Darrell Delaney is ambling about Union Station one recent evening, trying to attract girls in his oversize, mass-produced, preshrunk cotton white T-shirt. It hangs on his 125-pound body like a fallen parachute. And it belongs to his mother, Darrell mumbles, when asked what "kind" of tee it is.
Ho-kay, one more time: Hanes, Luxe, Galaxy? "My mom's," the 13-year-old says, bowing his head and dipping his shoulder for a tag inspection, which reveals the name of an Australian company that specializes in plus-size women's clothing. Oh, snap!
When there is nothing else to wear, and nothing to prove, the white tee emerges -- fashion as anti-fashion. Tabula rasa of the street. Without logos, stripes or cartoon characters, it is remarkable for its complete blankness. It can be bought at Sears, or even at gas stations. Five for $20. Available in every season and size -- preferably XXXXL.
For all its plainness, the white T-shirt refuses to be ignored. A few years ago the street fad was Gucci, very gaudy. Then it was $300 retro sports jerseys that snuffed out life savings. Now, frugality: In a trend cheered on last summer by Dem Franchize Boyz' crunk ode "White Tees," the world is now seemingly filled with boys and men in the gigantic shrouds, billowing over baggy jeans and throwback Nikes.
It brings to mind 1990s West Coast rapper wear and it has found critics among both the fashion police and the actual baton-wielding deputies: Some law enforcement officials consider it the street uniform du jour for drug dealers, gang members and thieves, a criminal ensemble featured in maddeningly broad radio dispatches: The suspect was last seen wearing a white T-shirt and dark pants.
Or in police blotters, as accessory to a harebrained scheme -- "Two gunmen in a fast-food restaurant covered their faces with white T-shirts, struck an employee in the head . . ." Or as a coveted item: "Two males, one with a gun, approached a male unloading boxes of merchandise in an alley. A wallet and a box of white T-shirts were taken."
The bad rap on the classic tee has implicated adolescents. Earlier this year, school administrators in North Carolina handed a 10-day suspension to a white-teed student, charging that he violated the dress code prohibiting gang clothing. In Cleveland, a city council member complained to a local TV station in August about young men in oversize white tees "terrorizing" his neighborhood. (NewsChannel5 cuts to the clip of black teens strolling down a tree-shaded sidewalk.) The councilman then called on inner-city gas stations to stop selling the shirts.
For all the profiling and small-minded punishment, many white-T aficionados seem blissfully unaware. At Union Station, Darrell dallies away the evening with a handful of guy friends, each not appearing the least bit critical that he wore his mother's white T-shirt. It happens; other big white tees were dirty. Then the group leader squints and soon Darrell is turning his head in embarrassment.
"Look, stains," points out Marcus Stone, 18. "And there's a hole right there. I can spot 30 things on your shirt." They are mostly beige blemishes on a snow-white canvas. "Girls notice everything," he warns.
"I've always thought of the T-shirt as the Alpha and Omega of the fashion alphabet," Giorgio Armani wrote in an introduction to a 1996 book called "The White T."
"The creative universe begins with its essentiality, and, whatever path the imagination takes, ends with its purity. . . . I love the T-shirt as an anti-status symbol, putting rich and poor on the same level in a sheath of white cotton that cancels the distinctions of caste."
Consider James Dean. White T-shirt.
Or Marlon Brando, as Stanley Kowalski, screaming Stella! Stella! -- the white-T-shirt wearer for all time. The T-shirt became outerwear, and nothing, really, ever looked better than plain white. Like California vatos leaning against a chain-link fence in bleachy white tees, tucked into starched chinos. Orale.
And on basketball courts, and on Eminem, the shirts got bigger, and then bigger still.
In Baltimore, the big white T-shirt is worn past the knees like a nightshirt -- or a dress, some have sneered. The style in Washington is a tad more reserved, with the T-shirt drooping about two inches above the kneecap, which is just huge enough to tick people off.
"You can't even buy a burger for $3," says Sam Kataria, store manager at Expressions in Largo. "But you can buy a plain white tee and look fresh."At Casual Male Big & Tall in Capital Centre, Viola Epps leans against a cubbyhole display of white George Foreman undershirts, ranging in size from gargantuan to XXXXXXL. She's had customers, slender boys with prominent shoulder blades, bringing tees fit for Dad (or King Kong) to the register, when Father's Day is not around the corner. That is when Epps, an assistant manager, usually tries to discourage them from buying.
