By the time Marlon Brando died in 2004, many of his credentials – style icon, sex symbol, activist, method actor – had long since taken their final bow. The New York Times writer Manohla Dargis summarised his life “as if it were some kind of movie, one with a strong opening act, a bewildering middle and a disappointing conclusion.” But if his life were a movie, the wardrobe department had a strong role to play in Brando’s early public identity, particularly in the 1950s. A key period of change in many social and cultural arenas, including a new wave of cinematic realism, Brando threw himself into the decade with his brooding intensity, unpredictable reactions and improvised lines, and it was his role in A Streetcar Named Desire that changed how he – and we – would dress for decades to come.
The humble T-shirt was an item previously assigned to the role of undergarment or as part of military-issued uniform. As a result, what was traditionally a loose-fitting, plain and functional shirt was reimagined on the set of Streetcar; legend has it that the director had the shirts washed multiple times to shrink them, cut open in the back and then stitched onto Brando. The result exposed more of a man’s body than had been seen in mainstream cinema before, shocking critics and making waves in the industry. Brando’s physicality was a force, heightened by the fact that a lot of his most memorable scenes are filled with tension not from what he does or what he says – but from what he doesn’t. Equally, his style is constructed around what he refuses to wear; the white T-shirt is so significant because of what it eschews. No one could have predicted its almost instant acceptance. Stretched over Brando’s broad shoulders and barely containing his flexing arms, Gore Vidal wrote that it caused a metaphorical “earthquake”, such was the impact of Brando’s hyper-masculine physique and rejection of a traditional male aesthetic.