bg image

white tee: 1 preview header

White Tee

white tee: 2 preview intro

The groundwork of streetwear is comprised of mostly simple silhouetted garments. Minimalism, however, can be as loud as you want it to be. Even the simplest garments have caused an uproar in recent trends, becoming a statement in style. The white tee is A-1: the most foundational, functional, and affordable select in streetwear.

Essentiality. Purity. Cleanliness. The white tee can be seen as the alpha and omega in our fashion alphabet. Its pristine aesthetic mixed with abstraction has given it power to remain ambiguous, in that it is purely representative for the wearer yet subjective to the observer. Because of this, the white tee has the power to communicate beyond the realm of freshness and anti-status values.

bg image

white tee: 3 preview footer

white tee: 4 quote block tshirt speaks on levels

The T-shirt speaks to us on so many levels.

It’s utilitarian,
it’s affordable,
it’s customizable,
it’s not gender specific,
it’s not season specific,
it’s not even functionally specific.

-Jennifer Baumgarter, You Are What You Wear

bg image

white tee: general menu

Exhibit Guide

Part 1: The Journey Of Cotton
The origins of the white tee: the manufacturing journey and how the white tee reclaims its cotton historical context.

Part 2: Sleeves Of Freedom
Releasing the white tee from functionality purposes and how the working class hero transformed the garment to claim individualism.

Part 3: Rebel With A Cause
The white tee’s rebellion and role in anti-fashion to first introduce itself to Hip Hop culture.

Part 4: In My White Tee
The influence of Dem Franchize Boyz in the white tee’s trend spike in early 2000s.

Part 5: A Garment’s Renaissance
The white tee in Hip Hop and its transformative roles today.

23BLVD exhibits are virtually made to be interactive and visually stimulating. While reading, it is encouraged to explore each section that may contain rollovers, slideshows, video sound, external links, etc. While responsive on mobile, this exhibit has been best optimized to be experienced on a desktop.

white tee: journey of cotton header

part 1:
the journey of cotton
bg image

white tee: 6 gif gossypium


white tee: 7 text block cotton genus

Cotton is a staple fiber that is spun into yarns and threads, constructing the breathable and soft, white tee.

view: The Cotton Economy and Slavery | PBS

Cotton has always held a narrative.

Select the volume icon below to unmute this video’s sound.

bg image

white tee: 9 text block agitator revolution

Pick A Bale Of Cotton by Lead Belly
Gossip Folks by Missy Elliot feat. Ludacris
The Potion by Ludacris

white tee: 10 layer slider work song to hip hop videos

Spirituals and work songs during the era of slavery served a greater purpose to African Americans for documenting history orally. Many of these songs kept morale by remembering home, some expressed frustration and hardship, while most assisted in keeping the tempo for labor through call and response methods.

Lead Belly’s “Pick A Bale Of Cotton” is reminiscent of work songs for pickers in the cotton field, increasing its tempo along with the pace of labor as the lyrics progressed. The white tee has always come from a historical line of song and is still important today in a worker’s culture.

Scroll and listen to the following hip hop songs (desktop only) and how they’ve lyrically and rhythmically sampled “Pick A Bale of Cotton.”

white tee: 12 image picking cotton

Rollover cursor below to discover photographs and illustrations.

Cotton laborers. Courtesy of JWD and Jasper Colt, PBS, George Clausen, New Lanark Hauling the Whole Week’s Picking, 1842-Mississippi, William Henry Brown 1808-1883.

white tee: 13 text block shares its dna

What began as a commodity for livelihood, escalated to the rise of King Cotton and slavery in the United States. This led to become one of the greatest catalysts for the Civil War and a civil movement to fight for freedom and humanity for African-Americans. Banded together in struggle and song; united in survival, stories, and the hope towards change, how much different is today’s narrative and symbolism for the white tee in hip hop? Cotton shares its DNA with injustice, struggle and labor, storytelling, call and response, the birth of blues, and more. Now, cotton has evolved its shape within the white tee — a modern staple that represents urban culture as a garment of rebellion, the working class, geography, and Hip Hop.

