The most famous story about an undershirt involves a man who wasn't wearing one. The man was Clark Gable. The year was 1934. The occasion was bedtime. Standing before Claudette Colbert, Gable unbuttoned his dress shirt in the film "It Happened One Night," and the country collectively gasped at his bare chest. According to lore, T-shirt sales tanked. And lots of American men started going commando - above the belt.
Eight decades later, a shirtless Matthew McConaughey is somewhere scrambling eggs, but men aren't taking the bait. They need their undershirts. An afternoon walk downtown confirms this. So does a night at a bar or a Celtics game. Men don't need the T's simply because they soak up sweat, hide tattoos and bushy body hair, or stave off cold. They need them because - sigh - they think they look good.
I'm not talking about your run-of-the-mill white v-neck worn discreetly beneath a dress shirt. I'm not even talking about the white crew-neck version that many men prefer, the shirt that says, "Sure, I'm a little starchy, but when I give that Power Point presentation at 1:30, peep my dry armpits and weep, bro."
No, I'm talking about the T-shirt worn not simply as an undergarment but as part of an outfit. This shirt is gray. It's black. It's maroon - maroon. Sometimes you can see through the dress shirt that the T-shirt beneath came from Margaritaville. Do these men know we can see through their dress shirts? Do they know they have the male equivalent of visible panty lines? This undershirt business represents men taking control of their wardrobes, making the choice to be interesting even if it means not being terribly fashionable. As one of the many men I've spoken with put it, he wears the non-white T beneath a dress shirt to "mix it up a bit." It's hard to tell a man in such an outfit that he's mistaken, especially when some effort has gone into the presentation.
But in talking to these men - lawyers, financial guys, schoolteachers, an off-duty cop, guys who just want to pick up women - something fascinating became apparent. When it comes to fashion, men's role models are other men. There's no Lucky, In Style, or Cosmopolitan for them. No one I spoke to reads GQ or Men's Vogue to see what to wear. The men's shopping magazine Cargo shuttered after two years. The fashion police in UsWeekly typically arrest women. And when Manny Ramirez - in a do-rag and a Louis Vuitton belt - deplanes in Tokyo with an undershirt (albeit a white one) peeking out from beneath his dress shirt, it's a license for men to find similar ways to look sloppy.
When Matt Damon made fun of McConaughey's chronic toplessness on David Letterman's show a few years ago, it was a comic declaration of war: the preppy mocks the peacock. To underscore Damon's fashion philosophy, when he was crowned People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive last year, what was that poking out from beneath his button-down and loosened tie? An undershirt! He looked like he was on his way from the trading floor to happy hour at Mr. Dooley's.
If you happen to be someone who enjoys looking at men (for social science, for sport), the proliferation of the visible undershirt is depressing. For one thing, there's nothing sexy about it. All a man in a prominent T looks like he'll do is shots of Jägermeister - or your taxes.
I couldn't get a woman to praise the look, either. When it comes to bared skin, men and women live on the same planet: Flesh is sexy. As the Pussycat Dolls illogically, but aptly, put it: Loosen up your buttons, baby.
But men aren't buying it. Two months ago, waiting to get into a bar in Cambridge, I stood in line behind a group of men smoking. They were on the prowl for women. One of them was wearing a black T-shirt under an enormous untucked button-down. We talked about his shirt. He said it looked dressier than a white undershirt. When I asked whether he'd ever just wear the button-down because maybe women would like to see some skin, he exhaled smoke and said, "I don't do cleavage."
Last month in New York, I met Ryan Hall. He's a charismatic, predictably snazzy salesman at Bloomingdale's (suit, sweater, dress shirt, horn-rimmed glasses - all black) who claimed to be a former crew-neck-under-button-down guy. He's originally from Cleveland.
"When I first moved here, I didn't know. I rocked the crew neck," he said. "But after a few months, I discovered it wasn't cool. So I took scissors and cut myself some bootleg v-necks."
Hall thinks undershirts are strictly utilitarian. When I asked him whether he thought the undershirt as accessory could look good on at least a few guys, he looked around at the men grazing on the sales floor and said an undershirt should stay pretty much invisible. Otherwise, "it's a poor man's ascot."