and soiling) only the undershirt. It is possible that the Navy uniform boards first discovered the T-shirt by watching dock crews.”

They, of course, got their name because of the shape of the shirt, a “T” (which, right there tells you it’s shapeless). Because they are so universally loved, they are touted as being versatile and basic, and to be honest, they are neither. Shocked? Let me explain:

Your average shapeless T-shirt (with or without logos!) is universally unflattering, especially for most women who, surprise, have a shape! This is because:

  • While women with a long neck and who are small busted might look acceptable (notice I didn’t say great!) in a crew neck, it is generally not anyone’s go-to neckline. That tells you something. Why settle?
  • The sleeves usually hit at a bad point on the arms and often stick out making your body look wider than it is. Yes, you can have them altered to improve the look, but 99.99% of people don’t and that still doesn’t address all the other issues with them.
  • They are boxy and shapeless (which describes exactly how you will look in one), so it does absolutely nothing to flatter your figure (mostly because you can’t see your figure) and it does not (let me repeat that…does not!) make you appear smaller by trying to hide things. In fact, it does just the opposite. Ooops, I suspect that wasn’t your intent!
  • The color (if it has one – often they are worn in white or light gray) usually fades within a few washings.
  • More and more they are made out of lightweight, flimsy cotton that is very unforgiving (and often much more revealing) so it totally undermines the intended effect of “let’s hide this body.”

So, some manufacturers have tried to update the style to make it more appealing – with mixed results. A few looks to avoid:

  • Cap sleeves. An unflattering sleeve length on many women, both from a balance perspective and where they hit on your arm. Janet Wood (co-founder of the Fashion Fit Formula) says, “Non-puff cap sleeves can be successfully worn by teenagers with very toned arms, otherwise you are better off in a sleeveless top or with a short sleeve to your perfect pivotal point.”
  • V-neckline. Usually a v-neck is more flattering but T-shirt companies often make the “V” too short so the balance is all wrong.
  • Extreme fit. Now, instead of making them too baggy they are making them skin tight which is equally unflattering. Can we have a little balance here, please!

So, yes, T-shirts are cheap and easy, but are they worth it? Important note: Settling for something quick and easy at the expense of your personal satisfaction with how you look usually wears thin after awhile.

When buying a T-shirt, look for:

  • Flattering Neckline: Generally a V-neck or Scoop.
  • Sleeve Length: A short sleeve that hits below the widest part of your arm and doesn’t stick out, go 3/4 length sleeves, or sleeveless.
  • Flattering Fit: Something that skims your body rather than swallowing it up or looking and feeling like it’s glued to you.
  • Pattern: If a solid color is not your best look, try a fabulous pattern to distract the eye (it works wonders!).

Just today I realized the post office was about to close, and I had a whole pile of orders I needed to take there. I ran upstairs, threw on a pair of dark wash jeans and some fun sandals and a really great short sleeve T-shirt type top from Joseph Ribkoff. It has a v-neck and little bronze studs on the ruched sleeves which makes it unusual and fun to wear. I felt pulled together but super comfortable and casual.

If you’re not sure where to find great T-shirts, try Glima – something like this:

or how about one from Before and Again like this:

Their designs are a little bit wilder but they have a huge variety of color options.

And, here’s a little hint. If you have a hard time finding short sleeve T-shirts where the sleeve ends in a flattering place on your arm, buy one in a ¾ sleeve and have it cut to your perfect length.

Whatever you do, don’t let yourself settle for a big, baggy, shapeless T-shirt. You might have to branch out a bit and try new stores but it will be worth the time. Give it a try and make a commitment to yourself to feel good whether you are going to work or running errands. You’ll love how you feel!



5 Responses

  1. This T-shirt article hit every issue I’ve been thinking about for the past few years!  Thanks for so many great ideas and helpful hints!
    Happy summer days!

  2. I stopped wearing standard boxy-cut crew neck t-shirts years ago – I’ve actually eliminated crew neck tops from my wardrobe entirely! I love knit tops, however – my staple “go to” top is the 3/4 Sleeve Scoopneck Tee from – I have it in about 8 different colors. It’s a cotton/spandex blend, has a slightly fitted shape (but is not clingy), and is great for layering or worn on its own. They wear very well – I have several that I’ve owned for almost 5 years, and they still look terrific. The price generally ranges between $9 and $22(depending on whether they have a sale, coupons are available or a particular color is on clearance). Lands End (online and inside select Sears stores) also has shaped t-shirts in both V-neck and scoop neck styles; I have some of these as well, but you have to be careful, as some of the thinner all cotton knits can develop holes easily – I haven’t had that experience with their modal blend shirts, which have been fine. Save your Lands End receipts however; if there are any issues, you can return their clothing (in any condition) with a receipt at any time for a refund or replacement. (I don’t work for either company – these are just the knit t-shirt styles I like!)

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Ginger Burr is a fashion stylist and personal shopper serving clients worldwide from metro Boston.