Jeans and a T-shirt, perhaps the most common look in the modern age, have practically become the unofficial uniform for people the world over. But even this relatively new uniform, which surged in popularity following the Second World War, has become one of the most useful tools employed by young people everywhere to express their political, artistic or personal points of view.

Back in the 1950s, jeans and a white T-shirt were a basic part of the young American’s wardrobe. Nowadays, though, T-shirts come in thousands of interpretations, with all sorts of designs at all sorts of prices, and it’s hard to point to one model that would suit the millions of jeans wearers in this world. While many people still wear their Levi’s 501s with a simple Hanes T-shirt, others put together countless variations on the classic combo − from secondhand jeans paired with faded army T-shirts, to fancy jeans paired with avant-garde designer T-shirts in slinky fabrics, whose prices can run to thousands of shekels.

If German-Jewish sociologist Georg Simmel were alive today, he would likely describe the jeans-and-T-shirt combo as an example of the principle upon which modern society is built. “The whole history of society is reflected in the striking conflicts, the compromises, slowly won and quickly lost, between socialistic adaptation to society and individual departure from its demands,” he wrote in his essay on fashion.

Indeed, the history of dressing in a T-shirt and jeans, its immense popularity and the different interpretations this mode of dress has been given, is indicative of the conflict between the desire to be a part of society and obscure one’s individual identity, and the desire to be special and delineate the boundaries of the self within the public space.

The T-shirt began its existence as the upper part of a union suit − an undergarment that covered the arms, legs and torso, and originally came in one piece. At the end of the 19th century, the union suit was divided into long underwear for the legs and an upper garment resembling a long-sleeved T-shirt. Both were made of wool and intended to protect the body during the cold winters of Europe and the United States.

Like many items of clothing in the male wardrobe, the T-shirt had military beginnings. In 1913, the American and British navies began changing their familiar uniforms, introducing short-sleeved shirts that allowed the arms more mobility. The white color was kept, partly because it matched the rest of the uniform, but also because white was the cheapest shade since it did not require dyeing. The whiteness of the fabric also contributed to discipline, as it imparted a clean look to the sailors.

Two fashion companies are connected to the birth of the modern T-shirt. A British company, which came to be known as Sunspel, started importing long-sleeved, lightweight cotton T-shirts to British colonies in the tropics in the Victorian era. The second, the American Fruit of the Loom company − owned by Jacob Goldfarb − began producing similarly-designed T-shirts in 1910. Another American company, Hanes, began selling white T-shirts in the 1930s and was the first to produce T-shirts as part of a sales promotion ‏(upon the 1939 release of “The Wizard of Oz”‏).

The T-shirt became popular as a comfortable and functional undergarment in the pre-World War II period, but only afterward did it really gain in popularity as a civilian garment. A 1942 Life Magazine cover may have given it its biggest boost: The picture showed a U.S. Air Force cadet wearing a T-shirt, and thereafter the T-shirt was also synonymous with testosterone-laden male sex appeal.

Starting in the 1950s, the T-shirt became a symbol of rebellious youth that defied convention, the bourgeoisie and their old-world parents. The white T-shirt was a perfect fit for rock ‘n’ roll times, and was just the thing to offset Marlon Brando’s sexy arms in 1951’s “A Streetcar Named Desire.” It helped define the look of jazz trumpeter Chet Baker and teen idol James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause” ‏(1955‏). At that point, the jeans and T-shirt look entered the fashion pantheon.

In 1960, another key image appeared that gave life to the T-shirt as a sexy female accessory, too: Jean Seberg as an American student selling newspapers in the Paris streets, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “New York Herald Tribune,” in Jean-Luc Godard’s “À Bout de Souffle ‏(“Breathless”‏).

Ever since, the T-shirt has been a walking billboard. Graphic artists, advertisers, rock bands and political movements have turned it into a canvas onto which any content may be poured. Although the first political T-shirt was created in 1948, when the Republican presidential candidate Thomas Dewey gave out T-shirts that said “Dew-it-with Dewey,” it wasn’t until the 1960s and ‘70s that the political T-shirt really made its mark. And in 1977 came the most famous T-shirt of them all, still being printed by the millions: Milton Glaser’s “I [Heart] NY” design, that originated as part of a tourism promotion campaign.

“We encounter [in the field of fashion] a close connection between the consciousness of personality and that of the material forms of life, a connection that runs all through history,” wrote Simmel, long before the jeans and T-shirt look took over the world.

We selected eight young Israeli contemporary artists who are all prominent in their fields, asked them to choose a phrase they identify with, and had it printed on their T-shirts. The aim was to capture this tension between blending in and standing out, between the uniform of modern man and the desire to maintain one’s individuality in a world that is inundated with images, advertising, texts and styles − all within the familiar pairing of jeans and T-shirt.

A communist choice

Nony Geffen, 30, film director

“Not in Tel Aviv,” the phrase selected by Nony Geffen, is also the title of his first movie, which won the special jury prize at the Locarno International Film Festival in August and will have its Israeli premiere in December. “The phrase is meant to express the feeling that cool and amusing situations can happen anywhere,” says Geffen. “Your true center is you and not the place you’re in.”

“I wear jeans and a T-shirt. That may be the only outfit I wear, actually,” he says, describing his style of dress. “And I think that, in some way, it’s a combination that actually sets its wearers apart. For as the quote says, uniqueness doesn’t come from the place or the clothes. I dress this way not because I want to be the same as everybody else. I wear what I feel, and I feel like everyone. You could say it’s a communist choice.”

Late childhood

Tama Goren, 34, artist

Tama Goren chose a quote from Pablo Picasso: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up” − which relates to her work. “My work comes from impulses, from emotion and a lack of sophistication, the way children create things,” she says. “It also relates to my personality, my sense of humor and the fact that I have a little girl and − through her and with her − I am reexperiencing childhood.”