home: white tee: 14 white tee layer slider


white tee: 15 text block cotton today

Today cotton is the biggest crop for clothing production. The U.S. alone exports 4.9 billion dollars worth of raw cotton annually. The process from harvesting to weaving has greatly changed from the labor and manpower needed during the Industrial Revolution, versus today’s synthetic and automated processes. Beyond just bolls or strands of fiber, the white tee takes on an incredible global journey over its production. Whether the white tee is considered an assembly of cloned garments, it still holds a specific narrative — carrying itself through multiple hands during worldwide manufacturing to the hands of its wearer.

white tee: back to exhibit guide

Back To Exhibit Guide

white tee: freedom header

part 2:
sleeves of freedom

white tee 16a: renaissance photo

white tee: 16 text renaissance frame define limits to

The white tee

represents purity

– a blank canvas –

a sense of freedom and branding

that only the wearer can

define these limits to.

white tee 16b: renaissance photo

white tee: 17 text block soon to be adopted

The origins of the white tee began strictly functional. From the creation of a woolen vest to protect women in sports, to its wide use in the military as a uniform, the white tee eventually evolved into a stylistic addition. With its sporty and laid-back charm, the white tee became suited for working gear, a symbolical attire for protests, and transformed into a staple look for the American teenager. The white tee’s low cost production, affordability, and disposability became a representative appeal for subcultures.

bg image

white tee: 18 image military white tee

white tee: 19 image text military reason practicality

The practicality of this garment originally positioned itself for the worker. The cotton tee’s purpose in its creation was to reform clothing as a cheap commodity. The global production of cotton in the 19th century gave possibility for the cotton tee to be a part of the U.S. Navy uniform, giving an alternative to undergarments and providing a breathability and wearability that wool couldn’t provide. The white tee was inexpensive to manufacture for it avoided additional dying treatments. It instilled self discipline and encouraged clean hygiene practices for a sailor since its white canvas revealed dirt.

Military exercises in North Africa, 1945. Courtesy of Under The Radar.
bg image

white tee: 18 image military white tee

white tee: 20 text block original association with uniformity and military

The white tee is a representation of working class heroes displaying independence. Because of the white tee’s original association with uniformity and the military, its masculine symbolism remains relevant today. No matter how blank the white tee’s canvas is, the connection between wearer and garment has always been about rugged individualism.

white tee: information icon life mag sears usc

Below: Corporal Alexander Le Gerda for LIFE Magazine, Issue July 13 1942, photograph by Eliot Elisofon. Gob advertisement, courtesy of Sears & Roebuck Catalog. USC graphic T-shirt: At the University of Southern California, football players adopted white tees to prevent chafing from equipment pads. The tees become so fashionable that students started pilfering them for casual wear. In response, the school stenciled “Property of USC” on its T-shirts as a crime-prevention tactic, not a statement of pride.

white tee: 21 usc rebellion bg

white tee 21b: an american classic text

The white tee became an all-American classic — a product that is able to indirectly unite by representing the underdog that is working towards the American dream. Soon, it became a look of rebellion.

white tee 22c: trailer park photos 3

white tee 22: trailer park photo 1

white tee: information icon extended backyard

The extended backyard. Photograph by Bruce Davidson. Yosemite, California, 1966.

white tee: 23 nan richardson quote

Part of the facade of the American dream with its casual comfort, its functionalism, and its simplicity,

the T-shirt’s democratic connotations as antifashion

catapulted it quickly to the proportions of classic.

-Nan Richardson, The White T

white tee 22b: trailer park photo 2

white tee: information icon genderless in trailer park

Genderless in trailer park America. Photograph by Steven Klein, Florida, 1995.

white tee: 26 text adaptable piece of garment

In time, the white tee became an adaptable piece of garment that repurposed its role from just working gear. It is a garment with a nostalgic past, presently accepted through trends, and can also be seen as having a modern or futuristic aesthetic with minimalist dressers. The power of the white tee’s practicality and durability, as well as its sensible and sporty qualities has given influential reins for this piece of article to be acceptable no matter the time, place, or status. Its neutrality and blandness gives every man and woman a chance to define themselves.

