Why has The Bear, a US series ostensibly about a restaurateur in Chicago, become the most talked about menswear show on TV?
The answer boils down to one item of clothing: a white T-shirt. In almost every scene its chef protagonist Carmy Berzatto, played by Jeremy Allen White, can be seen striding through the kitchen, temples bulging, sweat reaching sizzle point, in a perfect white T-shirt that makes him look like the James Dean of the kitchen pass.
The T-shirt comes from Merz b. Schwanen, a German brand who started making their signature white shirts after the brand’s current owners discovered their company still owned an old loopwheel factory from the 1920s, with the original loopwheel cotton cylinders. They got the factory working again, making shirts in a similar way to how they would have been made 100 years ago – knitted as a continuous loop of material. The only difference now? They cost just under $100.
The Bear’s choice of T-shirt is no accident, though. Carmy Berzatto is an award-winning New York City chef who has been shaped by the city’s macho culinary culture. In the opening episode, it’s clear he’s also a vintage fashion obsessive, with so many pristine pieces that even his home oven is filled with vintage selvedge Levi’s and denim jackets. When his restaurant is struggling to pay bills, he reluctantly sells his in 1955 Levi’s Type III trucker jacket.
Of course he would want a T-shirt that has the authenticity of vintage American workwear, but the price point of a filet mignon.
Cristina Spiridakis, the costume designer for The Bear’s pilot, said these choices are meant to reflect Carmy’s sense of perfectionism. “It was never the intention to be ‘stylish’ per se…” she told told GQ. “Carmy is a person that appreciates quality and classics, items that last, that aren’t fussy or trendy – things created with a respect for the item itself.”
He is not the only one – the market for premium white T-shirts has ballooned in recent years, following the success of British basics brand Sunspel, whose plain whiteT-shirts retail for around $70. That brand has become so popular that they ended up dressing both Christian Bale in The Dark Knight Rises and Daniel Craig in Casino Royale.
“To many, it will seem absurd to pay so much money for a plain white T-shirt,” says Michael Fisher, creative director of trend forecaster Fashion Snoops. “But one thing that will always be consistent about menswear is the fetishising of things like T-shirts, denim and other workwear styles”. Just this week, someone paid $76,000 for a pair of vintage Levi’s found in a mineshaft. “There’s definitely still a market for premium classics that come with a background story,” he says. “Being in the know about a lesser-known brand is truly more valuable for many guys than wearing designers from the runway.”
White T-shirts were first mass-produced for the US military, who ordered shirts and boxer sets for every soldier in the early 20th century. But they became an iconic fashion piece in the early 1950s after Marlon Brando’s A Streetcar Named Desire and James Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause, in which both actors played on the military sense of masculinity but added a sense of postwar rebellion. The Bear might be nodding toward a particular kind of retro masculinity, but from Saint Laurent to Celine to the high street, the white T-shirt remains a key part of every subsequent menswear moment.
But is it worth paying that much for a T-shirt? I ordered a Merz b Schwanen shirt, and it arrived in a brown wooden box with a leaflet about its history, looking more like a bottle of whiskey than an undergarment. It did look and feel light, and hung nicely on my body and didn’t lose its shape over the course of the day.
But the real test was in the kitchen – and as I set about making my breakfast the obvious problem with The Bear’s fashion conceit was exposed. It’s absolutely terrifying to cook in a $100 white garment knowing that even the slightest blob of hot sauce could render it essentially worthless. Perhaps it’s a true testament to Carmy’s cooking skills that he’s confident he can make it through the day with the shirt still spotless, albeit with a denim apron. But frying an egg at entry level, I can’t wait to get back into something cheaper.