Photo by James BunoanIt may have won World War II and made the world safe for democracy, drive-in movies and DDT, but the T-shirt stayed strictly underwear until James Dean and Marlon Brando, two mumbling, hunched-over, disaffected young men, showed up wearing them in the movies—giving T-shirts roughly the same great PR that Gable gave the sleeveless wife-beater undershirt in the '30s.
Brando hit it big first, and he hit like a fist. As Stanley Kowalski, the raging, scheming rapist who made life hell for the faded Southern belle Blanche Dubois in Elia Kazan's 1951 film version of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, Brando's performance excited America in all sorts of unwholesome ways.
In 1953, Brando cemented his iconic status when he starred in The Wild One as Johnny Strabler, the brutal leader of a biker gang that terrorizes a small California town. He played a grade-A sack of feces, but, audiences adored him.
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Brando's look in the picture (white T-shirt with a black ringer, a black leather jacket, Levi's and motorcycle boots) was equally potent. It captured the biker look and inspired real outlaw clubs like the Hells Angels—and people who listen to way too much Reverend Horton Heat.
Two years after Brando, in 1955's Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean toned down the lawless vibe just enough to touch the hearts of lovelorn teens everywhere. A sensitive soul just as discontented and aimless as Brando, he was more apt to skulk off for a photogenic mope than to thump somebody in the gut.
His humanity made his iconic Rebel outfit—blue jeans, motorcycle boots, white T-shirt and red windbreaker—an instant uniform of youth. Dying in the wreck of his Porsche just days before the movie's premiere probably didn't hurt either.
Brando and Dean were the epitome of hetero cool in the '50s, but more recent evidence suggests Dean was probably a closet case and Brando was at least bisexual. The gay community, perhaps sensing something in Brando and Dean, has zestily embraced both, to the extent that nowadays if you walk into a bar and see some burly guy tricked out in a T-shirt, leather and a mighty pompadour, you have no idea if he's there to kick some ass or spank some. Or both.