White T-shirt is fashion necessity with a bad rep
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They hang like drapes over the frames of spindly boys and potbellied men alike. Blowing in the wind and sometimes wrapped around heads like a turban fighting off the glare of the sunshine, supersized white T-shirts are staples among urban youths and suburban wannabes.
Once confined to undershirt status -- hidden beneath flashy shirts and polo tops -- the white tee has surfaced as a phenomenon of its own, now such an emblem that it's a banned item on many club and school dress codes.
Up and down the streets of many of Pittsburgh's 88 neighborhoods, the nerds and the hoods are all slipping on their white tees for the down-status statement or minimalist simplicity.
An ode to the shirt by the rap group Dem Franchize Boyz sums up the feeling held deep within the movement of the crisp, clean white tee wearers:
"I slang in my White Tee. I bang in my White Tee. All in the club spitting game in my White Tee. I bling in my White Tee."
The white tee -- as implied by the drug references in the song -- has also surfaced as a common element in several police descriptions broadcast by emergency dispatchers for suspects, rowdy teens and groups of loitering youths.
In one example of the notoriety associated with those clad in white, Pittsburgh police were searching Wednesday night for a white man wearing a white tee who was exposing his lower half, which was not clad in anything.
Upscale clubs -- even some that blare the White Tee anthem -- as well as restaurants, stores and schools in Pittsburgh and around the country have begun banning white tees in strict dress codes.
Touch nightclub in the Strip District, where eight people were shot a week ago, prohibits the tees.
Students have been suspended for wearing white tees at schools around the country because administrators say the shirts indicate gang affiliation, though white T-shirts do not seem to be tied to specific gangs.
A number of Internet chat rooms have lengthy discussions on school and club dress codes that ban the shirts.
Whatever it means to its wearers, it's become the central part of an unofficial uniform of big white tee over baggy pants or long shorts.
"It's just a fashion statement. They watch rap videos and that's what they're wearing in the videos so they mimic that style," said a Pittsburgh narcotics detective. "I don't think they are trying to make it any harder to pick them out of a group."
The tee shows up in descriptions that they broadcast because it's what the person happens to be wearing, police said.
"You can't trust descriptions all the time," said Lt. Dan Herrmann, of the Hill District station. "You could probably find 10 people matching that exact description."
But it does carry associations for many people, said Jeff Cobbs, 37, of Braddock, a disc jockey who on Friday evening happened to be wearing a white tee when he was Downtown, near Stanwix Street.
"People see a white tee and automatically think you're a hoodlum," he said.
Mr. Cobbs said the shirt's popularity originated out of necessity. Families could not afford to dress their children in expensive clothes, so parents would buy packs of five T-shirts for $8 and a child would have clean shirts for the entire week, he said.
"You would look at me different if I was wearing a suit," Mr. Cobbs said. "There is a stigma that comes with wearing a white tee."
Though white tees are everywhere, colors are still out there, too. Narcotics detectives spend a considerable amount of time interacting with people in the street and have noticed that different colored T-shirts are indicators of the particular neighborhood someone claims. In the Hill District, for example, people sport blue; in Garfield, it's blood red; and in Northview Heights, the in-vogue color happens to be Barbie doll pink.
The heads of Peter Wall, 17, and Paris Coleman, 19, both of North Braddock, poked out of massive tees as they waddled -- one in sagged jeans, one in sagged ankle-length shorts -- through Market Square on Friday.
Mr. Wall and Mr. Coleman said the white tee and its darker counterpart, the black tee, offer them an alternative to the potentially confrontational blue, red or gray T-shirts associated with different gangs.
"You don't have to check for the right color to see if anyone is beefing," said Mr. Coleman, who was wearing a quadruple-X-large blue shirt. He said that if he were to travel to the Hill District that day he might get stares and even trigger a hostile encounter since he was "rocking colors."
Both of the young men offered reasonable answers to the question of "why so big?"
Mr. Wall, who was wearing a quadruple-X-large white tee, said to avoid unnecessary shrinkage in the wash, the shirts have to be big. And style necessitates that the shirt end past the crotch -- otherwise, you might be showing too much midriff.
No respectable cool man or boy should be showing midriff.
"A white tee just shines," said Mr. Wall as he waved his arms around inside shirt sleeves that could fit perhaps a half dozen more arms. "It's going to cost you $30, $40 for a nice shirt, but you can buy like 10, maybe 15 white tees with that money."
Mr. Wall said that last week a police officer asked him to raise a similar white T-shirt he was wearing after telling him he fit the description of a robbery suspect. He said police thought he might be hiding something in his large shirt.
Standing on the corner of Fifth and Liberty avenues, engulfed in a triple-X-large white tee that shrouds his 135-pound body, Lloyd Benjamin, 17, of Atlanta, said he wears the ridiculously large T-shirts because they match his shoes.
"It's just clothes to me," said Mr. Benjamin.Pam Panchak, Post-Gazette photos
Among those sporting the fashionable white tee look Downtown on Friday were Mike Price, 20, above, of the Hill District, and Maurice Snead, 18, below, of the North Side.
Click photo for larger image.Click photo for larger image.
First Published August 7, 2006 12:00 am