Is there a garment that is as recognizable as the T-shirt? The T-shirt, so named because of the T form of the torso and sleeves, is actually just a cotton shirt for both sexes. A T-shirt is far from being “simply” a shirt, though, given its lengthy history and contemporary design. T-shirts are a common and pleasant clothing item for people of all ages today. However, let’s go back to the beginning.
The first ancestor of T-shirts, the “union suit,” is first encountered in 19th-century New York. The union suit was a simple pair of long underwear that was white, full-length, and buttoned up the front. The P. H. Hanes Knitting Company produced its own version of union suits as they became more and more popular. Theirs was made of two pieces—a top and a bottom—with the top garment being long enough to tuck into the bottom waistband.
The undershirt’s designers then tried redesigning it so a man could pull it over his head rather than button it. Pullover undershirts made by the Cooper Underwear Company, later known as Jockey, started being marketed as “bachelor undershirts” in 1904. They emphasized how robust and low-maintenance these buttonless shirts were compared to earlier models. (Example: A bachelor doesn’t need to fight to sew on a button that’s missing!)
The U.S. Navy, which employed a lot of bachelors with apparently limited sewing skills, started supplying the buttonless undershirts as undergarments to be worn under the uniform in 1905, only about a year later. These short-sleeved, white cotton undershirts became typical among sailors. In hot weather, exceptions were given to the rule that they wear something below their official uniform. Sailors were occasionally permitted to only wear their undershirts, at the commanding officer’s discretion.
In the Army at the start of World War I, tens of thousands of men were donning undershirts. The soldiers brought their shirts home with them, and T-shirts quickly became the preferred (under) garment in a wide range of industries. Even mothers joined the early T-shirt trend by dressing their boys in them for both chores and play because they were inexpensive and simple to clean.
By the 1920s, the term “T-shirt” had been officially adopted by the English language and was listed in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. The University of South Carolina soon after started giving their football players “crew neck T-shirts” to wear beneath their jerseys to prevent their pads from chafing, in the 1930s. The T-shirts were a big hit with the squad, and before long, students were donning them throughout campus, albeit mostly as undershirts.
When World War II began, T-shirts were often worn by college students across the nation. However, they had not yet been properly accepted as an outer garment (except for laborers like farmers and miners). However, T-shirts as outerwear started to become more widespread and acceptable for adults at the end of World War II as troops started to return home and wear them as part of their daily attire.
In the history of T-shirts, Hollywood’s influence helped to elevate them above the level of simple acceptance. The T-transformation shirt’s from an undershirt to a stylish stand-alone shirt was officially sparked by Marlon Brando’s white T-garment-clad performance in A Streetcar Named Desire.
As T-shirt sales skyrocketed, companies realized they could profit from the virtually untapped market, and printed T-shirts spread like wildfire. The history of T-shirts was able to express itself more throughout the 1960s, and the garments effectively evolved into “wearable art.” Political cartoons, slogans, and other designs could be seen on the shirts. Through the 1970s and 1980s, demand for custom T-shirts increased to the point that mass production and new printing techniques were created. Another significant development at this stage in the development of T-shirts was the creation of the wrinkle-free T-shirt consisting of a cotton and polyester blend.
T-shirts come in every color, material, and style. They are a well-liked means of informal dressing and expression. Is there any American clothing item as iconic as the T-shirt, we ask again? Choose a good one (or fourteen), and take pleasure in it for a long time.