white tee: back to exhibit guide

Back To Exhibit Guide

white tee: rebellion header

part 3:
rebel with a cause

white tee 27: marlon brando pattern

The white tee has always had an underlying coat
of rebellion that makes sense to its marriage with
hip hop and urban culture. This seminal piece of
anti-fashion started as an official uniform for
rebels and tastemakers in 1951 with Marlon
in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Emulating
rebellion is the very philosophy of urban fashion.
At the birth of street style, utilizing resources
and being 'thrifty' was more powerful than your
purchasing power.

white tee: 28 video marlon brando

white tee 29: big daddy kane photo

white tee: information icon daddy kane

Above: From Marlon to Big Daddy Kane. Marlon Brando for A Streetcar Named Desire, 1947. Long Live Kane. Photograph by Al Pereira. New York, 1988.

white tee: 32 text backlashes against flashy

Although viewed as a classic piece of garment, the white tee is also a recurrent trend opposing a flashy and label-hungry aesthetic. Its first association to hip hop was a rebellion against the luxurious lifestyle expressed in lyrics. The white tee grew to be a signifier and symbol that’s connected to humble beginnings, the tie and relation between socioeconomic gaps, cities, ethnicities, and sexes.

white tee: information icon hip hop

Slideshow: A Time To Speak. Photograph series by Morris Engel. New York, 1970-1980s. White Tee product shots.

white tee 30: white tee hip hop photos

white tee: 28 text block keeping it fresh

The white tee’s once primary function as an undershirt rose above the surface as a phenomenon that weaves between economics, class, and culture. Its popularity due to a down-statement status was an effect caused by its affordability and availability that made
“keeping it fresh”
possible, yet still disposable enough that it practiced gluttony.

white tee: 29 image hall of fame white tees

white tee: 30 image hall of fame 2

white tee: 31 hall of fame 3

white tee: 33 text hip hop fashion

A distinct fashion style is one of the associations hip hop has developed. The influence that the white tee has on urban culture manifests from hip hop. While today “hip hop fashion” is a generally loose and an equivocal way of dress, there are still trends or statements that are strongly parallel to it — including the white, or tall tee. Currently, the white tee maintains both a negative or positive representation: negative for its stereotyped affiliations, and positive with its identity to a culture.

white tee: back to exhibit guide

Back To Exhibit Guide

white tee: in my white tee header

part 4:
in my white tee

view: White Tee ; Dem Franchize Boys | 2004

Select the volume icon below to unmute this video’s sound.

white tee: tall tee top

white tee 34: DFB intro real

The mass popularity of white tees generously rose in the Summer of 2004, when Dem Franchize Boyz released Hip Hop song, “White Tee.” The song promoted the white T-shirt as an everyday style and activity-complement essential, making the garment look simply cool and necessary. Hip Hop, with the help of this record, became a platform for the white tee — its influence stretched from radio play in mainstream stations to a circulation of video rotations on several TV markets. The song hit the Billboard charts for 13 weeks, with a peak position of #79 in the Top 100. If the repetition of “white tee” in its lyrics wasn’t significant enough of its promotion, the music video painted a world that captivated a hype factor that launched a trend spike. White tees and tall tees were promoted as economical and “fresh.” Packs of white tees can be bought for less than $20. XXL sizes, bigger tees, or tall tees were preferred. Seen as cost-effective when taking into account of shrinkage, these lengthy tees promised a longer life longevity. The attitude carried that came from wearing a minimalist garment challenged and enforced the personality of the wearer and reputation of the white tee.

white tee: tall tee bottom

white tee: dfb on vibe magazine

white tee: information icon vibe magazine

Poppin’ My White Collar. Page 78. Vibe Magazine. Vol. 14, No. 6, June 2006.

white tee 36: text DFB contribution

Dem Franchise Boyz created a trending market for white tees, giving a stylistic identity to hip hop even today. However, the association with the white tee based on the facade of the music video created a bias against who was wearing it. White tees and tall tees began being banned in schools for presumptive ties to gang-related behavior, clubs or establishments for their down-statement look, or became symbolic of a low-income status. Its controversy is the result of the observer’s prerogative. What is the representation of a white tee or tall tee in hip hop, and how has Dem Franchise Boyz contributed towards a positive identity?

