The History of the T-Shirt

 

For a bit of fun, lets reflect on the history of t-shirts and think about what has changed and what is still relevant today. 

While t-shirts have a distinctly modern feel, their origins as an garment go back over more than a century. T-shirts get their name from the T-shape they form with the body and attached sleeves.

T-shaped garments go back centuries; originally made from wool or silk. These sets of underwear often covered the whole body and were designed to absorb perspiration. They were predominantly worn by men and served as a barrier between a man’s skin and the more expensive garments he wanted to protect from bodily grime.

During the Industrial Revolution, advancements in weaving and the manufacturing of cotton fabric made way for undergarments that were more breathable and fitted. Although an improvement on their often baggy and rough forerunners, they were far from the soft and cool tees are today.

"T-shirts” during the 19th century commonly took the form of the top of the to two piece suits men wore under their clothes. Miners and dockworkers took to wearing alone with trousers while they laboured.

Around the turn of the 20th century, the US government began issuing undershirts to its sailors and military. These undershirts were designed to be worn under uniforms, but soldiers, sailors and Marines would often remove their uniform top to be left wearing only trousers and the t-shirt, particularly when working in sweltering environments. 

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, tradesmen, and sportsmen. In the 1940's t-shirts as outerwear also started to become popular for younger boys who didn't have to follow a strict dress code. 

After the second world war, veterans continued to wear their undershirts with trousers while working around the house. Then in the 1950's, films with actors like James Dean and Marlon Brando popularised the undershirt as stand-alone outerwear.

I think we are all familiar with the classic images of James Dean in a white tee which encapsulated an air of edgy rebelliousness, turning it into an emblem of masculinity and cool. The middle-class soon opted for this style after previously perceiving the t-shirt as working class wear. 

The sixties saw advancements in screen-printing, birthing a new wave of graphic tees that sported everything from band names to political slogans. T-shirts became the most popular clothing item. Previously the cut, tailoring, and fabric of a garment had signalled one’s identity and class, the standardised screen print tee, that was inexpensive became the new medium for personal expression.

So in the space of 75 years we have seen a t-shirt transform from a never to be seen undergarment to a daily staple that is often used as a fashion statement. 

T-shirts have a rugged and almost rebellious history, but maintain the comfort, accessibility, and practicality that made them so popular in the first place. When designed and worn right, a t-shirt can can be stylish, statement making and appropriate for any occasion.