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A brief story about the history of T-Shirts.

By Salvador Leggs.

The Good old T-Shirt!

        Oh, good old T-Shirt! Or the tee shirt, tee-shirt, or just ‘tee’. Can someone deny its place as one of the most famous garments of our times? Its iconicity goes beyond just representing activewear or undergarments (its original purpose) and is now a symbol of overall clothing. Seriously, if we had to choose an uniform for the humankind, we bet this would be the most popular option since it kind of already is the most commonly worn clothing item of modern times. Every year, over 2 billion T-Shirts are sold worldwide according to online retailers. But how did this happen? How did we get to this point in just the span of a century? Okey, let’s have tiny history lesson.

Before the T-Shirt there was the ‘union suit’. We can not call this undergarment a predecessor per se, but more of great-grandfather from whom our favorite top inherited its simple comfort and universal appeal. As slip-on garments without buttons, the earliest T-Shirt dates back to 1898 wars. In 1913 the U.S. Navy first issued them as undergarments and we totally can imagine how sailors (en veterans) made it popular to ditch their uniform jacket and sport their undershirts as soon as the weather, an specific task or —why not?— even style made it imminent. T-Shirts soon became popular as an under and outer layer of clothing for workers in various industries and the general public. The word T-Shirt became part of american english by the 20s. All this doesn’t mean than wearing it by itself did not involve a certain level of ‘undressedness’ or total informality. It wasn't until the 50s when it became mainstream (to put it in a way) to wear a T-Shirt as a standalone piece of apparel. The exact moment when this occurred it’s so iconic we can sum it up in one word: Steeeeeella! Yep, the film A streetcar named desire was that breaking point. It was Marlon Brando’s manly torso and T-Shirt-ripping arms that opened the possibility for T-Shirts to be part of a fashionable attire.

After this point, the now quintessential top part of an average outfit was —well, exactly that— just average! Yes, it was very well socially accepted, aesthetically pleasant and even cool to wear just a T-Shirt. But it was not a sign of sophistication nor it was remotely close to a status symbol. For that to happen, it was needed another thirty or so years [Miami Vice opening theme starts playing]. That’s right, it was this emblematic 80s TV show’s wardrobe, especially Don Johnson character's recurrent outfits, that catapulted the T-Shirt as fresh and cosmopolitan fashion statement.


By pairing his simple tees with an Armani jacket and other luxurious pastel color suites, the Miami Vice show launched an unparalleled style that was not only on top of europeans trends, but actually elevated them. It was a total hit. With the help of Gianni Versace and other designers who became consultants for the series’ costume department, they created this whether appropriate and effortless beach glam style that was synonymous with success, and was adopted by the 80’s most glamorous members of the Yuppie movement. All in the roll of a sleeve! Yes, pun intended.

Now, does all of this mean couture designers were fighting over to get their branded T-Shirts on the runways of Paris fashion week, or any other runway for that matter? Absolutely not. It took almost another decade for the fashion industry to jump into the ‘all about graphic tees’ wagon of the late 90’s and early 2000’s. And quite frankly, there is a different timeline that has to be examined in order to comprehend this phenomenon. But don’t worry, of course we will!

“I went to [insert location] and all I got was this lousy T-Shirt” and other graphics.

       Giving its undergarment original status, there was no particular reason to add any print or extra design on the first T-Shirts. So the ones including graphics were in limited use by 1942 when an Air Corps Gunnery School T-Shirt appeared on the cover of Life magazine. In the 60s, printed T-Shirts gained popularity as forms of self-expression and political protests, which extended way beyond the decade, getting an even bigger boom once the Hippie movement was well established. Let's not forget that said movement was all about breaking the mold and changing paradigms; and some of its major themes revolted around arts and crafts. So it is not a surprise that T-Shirts became canvases for the free love generation: tie-dye T-Shirts? Woodstock? Hello!

Okay, so it would seem like we are overlooking a very important aspect about T-Shirts that makes them so popular: they are super affordable! Admit it, you too own three or four tees for each collar shirt or formal top (okay, maybe you are fancier).

