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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 male sexuality.
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.