The tucked-in T-shirt

Friday, October 30th 2020
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When I was a teenager, nothing seemed more sad or old than wearing a T-shirt tucked into trousers. 

Granted, the style of the day was loose, grunge-inspired clothing, with oversized flannel shirts and baggy knitwear. But it was also a question of personal style - after all, the 90s are back now in full force, and checked flannel shirts are everywhere.  

Back then, I had no interest in elegance, no desire to appear intelligently dressed or well put-together. I just wanted to wear whatever Eddie Vedder was wearing. 

Today my aims are rather different, and the shape that comes from tucking in a T-shirt is more appealing. 

After all, it flatters the body in much the same way a collared shirt does: the waist is defined, the torso is shorter, the shoulders appear bigger proportionally.

It’s not as flattering as a fitted dress shirt, as no shape at the natural waist (usually the slimmest part of the body), and the T-shirt’s length might mean you’re more likely to get the material spilling out of the trousers. 

But it's still a more complimentary shape than an untucked tee - perhaps akin to the difference between a buttoned and unbuttoned cardigan, or a fitted overcoat and an A-line raglan. 

It also emphasises the fit of the trousers in the hips and seat - which will hopefully be flattering too. 

I think this rationale goes a long way to explaining why it would seem natural for a man of my parents’ generation to tuck in their T-shirt. After all it’s what you do with a regular shirt, and that looks good - so why would a tee be any different? 

I tested this theory with a couple of older acquaintances recently, and they broadly agreed. A couple of them also suggested that in their minds, their cultural reference was an older, military one - of the tee as underwear, and always tucked in as a result. 

That was how, of course, the T-shirt first came to prominence, being worn by the US navy in WW1, ex-soldiers after WW2, and then popularised in the 1950s by the likes of Marlo Brando and James Dean. 

Despite the naturally flattering aspects of a tucked-in T-shirt, I do think several things are needed for it to look good. 

The first and probably most important is the material. Most modern T-shirts use a lightweight cotton that just doesn’t drape well - there’s no substance to it when it hangs on the body. 

The best place for heavier weights is the Japanese brands and related offshoots. The Real McCoy’s, Nigel Cabourn, and shops (in London) such as Clutch Cafe, Son of a Stag and Rivet & Hide that stock smaller imports. 

My current favourite is Warehouse & Co, which is where the two T-shirts shown here are from (Lot 4601 model, via Clutch). I also have a couple of nice ones from the Armoury collaboration with The Real McCoy’s. 

These T-shirts use not just a heavier material, but a longer-staple cotton and circular knitting, which also give the tees softness, body and often a slubby texture.

The downside to this style is that the T-shirts are a little heavy to wear under a smart crewneck. Fine with a big sweatshirt, a shawl-collar cardigan, or a casual jacket - but not the kind of neat cashmere sweater you’re used to wearing with a smart shirt. 

So that necessitates two separate types of T-shirt for different uses, unfortunately. 

Another thing that I think makes this look much more flattering, is the fit. It shouldn’t be too tight in the body, but often is better when tight in the sleeve and collar. 

I normally wear a size Medium in T-shirts (with a 39-inch chest) but sized up with the Warehouse ones to a Large. That bigger size gives more fullness in the body, but is unlikely to look big and floaty, because it’s cinched at the waist. 

Most of the brands mentioned above use this style anyway, with a fuller body, shorter sleeve and higher collar, because they’re consciously mimicking the 1950s cut. 

In fact, while I’m pretty sure this style simply looks more flattering, part of me is unsure how much I’m influenced by those fifties images. It’s unnerving sometimes how much our ideas  are nothing more than particular cultural references. 

A couple of other, more minor points. First, don’t sweat about how much the T-shirt comes untucked. That way lies menswear madness. 

Just tuck it in, perhaps putting more fullness towards the back if you want, and leave it. At the most, raise your arms so enough comes out of the waistband to allow normal movement. And don’t worry if some comes untucked entirely - this is not fine clothing; a little untidiness is fine, even desirable. 

Second, pay particular attention to the collar: it’s the thing that’s most likely to make a T-shirt unflattering. Of course, that's the same with a collared shirt too, but there's even less to play with here. 

If you have a shorter or bigger neck, you’ll likely want a lower or more open collar; vice versa for a longer or thinner neck.

One reason I like these Warehouse ones is that the collar is quite high at the front, although ideally it would be a little higher at the back as well. 

Overall, a T-shirt is less forgiving than a collared shirt. It’s one reason we love classic menswear, after all: there is so much more potential to shape, hide and flatter. 

So there will definitely be readers who find this look doesn’t work for them. There will also be others who look better in this style than I do.

And, there will be tailored outfits that flatter me more than this. 

But as a casual style, I like it, particularly under a casual jacket like a blouson, where having a defined waist visible under an open jacket is definitely nicer. (Though perhaps not a leather jacket - that would be too affected for me). 

P.S. - Personally, I wouldn’t apply this rationale to tucked-in knitwear, despite how trendy it apparently is in menswear.

Yes, you get the same flattering shape, but knitwear just wasn’t designed to be worn like that, and it looks it. A T-shirt was. 

Other pieces pictured:

Photography, Jamie Ferguson @jkf_man