People are always curious what their favorite actors (male and female) were wearing on a show, in a movie, on the red carpet, and even every day.
The number of “what t-shirt” questions I’m getting have compounded over the years, and the search for answers can be very complex.
Case in point, here’s an email from a reader wondering what white t-shirt the legendary James Dean wore in the 1955 Classic Rebel Without a Cause:
Subject: James Dean’s Undershirt
Hey there Tug!
I’m Carl, I’m doing a short film based in james dean, and I need to get the same type or as close as I can get to the classic james dean white tee, I heard somewhere it was a white jc penny town craft crew neck, now I’m not completely sure, an wanted to ask an expert in undershirts.
Thank you very much, I very much do like your website. Have an awesome day!
Rebel Without a Cause Wardrobe
Considering this was a movie, the first logical place to start an investigation like this is to see if there information available about the wardrobe used in the film. While there are tons of reference’s to the denim jeans and red jacket Dean wore, the reference to his shirt in the 60+ articles I read through online was simply a “white t-shirt”.
In a unique find, I did discover a few websites that auctioned the original white t-shirt James Dean wore in the movie, which included a letter of provenance.
Heritage Auctions had it for sale back in 2006. There were 14 bidders, but no sale. Then LiveAuctioneers tried to auction the Dean white t-shirt off back in 2008, but the starting bid was $5,000 and it appears there were no takers.
Then just under a year ago, around September of 2012, the original white t-shirt worn by James Dean was auctioned and sold on Nate D. Sanders for a little over $6,000.
While those were great finds, none of the sites mentioned the actual brand of the t-shirt. This was the description used on all three websites:
White t-shirt worn by James Dean in ”Rebel Without a Cause,” the film that cemented Dean’s reputation as a cultural icon and one of the most popular stars in the history of American cinema. T-shirt sales soared after Dean was shown wearing this shirt in the film.
T-shirt was originally obtained from make-up artist Gordon Bau who did Dean’s make-up in three of his films, and shirt is accompanied by an 8” x 10” black & white photo of Dean wearing the shirt on set. Shirt shows mild discoloration due to age and wear along neckline, else near fine condition. With provenance from The James Dean Museum archive, Heritage, R&R, and a letter describing its original procurement from Dean’s makeup artist.
White T-Shirt Photos from Auction(s)
Another angle for the search is to see what companies were making and/or selling white t-shirts (white undershirts) in Los Angeles back in 1955 when the film was being made.
The problem here is that there were many companies making them. I don’t have the complete list, but here are a few: Johnstown, Pilgrim, Munsingwear, Green Mills, Jockey, Hanes, Sears, Mandate, Velva Sheen, Champion, General Athletic Products and of course the coveted Towncraft.
It’s like finding a needle in a haystack. Nearly impossible.
The Speculation (Towncraft Undershirts?)
In the Could James Dean save J. C. Penney? article written this month, CNN Contributor Bob Green makes a strong argument, though speculative, that James Dean was most likely wearing a Towncraft Undershirt from J.C. Penney:
For years after Dean’s death, there were young men all over the United States who went to Penney’s for one reason:
They believed — the rumor was widespread — that the T-shirt for which Dean was known was a Penney Towncraft T-shirt.
Plain. White. No logo. No words on it. No special tailoring.
It was what James Dean — born in Marion, Indiana, smack dab in the middle of J. C. Penney country — favored.
Or, at any rate, that was the legend — what today might be called an urban legend. It was passed from one guy to another, without anyone being quite sure where he’d first heard it. Back then — I can vouch for this — young men fervently believed it, and it brought them to Penney’s. Penney’s, at least in their minds, was James Dean Land.
Their conviction about Dean and the Penney Towncraft T-shirt was like the unshakable conviction among young Americans in the early 1960s that the lyrics to “Louie Louie” were dirty. Because of the pervasiveness of the belief, it became accepted reality.
James Dean’s White T-Shirt?
Although I don’t yet have the definitive answer, I have a bunch of inquiries out to folks that just very well may know.
In the meantime, this is the response I sent to Carl:
good to hear from you buddy and thanks for sending in your question!
you know, i haven’t run across anyone that definitively knows what white tee james dean regularly wore, but it would not surprise me if it were a vintage jcpenney towncraft “undershirt”. they were hugely popular back then, as were the undershirts from the union underwear company (aka: fruit of the loom), and hanes.
at the time, the wardrobe department purchased some of the items from a local store called matson’s on hollywood boulevard, so it’s possible they grabbed up some white t-shirts at the same time.
if they were indeed vintage towncraft, the two closest undershirt/t-shirt products available today would be the retro fit from ribbedtee (originally modeled after the 50/50 towncraft undershirt) or the replica white skivvy t-shirt made my mister freedom.
the retro fit is semi-sheer, so it might not be as opaque as you may want for your short film. the skivvy is not cheap at $59.95.
the other option would be to find some deadstock undershirts from that era at a vintage store or online.
keep me posted on the progress of your film. i’d love to see the finished product and possibly share it with my reader-base!
As I learn more, I’ll update this article.
Category: Ask Tug