A look into the history of t-shirts, from middle ages undergarment, to standard army and navy uniform, to becoming every fashion designer’s fallback – Every hero has its origin story, this is the T-shirt’s.
How it all started…
The T-shirt as we know it today is an apparel staple and a wardrobe essential. The simple garment that is ingrained in today’s world culture started out in the 19th century as an undergarment worn by men. Trying to stay warmer in the cool months, labourers would cut their jumpsuits in half, with the top long enough to tuck under the waistband of the bottoms.
T-shaped shirts made of woven cotton or linen provided a layer between the body and the garments worn over top. They were easy to wash, and they provided an hygienic barrier for the skin. This ensured the garment they wore over the undergarment stayed clean and laundered, showing off a gentleman’s wealth.
The T-shirt underwent several changes in the 19th century, starting with a change in the shape of the shirt – the shirt tails were removed and the body of the shirt slimmed down to a tighter fit. New knitting technology meant that it could be mass-produced in a more form-fitting shape, with added refinements and in a wider range of textiles such as calico, jersey and wool.
In 1904, The Cooper Underwear Company ran a magazine ad announcing a new product for bachelors. In the “before” photo, a man averts his eyes from the camera as if embarrassed; he has lost all the buttons on his undershirt and has safety-pinned its flaps together. In the “after” photo, a virile gentleman sports a handlebar moustache, smokes a cigar and wears a “bachelor undershirt” stretchy enough to be pulled over the head. “No safety pins — no buttons — no needle — no thread”, ran the slogan aimed at men with no wives who lacked sewing skills.
It took until 1920 for the actual term “t-shirt” to be inducted into the English dictionary, thanks to F. Scott Fitzgerald being the first person to publish the word in his novel This Side of Paradise.
“So early in September Amory, provided with ‘six suits summer underwear, six suits winter underwear, one sweater or T-shirt, one jersey, one overcoat, winter, etc,’ set out for New England, the land of schools.” – F.Scott Fitzgerald
The 20th Century…
The T-shirt business grew in the early decades of the 20th century. The P.H. Hanes Knitting Company began producing men’s underwear in 1901, while Fruit of the Loom began marketing T-shirts on a large scale in the 1910s. By the 1930s, T-shirts were standard issue for college sportsmen. In 1938, the American retailer Sears, Roebuck and Company began offering white cotton “gob” (slang for sailor) shirts for sale. By the Second World War, the US Army and Navy were issuing white, short-sleeved, cotton T-shirts to their troops. Wartime and post-war imagery of T-shirt-clad soldiers at war helped popularise the association between the T-shirt and heroic masculinity. “You don’t need to be a soldier to have your own personal T-shirt,” Sears proclaimed in 1941.
Then came Marlon Brando and James Dean.
In 1950, Marlon Brando famously donned a white t-shirt as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, only to be followed by James Dean in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause. Thanks to these two founding fathers, the popularity of the t-shirt as a stand-alone outerwear garment skyrocketed.
Not only was the t-shirt as an outer-garment becoming acceptable, but it was also being associated with a movement of rebellion.
“It was rebellious, because T-shirts were actually undergarments … It was a tough political statement,” Dennis Nothdruft, curator of the exhibition : T-shirt: Cult – Culture – Subversion.
Worn close to the skin and revealing of the body, the T-shirt’s inherent sex appeal was first picked up by actresses and singers in the 1960s. By the 1970s, the T-shirt was truly unisex. In 1977, Jacqueline Bisset scandalised American movie goers with her wet, see-through T-shirt in the movie The Deep.
As the T-shirt made its move from underwear to outerwear, the garment became a blank slate for messages, whether political, advertorial, graphic or humorous. Technological advances in silk-screen printing in the early 1960s made it easy, fast and inexpensive to print designs onto shirts. By the 1970s, consumers could have personalised, custom-made T-shirts. Businesses soon realised the potential of T-shirts for marketing, as did bands and music management companies. Thomas E. Dewey, a Republican presidential candidate, created what was perhaps the first ever slogan t-shirt with his “Do it with Dewey” campaign.
“The Medium for the Message”
Though graphic t-shirts and t-shirt printing began in the 1950s and 1960s, it wasn’t until the ’70s that t-shirts became the powerful messaging platform that we know them as today. We have the punk movement to thank for this.
Rising popularity in rock band logos, along with protests of the Vietnam War, really helped solidify the t-shirt as a messaging platform.
“It was about shocking and outraging people and challenging the status quo,” says Nothdruft.
The New York Times perhaps said it best, when the rise of the graphic t-shirt lead them to name it “the medium for the message.”
Because of its association with the working class and the subversive nature of wearing an undergarment on the outside, the T-shirt has appealed to generations of musicians, writers, actors and intellectuals. Rappers donned T-shirts in the 1990s, as did pop stars and models. On the other side of this, it has also been used as a clear mark for conspicuous consumption in its designer versions. High fashion T-shirts have been marketed since the 1950s and the garment has been reinterpreted by many designers since: from Yves Saint Laurent and Dior in the 1970s, to Chanel, Lacoste, Calvin Klein and Polo Ralph Lauren in the 1990s. Giorgio Armani, Helmet Lang and Nicolas Ghesquière wear the T-shirt as a uniform.
Today, we have a T-shirt on runways, worn in major shows and present in every wardrobe. It has evidently come a long way from its humble beginnings as a utilitarian garment over a century ago. Shop our best selling T-shirts using the link below.