And so, it was not surprise that companies, food brands, TV shows, rock bands, convinient stores, department stores, video games, movies, magazines, restaurants, fast-food chains, politicians, schools, universities, cartoons, cerials, sport teams, theme parks and many, many other have chosen them as the ultimate promotional item. Also, a lot of souvenirs vendors had incorporated T-Shirts as one of their favourite products all throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s. By

the mid 90s, even thought some had already done it few year prior, both, major fashion design houses and departmentstore brands started producing their own accessible printed T-Shirts, allowing the average Joe to proudly display their favorite logos and brag about their expensive taste without spending fortunes. Whether it was with a groungy (and somewhat greasy) layered tees style; or a slik outfit put together with a T-Shirt including a bold logo like Calvin Klein’s emblematic tee, this fad totally impacted this decade’s style and sense of fashion and basically opened a market niche. 

The inevitable nostalgia have turned many of these simple but fun graphic T-Shirts, into iconic testaments of time passage and the different realities that people lived. But before we got to the 2010’s vintage mania that made us all sport our thrift store Rolling Stones’ T-Shirt with skinny jeans and hipster glasses, we passed through one of the best time periods for graphic tees: the 2000’s.

I think it is fare to say that virtually every brand had already made its own logo/graphic T-Shirt by the beginning of the 2000’s. I mean, even surfing gear companies' and location souvenirs vendors’ apparel became notorious with brands such as Hollister and Billabong. But then, it was like the entire world said ‘Okay, what’s next?’ and turned their eyes back again to the self-expression aspect of graphic tees: forgetting about being a walking billboard to advertise your fashion preferences and focusing more on channeling your personality and sense of humor by choosing an ironic message paired with the latest trends on graphics or themes. Stores like Hot Topic and the rise of reality TV culture perfectly exemplified this style that also included other trends like the Alexander McQueen low-waist new silhouette, oversized sunglasses and handbags, frosted tips, chunky highlights and the ‘surfer look’.

There was a very significant change in communication and overall technology that impacted many aspects of everyday life. We are talking about the surface of the internet as an omnipresent and all powerful tool. From leisure to engineering and finance, every industry seem to have benefited from the internet. Fashion retail was not the exception and saw the birth of many online stores with impressive inventories as well as ‘produce on demand’ business models. This facilitated the rise the ‘ironic graphic T-Shirt' trend and even created some trends of its own, like the ‘flip-up’ T-Shirt or tees inspired by the then rising on popularity, internet memes.

Hey! Haven’t we already seen this T-Shirt somewhere?

        As we saw it while analyzing this two timelines, in many occasions it’s been mainstream media, especially cinema, that has sedimented many of this trends, styles and overall evolution of our beloved T-Shirts. We have to give a special mention to how many times a tee can 'become one' with the movie or TV show from which they were originated. It can be because of they were an integral part of the plot or because the design gathered popularity over time and exposure; like so, we can even see T-Shirts that were ‘worn’ by cartoon characters being translated to reality since there’s a fanbase ready to sport the look.


Okay, maybe you don’t need to be a member of the fans’ club to wear your best Batman, or ‘Win, Rocky, Win” T-Shirt. But you definitely will be referencing a piece of cultural significance and, stretching the concept a little, even a piece of art history.


Final thoughts.

        As I mentioned before, during the 2010’s there was a fresher perspective on what the new millennium would be about; and we started looking back to all the previous trends. And in way, we started recycling them and combining them in paradoxical creative ways that were not only very self aware but also showed no particular restrictions, nor fear to stand out.

There is indeed room for a more extensive reviewing of this subject. I did not cover for instance, all the technological side of T-Shirts making. New fabrics, new cuts and ever evolving printing techniques. Is Screen-printing the oldest technique? When did DTG started? Which is better? Also why are they so popular, aren’t there other ones? And aren’t there many other processes that are done to T-Shirts? Of course there are! And it’s for sure material for another blog entree.

Also, how about the times in which we are now living? A new decade is just starting and we have come a long way since the beginning of the 2010’s. What do you think is the next big thing on T-Shirts? And hey! If you want, maybe you can come up with it yourself. Until next time!

2 comments

  • KerryAug 27, 2020

    This is fascinating! I kept thinking about all my favorite tshirts. I have a garbage bag full of them that I keep saying I am going to make a quilt out of. Great article!

  • jenny16Aug 10, 2020

    so funny!!!

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Surat, Gujarat
6 hours ago