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July 30, 2006|Elizabeth Khuri

The genesis of the T-shirt as a staple is much debated. Some historians say the Navy made the cotton garment a necessity by issuing one to every sailor during World War I; others claim the T didn't take off until World War II; and maybe the military had nothing to do with it. Whatever. The T-shirt did, finally, morph from unadorned underwear to high-fashion statement, with a price to match. This season, hell-raising designs dominate: skulls and crossbones, angels and rockers, swords and thorns. The men in uniform wouldn't know what to make of it.

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$530

GREAT WALL OF CHINA

Known for stratospheric prices and its celebrity clientele, this vintage and casual clothing company embellishes its T-shirts with luxury materials such as imported thread from Japan and embroidery, painting and air-brushing. Italian designer and owner Alfredo Settimio uses Swarovski crystals on this fiendish micro T-shirt, available at Theodore in Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Los Angeles and Calabasas.

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$132

ROCK & REPUBLIC

Designer and CEO Michael Ball created the Love Rocks collection for spring and summer, complete with flaming hearts and chains. The company is expanding, with outerwear, shoes and handbags joining the Ts and jeans. Bling Iron Cross, at Bloomingdale's, the Beverly Center, and at www.neimanmarcus.com.

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$85

TRUE LOVE & FALSE IDOLS

Alex 2tone and Alex Vaz were enemies in the '90s when 2tone was a renegade graffiti artist and Vaz was into straight-edge punk. Now business partners, their 6-month-old line combines graffiti, punk and surf influences to create a glimpse of paradise. At Kitson, Los Angeles, and the Closet, Huntington Beach.

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$65

ROGAN

Rogan Gregory applies his artistic skills with a broad brush--opening his first boutique this year in New York, debuting a furniture line called Rogan Objects and designing the clothing line Edun with Ali Hewson and her husband, U2's Bono. This season Rogan plays with workwear and Japanese minimalism. Women's silk-screened pink T, at Barney's New York, Beverly Hills.

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$80

GRAIL

Peter Ross, Grail's owner and design director, applies denim distressing techniques to the sports-wear line's surf and trend-influenced T-shirts. A tattoo artist often collaborates with the Grail design team to develop T-shirts that reflect the latest in body art and fashion. Skeleton and floral motif T, at Rouge, Beverly Hills.

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$64

BLACK HEARTS BRIGADE

This L.A. company hews to the morbid with Ts that are screen-printed, dip-dyed and sometimes studded to add a punk-rock edge. The silvery angel attacking a serpent-like creature on the back of this shirt adds to the take-no-prisoners look. At (h)armonie, Venice, www.harmonie-la.com.

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$88

MORPHINE GENERATION

Erik Hart launched his angry yet romantic line in 2003 with an emphasis on distressed ultra-soft Ts featuring his original graphics. These days, he's got an entire collection, with moody tailored pieces and barely-there swimwear. Purple T-shirt with silk-screened silver skull, at Theodore, Los Angeles, and Kitson, Los Angeles.

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$58

SALVAGE

The battered look of a Salvage T-shirt reflects the company's penchant for deconstruction with hand-stitching, patchwork, studs, and burn-out and foil techniques. Multiple washes make the T as soft as your old high school P.E. shirt. At (h)armonie, Venice, www.harmonie-la.com.

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$143

CHRISTIAN AUDIGIER

This new eponymous line by designer Christian Audigier is a Frenchman's take on the best of California: motorcycles, hot rods and sun-drenched rock 'n' roll. Men's Heart Attack Outlaw shirt, at Christian Audigier, Los Angeles.

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$95

TRUNK

Trunk Ltd. creative director Brad Beckerman used the art of Shepard Fairey to create a retro-style T-shirt, made on vintage looms, in a homage to the "Wassup Rockers" film by Larry Clark. Each of the 300 limited-edition Ts has a screen print of Clark's signature inside. "Wassup Rockers" T at Fred Segal Finery, Santa Monica.

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Wearing It Well

Tennessee Williams introduced Stanley Kowalski in the first scene of "A Streetcar Named Desire" as a man carrying a bowling jacket and "roughly dressed in blue denim work clothes." It was Marlon Brando who put Stanley in a tight-fitting white undershirt, first on Broadway in 1947 under the direction of Elia Kazan, and then in Kazan's 1951 film adaptation of the play. Every T-shirt of consequence in the movies since then owes its existence to the one Brando wore, and removed, to electric effect. We considered other notable T-shirt wearers to showcase here: James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause," Sigourney Weaver in "Aliens," Susan Sarandon in "Atlantic City," Denzel Washington in "Devil in a Blue Dress." But we concluded that Brando broke the mold; others have just tried to pour themselves into it.

Stanley: My clothes're stickin' to me. Do you mind if I make myself comfortable? [He starts to remove his shirt.]

Blanche: Please, please do.

Stanley: Be comfortable is my motto.

Blanche: It's mine, too. It's hard to stay looking fresh. I haven't washed or even powdered my face and--here you are!

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