We may have the Europeans to thank for opening our eyes to the cotton T-shirt, but leave the rebellious nature of wearing the undergarments in public (thanks to Marlon Brando) and capitalizing on them as advertisements (hello Hollywood, again) to be decidedly American inventions.
A commodity and fashion staple of global culture today, the origin of the T-shirt can be traced to the military before the turn of the century. The first inklings of the tee were seen in heavy woolen sleeveless undergarments similar to tank tops that were the daily uniform of sailors in the Royal Navy.
The garment’s evolution to the lighter weight knit fabric resembling today’s tees is said to coincide with two historical events. During the 1920s, the new technology of central heating allowed everyone that was bundled up in wool long johns in front of the fireplace to shed the heavy layers to lighter long underwear. Also around 1917, the American Expeditionary Force was sent to France wearing those long-sleeved woolen undershirts. Like the way all trips to France end, they returned to the states with finer French garb, in this case, the French military’s light, cotton knit undershirts, some of which were also silk.
After that, T-shirts remained synonymous with underwear and were pretty stagnant for a few decades, as the sleeveless A-shirt was the underwear of choice. The first printed T-shirts in the 1930s didn’t go beyond athletic and collegiate shirts, with a few exceptions. The “Wizard of Oz” T-shirt made for the 1939 film is a valued collector’s item.
Marlon Brando finally raised the undergarment’s status to embody the uniform of dangerous hunks when he bared his biceps in a white T-shirt as the character Stanley Kowalski in the 1951 film, “A Streetcar Named Desire.” In 1955, James Dean confirmed the white T-shirt and jeans as the mandatory ensemble for handsome troublemakers in “Rebel Without A Cause.”
It took the invention of Plastisol ink in the early 1960s to catapult cotton tees from plain to mass-printed. The foolproof, durable and flexible Plastisol application method transformed printing from a skilled specialty to something the craftily-inclined could accomplish. The youth of the ‘60s loved wearing printed T-shirts to express themselves and the medium took on a perverse and often baffling variety of forms. T-shirts showed allegiance to favorite bands, surf brands, political leanings and where they’ve traveled, i.e. “Virginia is for Lovers” and “I Love NY.”
Wrinkle-free cotton-polyester blends emerged in the mid-1960s to show that tees were no longer seen as underwear. And then heat transfer printing in the 1970s made way for photographic fanboy shirts: “Jaws,” “Star Wars,” and Farah Fawcett in a bikini. With all the tools in place, the nostalgic vintage T-shirts that continue to inspire today—from Coca-Cola shirts and Mickey Mouse shirts to Keith Haring art—were born.
The current evolution of T-shirts started in the 1990s, when T-shirts emerged in high fashion. Chanel’s 1992 collection showed a ribbed knit tank top with the mirrored pair of C’s logo on the front. In 1996, Sharon Stone wore a Gap T-shirt with a ball gown skirt to the Academy Awards.
As companies such as Hanes, Fruit of the Loom and Jockey currently churn out millions of shirts per year, the T-shirt is a proven commodity in American culture. It was not that long ago when Dov Charney’s American Apparel changed the mass blanks tee business to a fashion business. By taking the traditional styles—V-necks and crew necks— and changing the pattern to body conscious silhouettes, the new generations of designer knit T-shirts have taken flight.