By DAVID COLMAN
AS if style were not an inherently inexact science, the fast-changing mores of men’s wear are even harder to quantify these days, with young men feeling ever less sheepish about picking up trends almost as enthusiastically as their American idols do.
But if you wanted some precise way to pinpoint the shifting male mood, you could do worse than get out your scale to gauge the weight of the cotton used for the most popular new T-shirts. The results show that the needle has tipped downward, from the sturdy 6.1-ounce cotton fabric that made the oversize Hanes Beefy-T a brand buzzword throughout the 1990’s to the finer 4.4-ounce cotton jersey that has made American Apparel such a runaway success.
Now the needle is dipping even lower. This summer American Apparel introduced an even lighter and silkier T-shirt, fittingly called the Summer Shirt, made of 3.8-ounce cotton. And Calvin Klein introduced a line of superfine pima cotton T-shirts and underwear, which, at a comparable weight, is about a third lighter than the house’s main line.
The new introductions, which as recently as two years ago might have been regarded as too sheer, have struck a nerve in the T-shirt world, which, if you had not noticed, is a little on the overcrowded side. The lighter fabric clings more subtly to the body than a heavier shirt does.
“It’s more revealing,” said James Perse, the Los Angeles designer whose soft-as-a-cloud tees printed with low-key graphics (or lately, none at all) have won him a following among men willing to shell out on casual wear with style. The trick with a lightweight fabric, he said, is cutting it to flatter, not just to bare — tight across the chest, for example, and slightly loose around the waist. “You don’t want to show every ripple or bulge,” he said.
But the main appeal of these shirts is in the “hand,” the textile term for how a fabric feels to the touch. John Dewis, a young actor based in Los Angeles, has gone to great lengths over the years to keep his mother from throwing out his father’s old Hanes T-shirts, which, after decades of laundering, are finally soft enough for his taste. Earlier this year, Mr. Dewis and his picky fingers stumbled onto the Summer Shirt at an American Apparel store, and he bought five.
“I don’t have very many clothes, so that’s saying something,” he said, praising the tees’ understated style and modest price — nothing more than good fit and light, soft fabric, for $20. “They don’t look like you went out of your way to get some fancy T-shirt.”
And they have the feel he wants. “It’s like the anti-Beefy-T,” he said. “I love my dad’s old shirts with holes in them, but I am running out. These are like those, without the holes.”
Lighter weight, said Yarden Gagnon, the vice president for men’s design at Calvin Klein Underwear, is also a boon to men who prefer to wear undershirts under a dress shirt but want to maintain a slim silhouette. He, too, credited touch in the line’s success, as is also the case with another new line from the company, called Micro Modal, after the silky synthetic it’s made of.
“It’s all about the touch,” Mr. Gagnon said. Though the new shirts are usually sold in boxes, these are out on hangers so men can feel how soft and light the fabric is. “They can’t resist it,” he said.
Even so, there’s a limit. “We’re not going to go any lighter,” he said. Mr. Perse echoed the concern, in terms of fabric as well as cut. “You can make it look feminine,” he said. “We try and avoid that.”
Soft, lightweight, well-worn — that’s one thing. Lingerie? That’s another.