Style

What Is the Perfect T-Shirt to Wear to Work?

Could you point me in the right direction of the perfect work T-shirt? It seems as if the market is flooded with boxy, ribbed cotton shirts that shrink in the wash and don’t look professional. My ideal shirt would be soft, fitted, reasonably priced, does not shrink in the wash and withstands the test of time. Does this exist? — Jess, Queens, N.Y.


Back in the late 1990s, when Helmut Lang and Ann Demeulemeester ruled the runways, there was nothing cooler than a slouchy black pantsuit paired with a white T-shirt. I keep thinking of those days now, not just because that particular period in fashion is looking more and more alluring through the lens of nostalgia, or because those particular styles were the existential adult version of the Y2K trends now permeating popular culture, but because that combination seems particularly relevant in negotiating this back-to-work moment.

(Note: This is different from the 1980s oversize pastel jacket-and-T-shirt moment of “Miami Vice.” Do not confuse the fashion antecedents, or they will lead you down a very confusing path.)

A suit — or simply a blazer and pants, be they denim or leather or what have you — with a T-shirt is the fashion equivalent of having your cake and eating it, too, and who doesn’t want that? It allows you to be both professional and protected — and also relaxed. The T-shirt says “slouching around at home and eating cereal for dinner,” and the jacket says “bring on the data set.”

The T-shirt is a step forward from the old silk shell, still favored by many women in Washington. It’s less cumbersome than an actual shirt, which often requires tugging and tucking to sit correctly under a jacket, but not as staid. Sarah LaFleur, the chief executive of M.M. LaFleur, said it was “the building block of a modern power-casual look.”

Not just any T-shirt will do, however. You cannot just reach into your gym bag and come up with an option. You need to consider cut, fabric (sheer is probably not a good idea for the office) and neckline. Boat-neck, high round-neck, V-neck or scoop-neck? Cap sleeves, short sleeves or elbow-length?

Personally I favor scoop necks, as I like the openness in contrast to the lapels. And generally, a hint of collarbone helps extend the eye. You want a cut that isn’t so baggy that it bunches at the waist. And, Ms. LaFleur said, it’s also important to check the finishing on the neckline as well as the armhole size.

One of the ironies of wearing this most simple of all garments is that it makes the tiniest details extremely important. Ignore them at your peril — or your wallet’s peril. This is a case of you get what you pay for, and buying one mid-price tee will be more cost effective than buying five cheap ones that start to shred after the second wash.

(Furthermore, it is my strongly held belief that no T-shirt should require dry cleaning. Washing on the gentle cycle should be enough.)

For a time, Ms. Demeulemeester used to hand out tank tops at her shows, and I hoarded these like treasures because they were the perfect solution. They were made of thick cotton but with an elongated body and neckline. It’s possible to find them on resale sites if you scour the internet, but that’s a fairly time-consuming, and pricey, adventure.

Other good places to look include Petit Bateau, which offers many possible permutations of tees, Theory (ditto) and Eileen Fisher. It’s also worth considering moving away from the plain T-shirt entirely and opting for one with a little more … well, personality. There’s no reason you can’t consider a concert tee underneath a jacket. At the very least, it’ll be a talking point beyond the PowerPoint.

Your Style Questions, Answered

Every week on Open Thread, Vanessa will answer a reader’s fashion-related question, which you can send to her anytime via email or Twitter. Questions are edited and condensed.

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