How James Dean Made the T-shirt a Classic Symbol of Cool

The year: 1955. The film: Rebel Without a Cause. The icon: James Dean. And the outfit: blue jeans, a red jacket, and a slick white T-shirt.

There’s no look quite as iconic. For every rebellious teen in the 50s, dark and brooding Jim Stark, portrayed by Dean, was the picture of cool. And if you wanted to imitate his style, you knew the T-shirt was the basic that laid the foundation for his whole look.

So how did the classic T-shirt become synonymous with effortless cool? Dean had a lot to do with it. Let’s break it down.

Related: The Evolution of the Classic T-Shirt

James Dean wearing a T-shirt

How the T-shirt became the rebel’s go-to garment

James Dean solidified the T-shirt’s reputation as the go-to garment for rebels, but he wasn't the first start to make the T-shirt famous. He took his cue from Marlon Brando, whose signature look centered around a plain white T-shirt in A Streetcar Named Desire.

Back in the time of Brando and Dean, the T-shirt was considered an undergarment. To wear it on its own made a statement. By disregarding the commonly held ideas about how a T-shirt could be worn, those who wore them by themselves were rule-breakers. Pair that sentiment with the rules-be-damned attitude of Dean’s Jim Stark, and you have the recipe for easy rebellious style.

Beyond Jim Stark

But beyond his days as Jim Stark, why did James Dean favor the simple T-shirt?

Many believe it reflected his love of simplicity. Dean, who grew up on an Indiana farm, had a rough-around-the-edges genuineness that other stars lacked. He didn’t cast away his style in favor of Hollywood glitz and glam. Instead, he stuck true to his roots and made simple cool, even in an industry that revolved around flashiness.

The public took notice. Simple looks, like jeans and a T-shirt, done confidently became a kind of high fashion for the underdog. The signature look for those who strayed off the beaten path. A style symbol for those who didn’t care about fitting in.

Man wearing T-shirt look inspired by James Dean


How to channel James Dean’s cool

It's pretty obvious that the days where a T-shirt is considered only an undergarment are long gone. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make a statement by dressing simply. In fact, there are whole Pinterest boards dedicated on how to chicly style a simple T-shirt.

The beauty of the classic T-shirt: by making it the foundation of your look, you can let something else shine. Maybe it’s a personality-packed accessory. Maybe it’s a bold blazer. Or maybe, like it was for James Dean, it’s your inner cool.

But in order to create a look like James Dean’s, you need to make sure you’re choosing the right T-shirt.

What to look for in a T-shirt

Not any old packaged T-shirt will do if you're building a fashionable look. For style that looks cool and not cheap, you need to pay attention to your shirt’s fit and fabric.

When choosing a fit, the first thing to consider is your shirt’s cut. Do you want to opt for the classic crew cut, or go for a more plunging V-neck?

Once you’ve settled on a style, be sure the T-shirt you’re choosing is one that will fit well. Does it drape in a way that flatters? If you’re shopping online, check the reviews and see what past purchasers are saying about the way their order fit. Keep an eye out, too, for what reviewers say about how the shirt holds up in the wash.

And lastly, you want to choose quality fabric. Cheap t-shirts might be fine for hitting the gym, but when it comes to making a fashion statement, only the best will do. Aim for super soft, organic cotton to avoid a starchy feel and stiff look.

Related: Follow these 4 tips to find high quality T-shirts

men wearing luxury tshirts

Luxury T-shirts for James Dean-inspired looks

Attractive drapes, clean necklines, and seamless finishes. That’s what you get when you choose a Classic T-shirt. It’s the perfect foundation for a look that’s James Dean cool.

Each of our shirts is made with 100% organic, super soft cotton that’s garment-dyed, pre-washed, and pre-shrunk. They’ll look great wash after wash—you won’t have to worry about shrinking or shape-shifting.

Better yet, all of our cotton is sustainably sourced and free from pesticides and GMOs, and all of our shirts are hand-embroidered with fair trade labor.

That means you won’t just look good, you’ll be doing good. And that’s a kind of coolness that never goes out of style.

Find your next style staple today by browsing our collection of men’s T-shirts (or women’s T-shirts—ladies can learn a thing or two about chic style from James Dean, too).

Related: Are expensive luxury T-shirts really worth it?

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