EXPLORE: Dem Franchize Boyz & the white tee’s positive identity

white tee: 37 video dfb interview ck

The popularity of Dem Franchize Boyz’ record and the white tee trend was caused by how relatable this song was to its audience. Hip Hop is known for endorsing a luxurious lifestyle, and “White Tee” was about keeping it real. It expressed a lifestyle of its peers and being proud to showcase garments that are affordable, instead of endorsing materials that can repress a culture through debt. There was no focus on expensive or luxurious brand-dropping, and the glamorous life of having a good time and being surrounded by a party coexisted with the white tee. The white tee gave power to the people from its trickle-up capabilities. Thus, why this garment remains a staple and important when being associated with “hip hop fashion.” The symbolism it carries extends any trend cycle and more important than any Billboard chart ranking.

Press play. View the exclusive interview with Pimpin’ from Dem Franchize Boyz on “The White Tee.” November 2015.



white tee: back to exhibit guide black

Back To Exhibit Guide

white tee: renaissance header

part 5:
a garment’s renaissance

white tee: 38 text block contributing to urban culture

Observing its origins, the symbolism packed in this “blank canvas” garment revolves around rebellion. How can a reformed piece of garment tie in with rebellious attitudes in streetwear and Hip Hop, while contributing to urban culture?
bg image

white tee: 39 music videos

the white tee in hip hop
Below is a curated collection of music videos that have styled the artist wearing a white tee. Click and discover to learn more about how the white tee was portrayed. Are there patterns to how the white tee is characterized by an artist or depicted in its video direction? How has the white tee’s meaning or style and portrayal evolved over time?


Explore all or through chronological order by selecting a different era box below. Gifs expand to a dissected explanation, stills will lead to a full page experience.

white tee: novelty header


white tee 40: fancy tees background

white tee: information tag novelty tees

Novelty White T-Shirts. T by Alexander Wang, White M CI T-Shirt by Y-3, White Niagara White T-Shirt by Acne Studios

white tee 41: novelty

Since its birth, the white tee proclaimed values for the lower, working class from its history of military function, to a symbol of uniformity. The power of pop culture in movies and music gave our idols a godliness facade that transformed this basic piece of article into a temptress for fashion and value. Minimalism into modernity, the white tee has become a garment of refined taste and unabashed sex appeal within luxurious fashion brands.

white tee 42: kanye wave apc

white tee 42b: black strip

July 2013 - In collaboration with French ready-to-wear fashion brand
A.P.C., Kanye West released a capsule line which marked the
beginning of his fashion design career. Of the American staple pieces
constructed with a luxurious European quality included a white tee named
as “Hip Hop T-Shirt” that was priced at $120. With its given
stereotypical name, is the white tee being used to exploit hip hop and
culture? Arguably, Kanye West may have used his network
and resources to elevate the white tee, a product that strongly
correlates to hip hop, to convey that urban culture and hip hop
is just as valuable and unfastened from economic stereotypes to its
. From a functional garment to a novelty item, is this collaboration
profiteering from consumerism, fueled by how much money people will spend
for novelty and status? The price of the Hip Hop T-shirt can be justifiable
being a product by two prestige names in fashion and music, but the
cost-friendly origins of the white tee as well as its rebranded name tests a viewer
or shopper’s perspective. Whether controversial or not, the amount of attention
and press from this one garment draws these questions for the white tee, hip hop,
and streetwear and the placement of essential classicism in these genres and culture.

white tee 43: kanye apc text

white tee: free the tee header

“Free The Tee” Survey

white tee 44: white tee photo survey pattern

white tee 45: white tee altered text

Comprised by a front, back, and cap sleeves, any alteration to the white tee’s elements are crucial. The change in length, fit, or type of cotton not only alters the price of a cotton tee, but the image and identity of a person — whether intended or stereotyped. In this sense, clothing becomes disillusioned, a judgment towards a person that subjects them into a state of admiration or vulnerability.

white tee 46: white tee photo survey pt. 1

As a supplement to this exhibit, participants were welcomed in an inclusive research survey entitled, “Free The Tee” from October 14, 2015 to February 14, 2016. This photo survey aimed to begin to explore the social commentary on our perceptions on the white tee, by uncovering our natural train of thought, as well as the symbolism packed in this basic clothing article.

white tee 47: white tee survey pt. 2

Presented in a randomly generated order, this photo survey was comprised of three blocks: the first, revolved around a participant’s general background, followed by two blocks of 14 photo subjects exploring income and musical genre taste.

