July 23, 2024

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The Definitive History of the T-Shirt

9 min read

Today the modern T-shirt has spawned a vast textile and fashion industry, worth over two-billion dollars to the world’s retail trade. The unlikely birth of the t-shirt was a rather unspectacular event, however this humble piece of attire was set to change the styles and fashions of cultures for generations to come. Eventually the T-Shirt would be used as a political tool for protest and in certain times and places in history, a symbol of revolution and change.

At the very beginning the t-shirt was little more than a piece of underwear, an extremely utilitarian one at that. In the late 19th century the union suit, (also colloquially known as long johns), was in its hey day, worn across America and northern parts of Europe. Popular throughout class and generation, this modest knitted one-piece covered the whole body, from the neck to the wrists and ankles. The designs pièce de résistance featured a drop flap in the back for ease of use in the old outhouse. As cotton became more and more widely available, underwear manufacturers seized the moment to create an alternative to this mainstay and rather cumbersome design. Knitted material is difficult to cut and sew seams and thus with cotton a radical shift towards mass-made fashion could begin.

In Europe times were changing, as the Americans continued to sweat and itch, a simple “T-shaped” template was cut twice from a piece of cotton cloth and the two pieces faced and stitched together in a lowly European workhouse. It was half a pair of long johns, but it soon took on a life of its own. As the Industrial Revolution reached its inevitable conclusion, Henry T. Ford created the world’s first production line, the ideas of functionalism, efficiency, and utilitarian style entered the mainstream consciousness of societies across the world, and Europe in particular. Many began to question the Puritanism of the past, Victorian buttoned-down ideas of modesty were starting to give way to scantier and scantier swimsuits, ankle-bearing skirts, and short-sleeved shirts. As World War One loomed upon the horizon, the t-shirt was about to be conscripted to the army.

Historical researchers define the first recorded incident of the introduction of the T-shirt to the United States occurred during World War One when US soldiers remarked upon the light cotton undershirts European soldiers were issued as standard uniform. American soldiers were fuming, their government were still issuing woolen uniforms, this wasn’t fashion, it was practically a tactical military disadvantage. How could a sniper keep still and aim his rifle with beads of sweat pouring in his eyes, and an itch that just wouldn’t go away? The US army may not have reacted as quickly as their troops would have liked, but the highly practical and light t-shirt would soon make its way back to the mainstream American consumer.

Due to their highly recognizable shape, and want for a better name, the word “T-shirt” was coined, and as the word found its place in the cultural lexicon, people across the world began to adopt the new and more comfortable alternative to the union shirt. A handful of American experts claim that the name was coined in 1932 when Howard Jones commissioned “Jockey” to design a new sweat absorbing shirt for the USC Trojans football team. However the US army contests the origins of the word come from army training shirts, being the military it was not long before practicality ensured the abbreviation. There is one alternative theory, little known and rather graphic in its interpretation. Essentially the idea that shortened-length arms were described as akin to the shape of an amputees torso, a common sight in the bloodier battles of the past, though this speculation cannot be verified, the idea has a gory ring of truth about it. During World War II the T-shirt was finally issued as standard underwear for all ranks in both the U.S. Army and the Navy. Although the T-shirt was intended as underwear, soldiers performing strenuous battle games or construction work, and especially those based in warmer climes would often wear an uncovered T-shirt. On July the 13th, 1942, the cover story for Life magazine features a photo of a soldier wearing a T-shirt with the text “Air Corps Gunnery School”.

In the first few years after World War Two, the European fashion for wearing T-shirts as an outer garment, inspired mainly by new US army uniforms, spread to the civilian population of America. In 1948 the New York Times reported a new and unique marketing tool for that year’s campaign for New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey. It was the first recorded “slogan T-Shirt”, the message read “Dew It for Dewey”, closely repeated by the more famous “I Like Ike” T-shirts in Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidential campaign.

In the early 1950s enterprising companies based in Miami, Florida, began to decorate tee shirts with Floridian resort names and even cartoon characters. The first recorded graphic t-shirt catalogue was created by Tropix Togs, by its creator and founder, Miami entrepreneur Sam Kantor. They were the original licensee for Walt Disney characters that included Mickey Mouse and Davy Crockett. Later other companies expanded into the tee shirt printing business that included Sherry Manufacturing Company also based in Miami.

Sherry began business in 1948, the owner and founder, Quinton Sandler, was quick to catch onto the new T-shirt trend, and quickly expanded the screen print scarf company into the largest screen print licensed apparel producer in the United States. Soon more and more celebrities were seen on national TV sporting this new risqué apparel including John Wayne, and Marlon Brando. In 1955 James Dean gave the T-Shirt street credibility in the classic movie “Rebel Without A Cause”. The T-Shirt was fast evolving into a contemporary symbol of rebellious youth. The initial furore and public outcry soon died down and within time even the American Bible Belt could see its practicality of design.

In the 60’s people began to tie dye and screenprint the basic cotton T-Shirt making it an even bigger commercial success. Advances in printing and dying allowed more variety and the Tank Top, Muscle Shirt, Scoop Neck, V-Neck, and many other variations of the T-Shirt came in to fashion. During this period of cultural experimentation and upheaval, many independent T-shirt printers made copies of “Guerrillero Heroico, or Heroic Guerilla”, the famous portrait of Ernesto “Che” Guevara taken by Alberto “Korda” Diaz. Since which it is said to be the most reproduced image in the history of photography, mainly thanks to the rise of the T-shirt.