"I don't agree with their trend -- it's too tacky," she says. "I don't think it's appropriate to buy four times the size you would normally wear. It doesn't look appealing at all." Epps admits, however, to buying oversize shirts for her nephew and 16-year-old son, since they won't wear anything else.
The boy who would swaddle himself in a T-shirt several times as big as he is may never admit to a raging case of insecurity -- his skinny biceps, the chest that doesn't puff out, a one-pack on the stomach -- but he will cling to other reasons.
It is nice to feel an ethereal breeze on a hot day. And he needs size triple-XL because the shirt will shrink and become "tight," which is somewhat girly. "It's like, dude, aren't you in elementary?" says Roger Cartlidge, 23, a Silver Spring Foot Locker employee and white-tee enthusiast.
It might also be considered a manly expression of love: When the Anger Management Tour stopped at Nissan Pavilion last summer, Eminem came out in his white T-shirt, and the white-teed, mostly white youngsters jumped up and down in the grassy cheap seats.
Not so with Leon Maiden, 14. Spotted on Seventh Street NW one evening in a modest double-XL, loosely tucked into black football pants, he claims: "It's just my style, what I wear. Sometimes if I don't have more shirts, I just wear a white tee 'cause I have a lot of them. They match with everything." Blue jeans, red shorts, green sneakers, combat boots.
Leon says he has "probably 10" at home, all Luxe-T. "These are the good ones. You know how you wash a shirt and the collar stretch really high? These don't." A clothes hanger won't stretch them out either, Leon adds, which means he won't have to toss the tee, scissor off the sleeves, or thrash it in football practice, like the one he is sweating into right now.
Luxe-T is a high-end brand for those wanting an extra kick from their plain white tee. One 14-year-old, Dominiqe Thompson of the District, even claims to have his $12 Luxe-Ts dry-cleaned so they "don't lose their shape."
Luxe-T is based in Fairfax, but the shirts are all made in Vietnam and Korea, probably for pennies apiece. The Luxe-T is woven from combed cotton yarns, then dyed with ciba -- "one of the best dyes in the world," boasts a company rep, Steven Kim. The business, which started in 2001 and grew by word of mouth, earned $6.8 million last year; 300,000 tees were sold last summer, sizes large to 6XL.
Do boys wearing the gigantic white tee, trying to appear as men, realize that when sleeves and tail-ends flap vigorously in a strong wind, they just might resemble angels from a hip-hop Christmas pageant?
When grown men wear it, untucked, the implications are a bit more complex: In a bus rumbling down Georgia Avenue are two men sitting in adjacent rows, each resting his head on a rain-speckled window, each wearing a big white T-shirt on a weekday. They may be headed to work, hard labor involving motor oil or sawdust. Or they may be out of work.
Warm-weather weekends are a breezier matter, when white-teed men feel allowed to act as boys. On Largo's Boulevard of the Capital Centre recently, a slow parade of cars winds along the outdoor mall. Here comes a black SUV, full of dudes in white tees, bobbing heads, creeping down the lane with door-rattling bass in a staccato drone. It stops after spotting two women in their early thirties, shoulders bared, sipping drinks alfresco at a fast-food Mexican grill.
The men, forgoing the slow head nod, decide to wave.
('Cause I'm fresh in my white tee / They glance at my white tee / And I got the hat that match my pants and my white tee, brag Dem Franchize Boyz.)
The women, Nyree Thompson and Sheryl Nichols, briefly eye each other. They return to their drinks. It wasn't so much the white tees that turned them off, but the waving out the window. Sheryl, in fact, likes the clean look of a white T-shirt. Nyree, a bit pickier, appreciates a man who can dress up and not try to flirt while wearing that.
"They can be coming from the gym or playing basketball," Nichols says defensively.
"And they didn't go home and shower?"
"So you like that guy?" Nichols asks. (A blur of yellow plaid walks by.) They laugh. Look, says Thompson, the thing about white tees is that "you don't need to be getting them in the Big & Tall if you're a medium."
"So if we see someone cute with the white tee, then you leave him for me," says Nichols.
"And he'll be coming to your house every day with a big white tee," snaps Thompson.
The white T-shirt as A-game apparel might be too much to ask of what, essentially, is a substitute off the bench. When guys wear the white tee to a nightclub, for example, "that's not creative to me," says Nateace Watson, 23, a Foot Locker assistant manager in Silver Spring. "I don't pay attention to those fools."
And so she doesn't. And the cops and the principals may not like those boys wearing all those big white tees, but some nights, on the sidewalks, we see a flock of innocents ready to be tucked into bed.
I hit the mall in the white tee, the song goes. Oooh, I think they like me.