Out of 100 participants, 68% were male and 32% were females, with the majority of 67% ranging from 25-34 years old who live in urban areas.

bg image

white tee 48: predicate of fit text

Countless media forms, music videos, and visuals bombard us daily and challenge us by building presumptions when it comes to fashion, trends, and the people who wear them. Taking a closer study on the most basic garment, the white tee can help us begin to explore on what affects our train of thought when it comes to fashion and how the way of dress weaves through culture and lifestyle. Despite what media and visuals impose us with, the results from the “Free The Tee” survey reveal that the associations we naturally correlate the white tee with predicate on fit.

white tee 48: background of survey and rollovers

Rollover on the different frames to discover the style and cut of the white tee.


Subjects of various ethnic backgrounds (Caucasian, Black, Hispanic/Mexican, Asian/Pacific Islander) each were photographed in four different cuts of the white tee (basic, v-neckline, tall tee, and modern tall tee). Each photo was matched with two series of questions:

1) According to this photo’s subject, what income bracket do you suggest the wearer of this white tee belongs to?

2) According to this photo subject, which genre(s) of music do you associate with the wearer of this white tee?

white tee 49: free the tee survey results


In the first series that asked the participant about the white tee’s association with income bracket, it was found that the basic and v-neckline cut T-shirts were identified more with an annual income between 35K-50K, while the tall tee was identified with the lowest income earnings of less than 11K annually. In the second series that asked the participant about the white tee’s association with music genres, it was found that the basic and v-neckline cut T-shirts were identified with non-urban musical genres like Rock and Electronic Dance, versus the tall tee which predominantly identified with Hip Hop. The modern tall tee, a T-shirt that’s design is closest relevant to today’s minimalistic trend with its slim body, long cut, and side zipper detail for subtle design embellishment held the least predictable results out of all the T-shirt cuts. This may have resulted from unfamiliarity — as with all the white T-shirts showcased, the modern tall tee is the newest and least established in popular culture. Streetwear fashion and trends have also been leaning towards ready-to-wear and high fashion with a clean aesthetic, and the modern tall tee design adapts to this.

It can be further concluded from the results that a slim fit or tailored cut, manifests a higher perception of a person’s value, versus an oversize cut of the white tee that holds a perception of a lower value. Rebellion and Americana has firmly rooted itself on slimmer cuts and rock/dance lifestyles. But since the early 2000s, Hip Hop has truly adopted the white tee and has since been heavily associated to the genre and lifestyle. Of this short period of time, the dynamism between how the white T-shirt was worn for lifestyle and the shift to being now widely accepted as a core staple reflects on the radical changes of people and culture.

white tee: t framed

white tee: celebrities in white tees

white tee: t framed

white tee: celebs in tees 2

white tee: information tag celebrites white tees

White Tee in modern day Hip Hop. A$AP Rocky, Frank Ocean, Vic Mensa, Zoe Kravitz, Childish Gambino, Kendrick Lamar, G-Eazy.

white tee 50: conclusion pt 1 text

The combination of masculinity and rebellion symbolized in the white tee became ingredients to the perfect recipe for a staple garment in urban culture, as well as for alternative lifestyles.
bg image

white tee 51: conclusion pt. 2 text

Although the associations of a white tee have strayed from being solely based on race or negative affiliations, stereotypes still exist that should make us question if we are reclaiming the white tee as part of hip hop culture, or if we should reclaim its function and form instead. With streetwear turning to clean aesthetic trends, the white tee continues to be transformative in its symbolism and context. The white tee’s practicality and affordability represents an egalitarian outlook, a rarity when it comes to fashion. With its virgin canvas, minimalist design, and affordable production, the white tee has the power to eliminate social caste by rejecting hierarchy and privilege. With a modern audience that is far more inclusive and accepting — this once undergarment can also function as workwear uniform, a gluttonous flaunt, sign of rebellion, lifestyle threads, a luxurious staple, and a general basic — making the white tee become the most inclusive garment of our time.

white tee: back to exhibit guide black

Back To Exhibit Guide

bg image

white tee: leave a comment

Tell us what you think:

Ask questions directly to the curator or leave a general comment on your experience today.

white tee: end back to top

Start Over