Is there another garment as iconic as the T-shirt? Named for the T shape of the body and sleeves, the T-shirt is really just a unisex fabric shirt. But, from its rich history to its modern-day form, a T-shirt is hardly “just” a shirt. Today, T-shirts are a comfortable and popular wardrobe staple for men, women, and children alike. But, let’s start at the beginning.
The history of T-shirts stretches back to 19th century New York, where we meet its earliest ancestor, the “union suit.” The union suit was a white, full-length, one-piece garment that buttoned up the front — your basic long underwear. Union suits grew in popularity, and the P. H. Hanes Knitting Company released their own version. Theirs had two pieces, at the top and bottom, with the top garment long enough to tuck into the waistband of the bottom.
Next, manufacturers experimented with making the undershirt something a man could pull over his head rather than buttoning up. In 1904, the Cooper Underwear Company (which later became Jockey) began advertising their pullover undershirts as “bachelor undershirts.” They played up the idea that these buttonless shirts were more durable and required less maintenance than older versions. (i.e. No more need for a bachelor to struggle with sewing on a missing button!)
Interestingly, in 1905, just about a year after, the U.S. Navy (who employed many bachelors with presumably limited sewing abilities) began issuing the buttonless undershirts as undergarments to be worn under the uniform. These white cotton, short sleeved undershirts became commonplace for sailors. Although required to be worn under their actual uniform, exceptions were made in hot conditions. At the discretion of their commanding officers, sailors were sometimes allowed to wear just the undershirt.
By WWI, the use of undershirts had spread to the Army, and they were worn by tens of thousands of soldiers. The soldiers brought their shirts back home with them, and T-shirts soon spread to a wide variety of industries as the (under) garment of choice. Inexpensive and easy to clean, even mothers got in on the early T-shirt scene and dressed their boys in them for both chores and play.
By the 1920s, the word “T-shirt” became English-language-official and was included in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Soon after, in the 1930s, the University of South Carolina began giving their football players “crew neck T-shirts” to wear under their jerseys to keep their pads from chafing. The team loved the T-shirts, and soon students were wearing them on campus — although still primarily as undershirts.
By the time WWII started, T-shirts had become widespread among students all over the country. They were not yet, however, fully embraced as an outer garment (except for laborers like farmers and miners). But, at the end of WWII, with soldiers returning home and incorporating them in their everyday wear, T-shirts as outer garments became more commonplace and acceptable for adults.
Hollywood’s role in the history of T-shirts served to move them way past just acceptable. Marlon Brando’s white-T-shirt-clad performance in A Streetcar Named Desire officially catapulted the T-shirt from an undershirt to a fashionable, stand-alone shirt.
As T-shirt sales soared, brands realized they could capitalize on the essentially blank canvas, and printed T-shirts became more common. The 1960s brought the history of T-shirts to a place of greater self-expression, and T-shirts essentially became “wearable art.” The shirts featured slogans, logos, political cartoons, and more. Custom T-shirts continued to grow in popularity through the 70s and 80s—so much so, mass production and new methods of printing were developed. Another important contribution at this point in the history of T-shirts: the invention of the wrinkle-free T-shirt, made from a blend of cotton and polyester.
T-shirts can be found in any color, fabric, and fashion. They continue to be a popular form of casual style and self-expression. We’ll say it again: Is there any American garment as iconic as the T-shirt? Find a good one (or fourteen), and enjoy it for years to come.