The History of the T-Shirt
Know the history of the tee? How did the t-shirt get its start in the beginning of the twentieth
century? How did the t-shirt become an American favorite? We're now into the twenty-first
century, and the t-shirt remains as popular as ever.
T-shirts of yesteryear were nothing like the t-shirts you know today. It was common knowledge
that the first t-shirts, as you will learn, were clearly considered something to be worn underneath
clothing. Certainly, the t-shirts of old were not part of a stand-alone industry, nor were they a
mode of advertising.
Believe it or not, before the 20th century, there was no consensus that underwear should be
included as an essential part of one's wardrobe. Most late 19th century folks wore something
like an extended shirt called the "Spiral Bustle." Then in 1901 the predecessor to Hanes
introduced for sale through catalog men's underwear, a two-piece set.
The birth of the t-shirt appears to be accredited to the navy (and lots of sailors). No one seems
to know for certain when the first t-shirt was made. As early as 1913 the U.S. Navy adopted a
revolutionary new garment, a short-sleeved, crew-necked, white cotton undershirt. This garment
was to be worn underneath a jumper. And what was the purpose of this undershirt? One must
avoid scandalous sights, otherwise known as sailors' chest hairs. The standard issue shirt had
somewhat of the silhouette of a "T", thus the name "t-shirt" was born.
It is also notable that during WWI while European soldiers were wearing cooler, comfy,
lightweight, cotton undershirts in the humid, hot summer days, that American troops took notice.
These duds were nothing like the American wool uniforms soldiers wore.
Merriam-Webster's Dictionary listed "T-Shirt" as an official word in the American English
language by the 1920's. Around the late 1930's that companies including Fruit of the Loom,
Hanes and Sears & Roebuck began the marketing of the t-shirt.
As of W.W. II, the Army and 12 million Navy sailors had t-seasy rider,hirts as standard issue
underwear. "Skivvies", these new, inexpensive undergarments became known as. America saw,
began to get comfortable with, and reveled secretly, daily news images of their wartime sons,
wearing t-shirts (dressed barely, but with pants of course). Underwear was being worn as
outerwear. Rules were flaunted about undergarments. Taboos were violated with this show of
Still, by and large, the t-shirt was an undergarment meant not to be seen. In 1934, however,
Clark Gable shocked everyone, as he stripped off his dress shirt in the movie "It Happened One
Night," to reveal no t-shirt at all. Women swooned, and men as well. Still, the t-shirt kept itself
under wraps, to be worn primarily underneath a work or proper dress shirt.
The idea continued to quickly catch on, and due to simple design, a few years later, with the
leave of many sailors during the war, the popular civilian "union suit" was reduced to a "singlet"
or "jersey." In 1938, Sears introduced a t-shirt they called a "gob" shirt (named after sailors). A
"gob" shirt cost 24 cents. The t-Shirt would become an empty canvas, which was allowing men
to present themselves in an erotic sense and show their gender.
The t-shirt was becoming appropriate to wear as an undergarment or as an outer one. The
Marines standard issue white t-shirt was replaced with sage green for camouflage purposes. In
1944, the Army surveyed enlisted men as to preference of sleeves or sleeveless. Most preferred
sleeves, due to better appearance, absorption under arms, among other reasons.
The t-shirt would never be the same. Along with worldwide upheaval, WWII brought along as
well the first printed t-shirts. On display at The Smithsonian Institute is the oldest printed shirt on
record. This t-shirt is from Governor of New York Thomas E. Dewey's 1948 presidential
campaign and sports "Dew-It with Dewey".
After the end of WWII, the t-shirt became the garment able to clearly display and advertise it all:
cultural affiliation, class, and sexual orientation. 180 million t-shirts were sold in 1951. The rise
of the t-Shirt can be traced back to the movies, and of course those big-screen movie stars:
Marlon Brando, John Wayne, James Dean, and a young Elvis Presley who did their part to
make the t-shirt, outerwear appropriate, or sexy to say the least.
1951's "A Streetcar Named Desire" featured Marlon Brando's portrayal of Stanley Kowalski,
lovelorn, brutish, and primitive, riveting viewers as his buff pectorals and abs revealed
themselves as unveiled by a stretched, paper-thin t-shirt. Some felt the picture created was one
of a dangerous, incoherent kind of manhood, a sexualized brutality.
1955's "Rebel Without a Cause" showed James Dean wearing a t-shirt without another shirt
overtop. He made the t-shirt cool, a contemporary symbol of rebellious youth. Still, t-shirts were
meant primarily for men.
In 1959, Plastisol, a stretchable ink was invented, starting a revolution in t-shirt design. After that
came the iron-on transfer, and finally litho transfer. Thus was the birth of the t-shirt industry.
Now marketing geniuses, like Walt Disney, "flocked" letters and simple designs onto t-shirts to
be sold as souvenirs to both men and women.
Still the advertising evolution of the t-shirt would be slow. The military was first to stencil
company and rank on their t-shirts. Also, Ivy League Universities made clear advertisement of
fraternities on their tees. Budweiser was the first to do actual "corporate-advertising" in the late
1060's, when they sported a Bud can on their company tees.
During the '60s, the hippies abandoned traditional dress for tie-dye. Of course, the t-shirt
became one of the cheapest and easiest garments to purchase and dye. Folks began tie-dying
and screen-printing basic cotton tees, helping it to even bigger commercial success. In 1969, t-
shirt wearing hippies took on the Establishment in Easy Rider. Also, advances in printing and
dying allowed more variety and the introduction of muscle shirts, scoop necks, v-necks and
tanks into modern fashion.
Throughout the late 60's and 70's, the American Tee was in full bloom. Rock and Roll bands
began to realize that they could make significant amounts of money selling their t-shirts.
Professional Sports caught on and soon the officially licensed t-shirt became hot merchandise.
1977's "The Deep", helped to form the sexual revolution of the 1970's by means of Jacqueline
Bisset's wet tee.
What about the t-shirt in the '80's and '90's? Remember Don Johnson's designer-tee and
Armani suit combo ala Miami Vice? And what about the most memorable recent tee-film from
1996 "Mission: Impossible", just a bit of Tom Cruise, clad in tee, doing some serious hanging
from a wire. The 80's and 90's both saw amazing production of t-shirts with improved mechanics
of printing them in increased volume for increased availability. The American t-shirt has now
become known as a commodity item. More than one billion t-shirts were sold in 1995.
And now, with the advent of the internet, the t-shirt continues to become even bigger. Tee art
symbolizes the cultural and social climates of our generation. Tees tell the story perfectly, and
now more than ever, the t-shirt is becoming an even more individualistic mode of personal
expression. Example below!