How and Why White T-Shirts Rocked

A roots rock roundtable looks at what it all meant, man

Photo by Jeanne RiceMusicians wear T-shirts, and not just for self-promotion. Why is that? Let's ask Grammy-achiever Dave Alvin.

"As a touring musician, I find they're really easy to clean. I don't have Prince's wardrobe team, but I can hit a laundry every few days and keep on going."

So you're saying a T-shirt is a stripped-down statement, an iconic link to rock's working-class roots?

"No."

Back in his early days with the Blasters, Alvin says he generally favored Western shirts to set himself apart. "A white T-shirt and blue jeans had already been like the official uniform in Downey for years then."

As opposed to the Sha Na Na, Lenny & Squiggy '50s-retro look of the '70s, most real rockers of the '50s spiffed themselves up in suits for onstage action. T-shirts didn't catch on until the surf bands of the '60s, where they were the beach-centric leisure-time response to school dress codes of the day, which forbade wearing T-shirts.

According to Orange surf-music satrap Steve Soest, "The look was either blue or gray corduroy Levi's, with Jack Purcell tennis shoes and a T-shirt. To get dressed up for a dance, you'd throw a Pendleton on over the T-shirt and leave it open so it would look like a jacket. A T-shirt then meant a white T-shirt. You'd go to Penneys, get a package of three white Towncraft T-shirts for $4.95 or whatever, and you were set."

That surf look was superceded in the 1970s by what Soest calls the Don Ho/car-salesman look of bad polyester Hawaiian shirts, with white shoes and slacks, leaving the T-shirt to be rediscovered by roots rockers.

Like grizzled country singer Chris Gaffney. There are photos of him from his early Phantom Herd days looking like a rueful Mellencamp in his white tee, and he has continued to look rumpled and rueful in the decades since. But no more.

"I've worn a T-shirt forever," he says, "but now at this late stage in my career, I'm trying not to look like a hobo, so I'm going the other way.

What are you wearing now?

"I'm wearing a T-shirt."

I mean onstage.

"There, I wear a shirt with buttons, like my mom always wanted me to, with a nice pair of slacks. It's my workplace, and there are no casual Fridays anymore."

What T-shirts will you miss the most?

"A tie-dyed ZZ Top one with a coiled rattlesnake on it and a Cypress Hill one."

What T-shirt should one never wear?

"Those ripped ones with the fringe on them, like drunk women and personal trainers wear. I see those and think: 'asshole.' "

 
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