Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
Until about five years ago, I barely wore jeans — or any pants that weren’t leggings, really. They pulled, they tugged, they pinched, they dragged; I guess they technically came in my size, and I could fit into them just fine, but that didn’t mean they fit me. If the jeans lay flat at the waist, they squeezed at the hips. If they hugged my butt just right, the waist would gape. The pockets bunched. The knees sagged. They were always, always too long. (A note on hemming: It isn’t all it’s cut out to be, pun very much intended. If they’re tailored for a tall person and you cut off a few inches, it throws off the proportion of the whole leg.)
Pants, in short, were not my friend, so for years I stuck to dresses. Then around 2010, something happened, and all of a sudden, more mainstream designers got it. Levi’s introduced its Curve ID campaign that tailored fits to hip-to-waist ratios — a limited effort, sure, but one that at the very least acknowledged the problem at hand. Other brands like Madewell added a little stretch to their basic offerings to make them comfier. Start-ups started catering to athletes. Custom denim became a thing. There were women with bodies to dress. There was money to be made! And while the options for anyone bigger than what the fashion world deems “normal” were still pathetic, what followed was such an improvement that it was photographed, celebrated, and documented. Maybe it was simply the evolution of commerce; maybe we have the Kardashians to thank for this newfound acknowledgement of butts in the world. But whatever the reason, it helped me — and, I imagine, droves of other women who don’t look like a Kardashian — find jeans that were better than okay.
We are finally blessed with an abundance of denim: skinny jeans, boyfriend jeans, high-waisted, stretch, vintage, you name it. I’m still picky about my pants — black Uniqlo jeggings are my go-to — but it’s nice to know that if I really wanted a pair of stone-washed flares, I’d be able to find them.
The problem now is that pants are only half the story. Because you know what you typically wear with pants? Tees. And you know what’s really, really hard to find? A cute, high-quality, affordable tee. I finally have pants that fit, but no T-shirts to wear with them — and I refuse to take it personally. There is objectively nothing so unusually proportioned about the top half of my body — or anyone’s, for that matter! — that we should have trouble finding a goddamn T-shirt. The styles currently in fashion may well look good on certain people, just as some cuts of old-school denim fit some bodies perfectly; but, as the Wall Street Journal’s fashion advice columnist notes, “getting a precise fit in women’s fashions has become harder now, when apparel makers are aiming to dress everybody and nobody in particular.”
Tees have not improved the way denim has. Brands have not created models for people with, say, broader shoulders or tiny breasts the way they’ve accommodated women with wider hips or athletic thighs. Designers haven’t made cuts of varying lengths in the same way that pants come with longer or shorter inseams. The solution seems to be to make everything in a garbage stretch jersey, which is soft, I guess, and stretches to fit, but doesn’t look that good on pretty much anyone, myself included.
That isn’t to say it’s easy to make a good tee. “Tees have such an intimate relationship with body type,” says Daniel James Cole, an adjunct faculty member at NYU’s department of graduate costume studies and co-author of the history of modern fashion. “A dress might be flattering to 75 percent of women in the right size, but a T-shirt has such a close relationship to the body that nobody can have a perfect tee.”
Still, there’s a persistent belief that tees are somehow “easier” to find than pants. In fact, retailers are obsessed with marketing their T-shirt offerings as “perfect.” “Perfect” tees are everywhere: Gap, Old Navy, Guess, Levi’s, J.Crew, Club Monaco — the list goes on and on and on (never mind that the cuts often vary year to year, raising obvious questions about just how “perfect” they ever were in the first place). There are overpriced “designer” versions — the Splendids and James Perses, whose offerings really only look good if you’re a busty stick insect or wearing yoga pants (which, come to think of it, is probably their target demographic.) There are even ultra-expensive, marginally better ones at boutiques like La Garçonne. But who has $90 to spend on a tee? Not me. (Jennifer Aniston reportedly gets her tees tailored, which sounds like a nice plan if you get paid millions of dollars to make movies.)
My desires are simple. I dream of a plain white boat- or U-neck T-shirt that doesn’t pinch at the shoulders, skims my waist, and lies just above the hipbones, but doesn’t look boxy or stiff. It has to be the same length all around — none of that god-awful high-low waist bullshit or those nasty slits up the sides — and I shouldn’t have to tuck it in to wear it with shorts or a skirt. I want a shirt that doesn’t cut into my armpits or cling around my ribs. I want a tee that’s breathable, yet thick enough to wear without a bra. I’d like a cotton shirt I can throw in the washer-dryer without a fuss, that I don’t have to iron before wearing (goodbye, linen), and that won’t smell funky if it’s hot out (I’m looking at you, rayon blend).
The biggest problem I’ve encountered is length. “Is it a tee or a dress?” is a game I play in fitting rooms; regrettably, it’s not always clear. I have friends who love this trend; they tend to be taller, or at least longer in the torso than I am, and while it’s great for them, it makes zero sense given everything else that’s going on in mainstream fashion. We live in the golden age of butts and high-waisted vintage Levi’s. Why are practically all T-shirts designed to cover them? It’s almost as though tees are still living in the early 2000s, fulfilling the obsolete function of covering up your tramp stamp/muffin top/butt crack/thong when you bend over in low-cut jeans.
“It’s a bit of a strange one,” says Cole of the dress-length T-shirt phenomenon, “and it’s not working well in tandem with the fact that pants aren’t as low-rise anymore. Often, when we’re looking at 20th-century fashion, we frequently will see things like that work in relationship to other pieces of apparel, but this isn’t.”
To deal with the dearth of decent tees, I’ve come up with some hacks. One solution is to buy a crop top in a bigger size and wear it like a regular shirt. Another is to strategically shrink shirts in the wash, which is tricky, but sometimes works: A friend who loves long T-shirts gave me an Everlane U-neck pocket tee that she shrank by mistake, and it fits me great. Everlane doesn’t make that model anymore, so I’ve repeated the experiment with its basic U-neck with some success. (I called Everlane for an interview, but they said they were too busy to comment.) Another friend who’s 5’2” and petite swears by stores that cater to teenagers like Forever 21. I suppose buying items designed for, well, children, could solve the problem of sizing if you’re on the small side; fast fashion also makes your new shirt far more likely to stretch, tear, or disintegrate in the washer/dryer. But none of this is much comfort to women who can’t find their size in mainstream clothing stores.
Finally, there is no shame in giving up on T-shirts altogether. They’re the problem — not you! Around the same time that I grew depressed about the state of T-shirts, I found myself changing my mind about another trend: rompers. When they hit the scene a few years back, I pledged never to wear one; they seemed undignified and childish. But having bought more than my fair share, I can assure you that they are both flattering and comfy — and, most importantly, require neither pants nor a T-shirt.