Women can curse Marlon Brando for that cache of frayed T-shirts every man squirrels away in the back of his drawer. In 1951, the actor strode across the screen in “A Streetcar Named Desire” wearing a snug, dirty white cotton pullover that revealed the muscle beneath the mettle.
Two stars were born, but the tee proved to have more staying power than the man who made it an iconic fashion staple. At Cannes, the new documentary “Brando” will screen, and audiences will once again see how the actor’s unique personal style mirrored his raw interior in films.
“For Brando, the T-shirt was his armor of resistance,” says fashion expert G. Bruce Boyer, author of the book “Rebel Style” (Assouline), which examines how the fashions of the 1950s embodied the social and political zeitgeist of the times. “It’s not the detail of the clothes. It was the attitude.”
Thanks to Brando, James Dean took the look and ran with it in “Rebel Without a Cause” four years later. Buttons be damned, the white tee was suddenly the fabric of rebellion. Even better, it was darn comfortable. Skinny guys emulated wiry, whippet-like Dean and wore it loose; men built like freighters opted for a Brando-like fit that enhanced each flex.
Fifty-plus years later, the tee shirt has never been more popular, and Brando often gets a nod. (The cult brand Edun has a Brando style) “It’s such an American look,” says Christos Garkinos, co-owner of West Hollywood men’s store Alpha. He likes the Loomstate brand.
Sadly, the newfound popularity of the shirt is no tribute to the legacy. Guys today often prefer long, sloppy tees festooned with abhorrent sayings like “I’m Dating a Stripper” or faux ads for casinos and tattoo parlors. What Brando understood was that the man exuded the masculinity, not the bogus slogan.
“The same white T-shirts are available, but what you’re getting now is the look without the danger,” Boyer says. “It’s just a costume.”
Perhaps the easier Brando style to pull off is the suit, a polished look that is making a comeback. Garkinos credits the actor in “The Godfather” for legitimizing it as macho wear. Designer Andy Spade — the man behind the cheeky Jack Spade label — offers yet another opportunity to get your Brando on. Literally.
On his Web site and store, Spade is selling hats that once belonged to Brando and are authenticated by auction house Christie’s. In just two weeks, seven of the nine have sold at $650 per pop.
“His style was so male, which is refreshing, and you don’t see it much anymore,” says Spade, whose fave white tee comes from Ralph Lauren’s Double RL label. “Brando didn’t give a damn. He lived his life just like he wore his clothes.”