The History of the T-Shirts

The History of the T-Shirts

The History of the T-Shirts
While t-shirts have a distinctly modern feel, their origins — as an undershirt — go back over a century.


Colorful T-shirts

T-shirts get their name from the T-shape formed by their boxy body and attached sleeves. And such T-shaped garments go back centuries; originally made from wool or silk, these sets of underwear often covered the whole body, were designed to absorb perspiration, and served as a barrier between a man’s skin and the more expensive garments he wanted to protect from bodily grime.

The original “undershirts” were united with bottoms to create a set of one-piece underwear — hence, the “union” suit. When manufacturers began creating separated, two-piece sets, the modern undershirt was born.

During the Industrial Revolution, advancements in weaving and the manufacturing of cotton fabric birthed undergarments that were more breathable and fitted than their often baggy and rough forerunners (though they were far from as soft and cool as tees are today). “T-shirts” during the 19th century commonly took the form of the tops to two-piece union suits men wore under their clothes, which miners and dockworkers took to wearing alone with trousers while they labored.

Around the turn of the 20th century, the US Navy began issuing undershirts to its sailors, and other branches of the military would follow suit in the decades to come. These undershirts were designed to be worn under one’s uniform, but soldiers, sailors, and Marines, especially those fighting in sweltering topical climates, often removed their uniform top in order to work just in their tees and trousers.

Garments specially designed to be worn as undershirts were also available to the public. Comfortable, inexpensive, and easy to clean, they were adopted by farmers, ranchers, and laborers of all kinds, as well as athletes and sporting enthusiasts. In the 1940s tees-as-outerwear also started to become popular play clothes for young boys, who didn’t have to follow as strict a dress code as older men, and who were notorious for getting dirty.

WWII lent the undershirt greater acceptance as outerwear, as well as some heroic cachet. Soldiers continued to wear them back at home around the house, and civilians adopted the practice as well. As a 1940s Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog read, “You needn’t be a soldier to have your own personal t-shirt.”

After WWII, veterans continued to wear their undershirts with trousers while working around the house. Then in the 1950s, films like The Wild Ones, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Rebel Without a Cause, popularized the undershirt as stand-alone outerwear. Marlon Brando and James Dean lent the tee an air of edgy rebelliousness, turning it into an emblem of masculine cool. And as so commonly happens, the middle-class soon co-opted as their own what had formerly been working class wear.

Worn by brooding movie stars like Brando and Dean, as well as beatnik poets like Jack Kerouac, T-shirts became a symbol of one’s allegiance with the working man, and disdain for authority and mainstream culture.

Advancements in screen-printing in the 1960s birthed a new wave of graphic tees that sported everything from band names to political slogans. T-shirts became one of the great democratizers of American clothing; while the cut, tailoring, and fabric of one’s garments had formerly signaled one’s identity and class, standardized, inexpensive tees became the new vehicles for personal expression.

Graphic tees go all the way back to the 30s and 40s, as is seen in the 1942 Life photograph on the left. But they really took off in the 60s, along with advances in screen-printing.

And so it was that a piece of clothing you wouldn’t have seen on a single person walking down the street 75 years ago, became the de facto national uniform of the United States.

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