The 1960’s also saw the creation of the “Ringer T-shirt” which became a staple fashion for youth and rock-n-rollers. The decade also saw the emergence of tie-dyeing and screen-printing on the basic T-shirt. In 1959, “Plastisol”, a more durable and stretchable ink, was invented, allowing much more variety in t-shirt designs. As textile technologies improved, new T-shirt styles were soon introduced, including the the tank top, the A-shirt (infamously known as the “wife beater”), the muscle shirt, scoop necks, and of course V-necks.

More and more iconic T-shirts were designed and created throughout the Psychedelic era, including more and more home-made experiments. A tidal wave of tie-died t-shirts began to appear at the burgeoning music festival scenes in Western Europe and America. By the late 60’s it was practically a required dress code amongst the West Coast hippie culture. Band T-shirts became another extremely popular form of T shirt, cheaply printed and sold at live gigs and concerts of the day, the tradition continues to the present, band T shirts are as popular as ever, however the price of them has risen dramatically.

In 1975 Vivienne Westwood makes her mark at 430 King’s Road, London at the “Sex” boutique with her new Punk-style t-shirts, including her infamous “God Save The Queen” design. Punk introduced an explosion of independent fashion designers and in particular t-shirt designers. To this day many modern designs pay tribute to the “grunge-look” of this rebellious and anarchic period of Western culture.

The influx of corporate funding of the 1980’s changed the whole face of the T-shirt market. Slogan T-shirts were gaining popularity again, “Choose Life” was produced to promote the debut album of George Micheal’s band “Wham”, whilst “Frankie Says” helped push a string of highly controversial singles to the top of the UK charts for Liverpool based band “Frankie Goes to Hollywood”. Bands, football teams, political parties, advertising agencies, business convention organizers, in fact anyone after a piece of cheap promotion began to commission and sell vast numbers of T-shirts. One noble exception of the time was the now iconic “Feed the World” T-shirt, created to raise funds and awareness of the original and groundbreaking Band Aid charity event.

During the 80’s and 90’s T-Shirt production and printing technologies vastly improved, including early forms of D.T.G (Direct to Garment Transfer) printing, increased the volume and availability. Whilst in financial circles, the world’s stock markets took notice as the American T-Shirt was classed as a commodity item in the apparel industry.

Branded corporate labels soon made their massive mark on the industry. A whole new generation of T-shirt designs swamped the market, promoting conformity and allegiance to a brand name, such as Nike, rather than an expression of individuality. This rather uninspiring tradition still continues to this day, the now iconic “Vintage 82” T-shirt from “Next” for example. Within a few years of its first printing, this design was allowed to flood the market, until cheap copies and black market knock-offs have saturated the world. There are many similar designs which have a similar limited cultural shelf-life.

More recently an inspiring movement towards re-politicizing the T-shirt has enabled pressure groups and charities to push their message to a wider audience. Over one million people marched into London wearing a vast array of anti war, anti Bush and anti Blair T shirts at the anti Iraq rally. Another example, reminiscent of the earlier Band Aid event, saw The Make Poverty History campaign of 2005 receive global media coverage. Soon after Vivienne Westwood re-emerges in the T-shirt world with her new slogan T-shirt “I am not a terrorist, please don’t arrest me”. Catherine Hamnett, another famous British fashion designer is well known for her protest T-shirts, including her work to highlight Third World debt and the Aids epidemic in Africa. Then again, Catherine has recently been quoted as saying political slogan shirts allow the consumer to “feel they have participated in democratic action”, when in fact all they have done is a little clothes shopping. This maybe true, however they still bring enormous media attention to any just cause.

Over the years the styles, images, and contribution to free society that T-shirts have provided are taken as granted, the T-shirt is now an essential accompaniment for any fashionable wardrobe, no matter what part of the world. Still yet more technical advances in the industry have allowed for more choices in style and cut. Oversize T-shirts that extend down to the knees, are popular with hip hop and skater fashions. Seasons change, however from time to time the female market embraces more tight-fitting “cropped” T-shirt styles, cut short enough to reveal the midriff. The rise of the “hoodie” or hooded long sleeved T-shirt cannot be ignored, it is also fast becoming an essential addition to any street wise fashionista’s collection.

Recently there has been a massive consumer backlash against the branded conformity of the corporate and licensed t-shirt market. The consumer is at last regaining some sense of individuality, people today are not satisfied with the notion of “brand loyalty”. People want to reflect their own personality, political beliefs, sense of style or humor. Some are designing their own with the help of a wide selection of D.I.Y online t-shirt printing services, including “Cafe Press” and “Threadless” to mention just two. But many people neither have the time nor the inclination to design their own artwork, and so marks the rise of the independent T-shirt designer. Reminiscent of the 1960’s but with a worldwide appeal, artists, graphic designers, renegades of the fashion world are beginning to get noticed. The greatest asset a modern T-shirt can have is its originality, a quality that will always be in demand, both now and hopefully far into the future.

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