Goren doesn’t usually dress in jeans and a T-shirt. “My romance with the T-shirt begins and ends at the gym,” she says. “Most of my clothes are vintage, going back to the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, out of a desire to match the look to the period. I feel a connection to the past and to family, and to the awareness that vintage clothing gave me 15 years ago − I remember that people used to laugh at me in the street, but when I went to England, I got the freedom to make this choice.

There I also had places to shop, and it became a collection. Since then, my house, furniture, clothes, including those of my daughter, who wears Victorian dresses − it’s all vintage. Beyond the way I express myself through art, in my daily life I like to express myself through my clothing, and I feel like jeans and a T-shirt blur one’s identity and uniqueness.”

Dressed for decision making

Luna Abu Nassar, 22, musician

“Those who dance are considered crazy by those who can’t hear the music”: the source of the quote chosen by Abu Nassar is not known precisely. It has been attributed to Albert Einstein, comedian George Carlin, and to Friedrich Nietzsche. “I identify with this statement because it encourages you when you make unconventional decisions, in any area,” says Abu Nassar.

In her daily life, Abu Nassar − whose band, the Jaffa rappers System Ali, will soon release their debut album − wears jeans and a T-shirt. “It’s just comfortable and right,” she says. “Jeans go with every color, and wearing jeans means getting dressed in the morning is much less of a headache, especially for someone who’s not that into clothes. I don’t try to set myself apart through what I wear. I prefer to dress simply.”

The precision of simplicity

David Lebenthal, 35, architect

“The phrase ‘Simple, Pure and Intelligent’ is connected to an interview I did with Japanese architect Shigeru Ban two years ago,” says Lebenthal. “He talked about the beauty of the naivete of student works, and about simplicity’s ability to be precise. And that’s a kind of ethos in my work − to achieve something that appears simple, precise and effortless.”

Lebenthal says his fashion style follows a similar path. “I have the same attitude toward the clothes I wear: simple elements that project a simple look. I wear jeans and a T-shirt mainly on days when I’m walking around building sites, and sometimes with clients too. But more often it will be jeans and a buttoned shirt. I think that jeans have an identity and can be made personal − most of the jeans I buy acquire uniqueness the more they are used and worn. The idea is not to have to try too hard, and jeans can go with anything. There’s something about this flexibility that jeans allow that makes their look seem more effortless.”

Things aren't looking up

Ariel Cohen, 28, dancer and choreographer

“Look up, Hannah! Look up!” appears in the final scene of the 1940 Charlie Chaplin movie “The Great Dictator,” in which Chaplin’s character is speaking to his beloved, Hannah [spelled Hanna on the T-shirt], via a public address on the radio. The film is one of four classics dealing with a social awakening, or motivation to warn of impending disaster, that Cohen examines in his new joint work with dancer Shani Tamari and choreographer Osnat Kelner.

“Although I’m an optimistic person, in the current situation I wouldn’t use such a sentence,” he says. “The movie is also not particularly optimistic, but I think that out of the failure in it, there is also a wish − for myself, for my environment and my profession.”

Cohen showed up for the photo session in jeans and a T-shirt that said “Cohen Properties, Construction and Development.” “I’m dressed in camouflage,” he says. “It’s a little way of amusing myself. I used to want to stand out and express myself − a need that always comes from a feeling of difference. I used to want to be seen more, but now I focus more on creating and less on being seen.”
 

Just swimmingly

Hila Lahav, 27, poet and musician

The text chosen by Lahav − “Every fairy tale begins with ‘Once upon a time,’ but every poem is born with ‘Let there be” − is taken from the poem “On the Road,” from an early Lea Goldberg collection entitled “Poems of Italy.”

“I could have chosen all sorts of quotes,” Lahav says, “but since here I have the responsibility of representing the extinct genre of poetry, I chose something that should be the motto of literature.”

She hardly ever dresses in jeans and a T-shirt, but says she is fond of jeans. “I like to cut up T-shirts,” she adds. “I have the shoulders of a swimmer, and I like to cut the sleeves off the shirts and show them off.”

Don't eat your heart out

Roi Sofer, 40, chef

The quote chosen by Sofer − “Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch” − comes from American film director Orson Welles. “It’s a lighthearted line and I think it fits the spirit of the times,” he says. “We have enough troubles, and, for me, food is linked with fun and enjoyment. With everything we have to deal with in this country, I like this line that says we should do something for ourselves, because we have no choice.”

Jeans and a T-shirt is the type of outfit that Sofer − the owner of Sardinia, an Italian trattoria in Jaffa − wears as a matter of course. “It’s what I’m comfortable in,” he says. “I like nice T-shirts that cost a lot of money, designer shirts, and it’s important to me that the fabric, the cut and the lettering be beautiful. I don’t like buttoned shirts and I don’t spend money on them. On the other hand, I also don’t go around in shirts with huge lettering that make declarations. I try to have the beauty of the shirt be the thing that stands out.”

Playing dress up

Maria Berman, 32, fashion designer

The quote chosen by Berman was said by French designer Yves Saint Laurent in 1968. “The line reminds me of home, where my mother is the one who does the ‘male’ work.,” says Berman, who currently has her own label. “To me, clothes are a costume. When I wear something that’s not typical for me, it’s like I’m playing dress up a little, and so this quote speaks to me.”

Berman wears jeans and a T-shirt once in a while. “I love jeans from the 1960s, but I’m still searching for the ultimate pair. I think one can also look special in jeans and a T-shirt. It may erase class affiliation but it doesn’t erase identity.”