Why have T-shirts gotten so heavy?

(Illustration by José L. Soto/The Washington Post; FX; iStock)

CHICAGO - At Independence, a menswear boutique on bustling Division Street, it’s not uncommon these days for the staff to know offhand what a particular T-shirt weighs. Sauntering around the space - an appealing hideout with exposed bricks, distressed-wood tables and tasteful touches of earthy Americana - owner George Vlagos and store director Pat Klacza explain that the store’s heaviest T-shirt is made by the French brand Arpenteur, clocking in at nearly a half pound. Meanwhile, tees from upscale American brands such as Dehen 1920, Velva Sheen and Lady White Co. sit somewhere between six and seven ounces. (For reference, a medium-sized thin jersey tee usually weighs around four ounces.)

In the past few years, Independence’s sales of these shirts have increased dramatically. The Saturday before Memorial Day, Lady White tees - two-packs of which are priced at $110 - were part of “almost every purchase,” Vlagos says.

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The heavy-duty, boxy-fit, hyper-opaque style of T-shirt that Lady White Co. makes has become virtually inescapable, at boutiques and chain stores alike and every price point. Lady White’s collaboration with the cult-favorite menswear designer Evan Kinori sells for $105; the ascendant elevated-basics brand Buck Mason retails its best-selling model, the Field-Spec Cotton Heavy Tee, at $55. (“It always sells out,” says Buck Mason’s chief creative officer, Kyle Fitzgibbons.) Los Angeles Apparel, meanwhile, sells its 6.0 oz Crew Neck Heavy Combed Cotton T-shirt for $24.

The mainstream shopper’s love affair with the heavy T-shirt really escalated around the summer of 2022: The lead character of FX’s hit Chicago-set series “The Bear,” chef Carmy Berzatto (played by Jeremy Allen White), began consistently appearing on-screen wearing a dense, substantial-looking opaque white tee under his apron. But there’s more going on than just celebrity emulation. Look closer, and in the heavy tee you may see many of the driving forces in consumer fashion today.

Carmy Berzatto, viewers quickly learned, is worldly, accomplished, well-versed in fashion. In a moment of cash-strapped desperation in the first season, he barters a valuable pair of vintage jeans and a 1955 Levi’s Type III trucker jacket (a holy grail for some denim collectors) for meat to serve at his sandwich shop. In the following season, he gifts his colleague a Thom Browne chef’s coat on opening night of their restaurant. White himself became an instant fashion sensation, too, as well as the face of Calvin Klein. How could a style-conscious guy not want to emulate his on-screen look?

Savvy viewers of “The Bear” were quick to identify his signature white T-shirts as the creations of Merz b. Schwanen, a family-owned German textile manufacturer that was founded in 1911. It closed in 2008, but it was revived three years later by new owners Peter and Gitta Plotnicki in 2011.

The married pair of former freelance designers purchased the old company’s equipment and name after finding an old Merz b. Schwanen henley T-shirt at a flea market. “It was absolutely eye-catching. We were thrilled by the fact that it didn’t have any side seam,” Gitta says, “but it was mostly about the fabric. It felt so good. It was special when we touched it.”

So the Plotnickis took over operations at the Merz b. Schwanen location in the Swabian Alps in 2010 and scoured the village for former factory workers who could operate its century-old loopwheelers - circular knitting machines that made T-shirts in the early- to mid-20th century in a tubular fashion without side seams. Loopwheeling typically created sturdier, denser fabrics than other methods, but as mass production and materials got cheaper and faster, many garment manufacturers abandoned it.

“Word spread that these two freaky people from Berlin had come to the Swabian Alps to work,” and they needed help, Gitta says with a laugh. Soon enough, its slow and finicky loopwheel machines - Gitta refers to them affectionately as “sweet old ladies” - began to produce Merz b. Schwanen shirts again.

