IMAGINE A FOOTBALL-FIELD-SIZE ice-cream parlor. Now, imagine that every flavor is vanilla. That might be the best way to describe what the market for plain white T-shirts looks like right now. “We sell white tees from everyone,” said Kevin Harter, vice president for men’s fashion direction at Bloomingdale’s. Indeed, the store’s selection ranges from Calvin Klein Underwear three-packs ($39.50) to designer styles from brands like Rag & Bone for upward of $100 per tee.
Do men really need so many versions of something so simple? Probably not, but when white T-shirts anchor your wardrobe, finding the right cut and fabric matters, even if what separates one style from another is so subtle. “I like the idea of something that looks so plain and utilitarian, but when I’m wearing it, I feel special,” said Liam Goslett, a 25-year-old photographer who recently spent $415 at Mr Porter on a style from the Elder Statesman, a brand he has done some work for in the past. Mr. Goslett’s rationale: He wears a T-shirt almost everyday. Why shouldn’t he invest accordingly?
Even if you reject that thinking as absurd and prefer your tees on the cheap side, it can take a lot of experimenting to determine which is the superior value. I tested over 50 styles—separating them into four price categories—from thrifty mass brands to high-end designer labels—to pinpoint the best in each class. There were certainly some surprises. Here’s a spoiler alert: The most expensive ones weren’t our top picks.
Dollars and Sense: Welcome to the bargain aisle. At typically less than $10 a pop, these tees are beloved for their buy-’em-in-bulk affordability. The brands range from classic Fruit of the Loom to fast-fashioneers like H&M. But while being economical is smart, extremely low prices can mean a trade-off in quality.
The Winner: Most cheap T-shirts are too flimsy and floppy to be worn solo. But I would be more than comfortable leaving the house in Uniqlo’s Supima cotton tee (pictured; also sold in seven other colors, $10, uniqlo.com ). With a nicely finished hemline and sleeves, this is clearly not an undershirt. One catch: When compared with pricier tees, Uniqlo’s white looks slightly dingy.
Runners-Up: For a very light tee, Hanes ComfortSoft has a stylish shape. If you actually prefer a looser cut, Fruit of the Loom offered the roomiest of the bunch. For something beefier, Comfort Colors’ 4017 style is a solid tee with a nice-sized collar. At $6, it could have unseated Uniqlo here, but the brand is hard to find.
Nicer for a Price
Dollars and Sense: The middle of the T-shirt market ranges between $25 and $75. It includes labels like chic athletic brand Reigning Champ as well as J. Crew. The T-shirts here are often quite varied in the detailing.
The Winner: While known among denim nerds for its Japanese jeans, New York’s 3sixteen deserves as much notice for its tee (pictured; $85 for 2, 3sixteen.com ). Made in California, from hefty 9-oz. cotton jersey, it was a favorite of the 50-plus shirts I tried. The length is perfect: neither minidress long, nor belt-baring short. And the slightly raised, triple-stitched collar adds distinction, without looking contrived. 3sixteen currently offers only a two-pack for $85. But trust me: You’ll be OK with getting two.
Runners-Up: Jean Shop’s tee is a nice option for a flowier style if that’s your thing. It looks like something Ryan Gosling would wear for maximum collarbone exposure. Rag & Bone’s shirt is a happier medium, with a narrower neckline, but it’s also slightly long.
Dollars and Sense: The past few years have seen the rise of new menswear companies which focus solely on well-executed basics. Their T-shirts can reach $100. Some are well-made; others, however, are just cleverly packaged mass-market T-shirts.
The Winner: A $95 Peruvian cotton tee from New York label Handvaerk (pictured; $95,handvaerk.com ). The four-year-old brand’s goal is “Perfect Basics,” and its crew-neck tee arguably fulfills it. Cut from long staple cotton—longer threads mean a smoother texture—Handvaerk’s T-shirt is soft but not so delicate that it’s see-through. I also like the shorter, fitted sleeves which are sporty but not blood-pressure-cuff tight.
Runners-Up: Kotn, a direct-to-consumer maker of wardrobe essentials, offers Egyptian cotton tees similar in cut to Handvaerk’s, but the material is a bit shiny for my tastes. Another direct-to-consumer basics label, Everlane, does a fine job with its combed-cotton T-shirt; the cut is on the slim-side so fans of looser tees might feel constrained.
Dollars and Sense: The tippy top of the T-shirt market is undeniably the most polarizing category. Some shoppers believe that the more expensive, the better. But most of us are liable to choke at a $300 price tag on a plain white tee. “Why is this so expensive?” was the question I kept asking as I tried on high-ticket tees. In most instances, I couldn’t really answer it.
The Winner: This may be cheating a little, but Prada sells its tees (pictured; $260 for 3, Prada, 212-664-0010) in a three-pack, so while you have to plunk down $260, you get three. Nearly $90 is still a lot for one T-shirt, but if you wear a T-shirt every day in summer, you could do far worse than investing in Prada’s. Also available in heather gray, the tees have a cozy but still masculine drape. They’re also teddy-bear soft around the collar.
Runners-Up: The Prada stands alone. If you really want something from your favorite designer label, save your shekels for something more conspicuously fashionable than a plain T-shirt.
This story has been updated to note that photographer Liam Goslett has previously done work for fashion label the Elder Statesman. (May 23, 2017)