By Jamie Miller

Even notwithstanding its contemporary usage as a catty put-down, “basic” is an ill-fitting way to describe the humble T-shirt. And “humble” isn’t much better either. This deceptively simple garment is in fact fiendishly complex; the quest to find the perfect one, long and frustrating.

Orlebar Brown T-shirts

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The perfect tee has been a near-constant subject of my thought since GCSE English Literature. As an impressionable teen, I gazed raptly upon young Marlon Brando in the 1951 film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ incendiary play a Streetcar Named Desire. Two burning questions arose in my mind: what was his workout routine? And, closely related, how did he look so good in just a “basic” T-shirt? Sadly, neither came up in the exam.

Brando’s appearance would have been even more impactful to contemporary audiences given that he was basically in his underwear. Which at least partly explains why, when he performed the play on Broadway, women threw their hotel room keys at him. The T-shirt began as a standard-issue base layer that came into service in both the British and US navies around 1913. Previously, undies had been of the long-sleeve and long john variety, which I daresay even Brando would’ve struggled to smoulder in, although he would certainly have sweltered.

The US forbear to the T-shirt was actually made of toasty wool flannelette. The British one was more of a vest: ventilated, but revealing. While both had the advantage of leaving the arms free for manoeuvring, clearly they still had some practical limitations. Thankfully, the respective navies and various civilian manufacturers soon cottoned onto the idea of more comfortable, breathable fabric. Hence the T-shirt carried an air of military toughness, and acquired one of workwear as it was picked up by farmers and labourers over the subsequent decades. But it wasn’t until the 50s – and the “wringing” endorsement of a sweaty Brando, not to mention James Dean – that the T-shirt became cool.

Nowadays, the former undergarment is at the forefront of the modern man’s armoury. Unlike other so-called wardrobe staples, it’s the only item that you can legitimately wear everywhere, from beach to bar to bed. (Conversely, a navy blazer can come across a tad overdressed for the former – not to mention the latter.) That is, assuming that you can find the right one – and it fits you like a bespoke glove. Because fitted T-shirts weren’t available at the time, Brando’s was supposedly hot-washed multiple times until it shrank the desired amount, then stitched at the back so that it shrink-wrapped his marble-carved pectorals.

Orlebar Brown T-shirts

Jefferson Hack and Johnny Depp / Getty Images

This is perhaps going a little far – and in fact, I would argue that Brando’s tee was, if anything, slightly too small for him. The perfect T-shirt should be close-fitting but not sausage skin-tight, even if you have the body for it. (This speaks to Cristiano Ronaldo levels of self-love.) It should be long enough to cover your waistband, but not much longer. Before you sacrifice versatility and longevity on the altar of fashion, understand that long-line T-shirts, while “on fleek”, don’t work particularly well with a blazer.

As with tailored jackets, a well-fitting T-shirt starts at the shoulders: the corresponding seams should hit at the bony protuberances where your arms join. The neckline is another common hang-up: too narrow and it’s nerdy; too loose and it’s louche. A hint of visible clavicle is OK; too much “heavage” is most certainly not. Then there’s the width of the collar itself: too thick and it’s unrefined; too thin and it’s insubstantial. (The same applies to the fabric.) The perfect T-shirt should be rugged enough for jeans but refined for said jackets.

Orlebar Brown T-shirts

Robert Redford / Getty Images

The OB-T and -V do a pretty unimpeachable job of navigating this minefield. Crucially, they get the basics – or should that be the complexities? – right. For example, they taper at the waist, where excess fabric can add unwanted visual inches. The fine pima cotton looks dressy without being gauzy. The sleeves hug the arm rather than flare out, and finish flatteringly just above the biceps. Too low will conceal the hard work you’ve (hopefully) put in at the gym; too high can actually attenuate your arms rather than exaggerate them.

Orlebar Brown T-shirts

Bruce Springsteen and David Bowe / Getty Images

Which brings us back to Brando’s workout routine. A while back, I realised that at least some of the effort expended on my quest for the perfect T-shirt should be spent exercising instead: while few garments compliment a trim figure as well, few are as exposing of a neglected one. The perfect T-shirt may be good, but it’s not that good.