In the summer of 2022, when “The Bear” costume designers Courtney Wheeler and Christina Spiridakis confirmed publicly that Carmy’s T-shirts were Merz b. Schwanen, the company’s website crashed overnight. It sold every last garment in stock.

At the time, the show wasn’t available to view in Germany - but now that he’s seen it, Peter thinks Carmy’s predilection for Merz b. Schwanen is a perfect bit of character costuming. After all, he points out, Carmy’s raison d’être is creating memorable, special, high-quality experiences for other people. “It’s a show about craftsmanship.”

Still, fashionable people aren’t wearing these shirts just because Carmy wears them on “The Bear.” Arguably, it’s more the other way around: Carmy wears it on “The Bear” because fashionable people have long gravitated toward the style.

Albert Muzquiz, a menswear influencer who once interned under one of the founders of Lady White Co., points out that there’s always been an appetite for old-fashioned, heavy tees - only, “for a long time that was just a garment worn by a certain kind of eccentric man that wore, like, suspenders,” or the kind of guy who insisted on wearing only Japanese-made selvedge denim. Muzquiz himself has been wearing the tees since the late 2010s. Now, though, More people are seeing the light.”

And for years, Muzquiz says, fashion-conscious guys have understood heavy tees to be a secret weapon, especially as they get older: “A lot of guys have a lot of insecurities about the way that their shirts highlight some things about their body that they don’t feel good about,” Muzquiz says. “A heavy T-shirt negates a lot of those: It drapes right off the shoulders. It’s not super stretchy. It doesn’t cling to you in weird ways.”

The heavy T-shirt is also a near-perfect garment for this moment in fashion, emblematic of a consumer ethos that reveres the last century, cares about sustainability and favors personal expression through fashion over dressing to convey the “right” tastes.

Buck Mason’s heavy cotton Field-Spec shirt is based on 20th-century styles. After tees were worn as functional garments by the U.S. Navy and then popularized among civilians after World War II, manufacturers of military and athletic gear began experimenting with different thicknesses of their cotton material. “We’re analyzing a lot of stuff that was made in the U.S. in the 1930s, 1940s, up to the 1950s,” Fitzgibbons says. “A lot of cotton football jerseys, things like that.”

The emphasis in recent years on vintage clothing has also sneakily turned some male shoppers on to the appeal of today’s heavyweight tees. “There’s a big movement of buying vintage right now. If you buy a vintage T-shirt, even from the ’80s or ’90s, it’s printed on a shirt that’s more like ours than it is like some kind of soft, athleisure-style shirt,” says Klacza of Independence. “Those shirts don’t last long enough to ever be called vintage.”

And as shoppers distance themselves from fast-fashion retail, an ethos of buy-smart-keep-forever has taken hold - causing some consumers to further pivot away from the aforementioned gauzy styles. “Heavy things generally tend to feel like they’re high-quality, that they’re going to last a long time,” says Fitzgibbons of Buck Mason. “I think some of that is backlash to some of the fastness that’s going on within the rest of the industry.”

Vlagos, Klacza’s colleague at Independence, believes the trend is also a vestige of the early 2010s, when menswear went through a somewhat costume-y workwear phase, taking all-too-earnest cues from laborers of bygone eras such as 19th-century railway workers. “I feel like we’ve moved away from that, but there’s still an emphasis on durability,” he says. Some of the Velva Sheen tees in his own regular rotation, Vlagos adds, are more than 15 years old.

And, of course, there’s an individuality to these sturdy shirts, despite the fact that plain tees are often beloved for their subtlety and interchangeability. It’s especially true for the loopwheel-style shirts, which are often (though not always) made slowly, in small quantities, with occasional imperfections thanks to the old-timey, difficult-to-repair equipment.

That makes them a perfect choice at a time when dressing with some personal pizazz is a must. “It’s like when you’re typing on a typewriter, and maybe there’s one letter that’s [not really working] anymore. So you have this kind of personality when you’re writing,” Peter Plotnicki says. “Perfectly imperfect, in a way.”

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