The intriguing history behind one of fashion’s greatest staples
In the current fashion climate, there are probably key items that most guys have. Surely, the vast majority of us have a pair of Chelsea boots or some ripped jeans or a longline. But there probably isn’t an individual item that every guy has…well, except for the t-shirt.
Every guy owns at least one t-shirt if not several. T-shirts fit easily into every lifestyle and every aesthetic. The professional guy who spends his week on Skype calls with clients on different continents might layer a tee underneath his suit. Not to mention, he wears them in his downtime. And for guys who spend their weeks in casual looks, t-shirts serve as the building block for any look.
Right now, bold graphics, messages, and logos are having a huge moment. But the t-shirt, in its most basic form, has a storied history. Whether you’re a fan of three-piece variety pack or a high-quality Egyptian cotton tee, there’s probably a lot you never knew about t-shirts. They might be basic, but they’re essential. And clearly, they’ve been around for a long time.
You might not think there’s a lot to learn, but there’s far more to the t-shirt than you could ever imagine.
1. T-shirts started as underwear
That’s right. Men didn’t start out wearing t-shirts as standalone fashion statements. In the 1910s, blue collar men wore standard issue, one-piece union suit underwear. Soon, the underwear was separated into top and bottom garments. After the Spanish-American War of 1898, the Navy adopted the simple slip-on garment from the upper half of the union underwear. They required men to wear the short sleeve, crewneck white cotton shirt under their uniforms. Soon, sailors and Marines wore them so they could remove their uniform jackets in warm climates. That’s why so many of the historical pictures we see show men in white t-shirts.
2. There’s a $91,500 t-shirt in existence
Hermès is known for creating luxury style and in-demand handbags that send women into a buying frenzy. But it seems no fashion garment, not even the t-shirt, is free from its luxurious touch. In 2013, the French fashion house designed a T-shirt made of crocodile skin that boasted a price tag of $91,500. According to Time, the sales tax on the shirt alone was enough to purchase a car. But it wasn’t the whopping cost that had people worked up. PETA denounced the t-shirt because it relied on animal cruelty for its creation. Regardless of whether you’re outraged by it or entranced, Hermès proved that the t-shirt has come a long way.
3. Thank Marlon Brando for the t-shirt’s popularity
T-shirts were mainly a style move for the working class until 1951. It was then that Marlon Brando became a Hollywood icon with his legendary turn in A Streetcar Named Desire. He spent the bulk of the movie in a short-sleeved white tee. Thanks to an athletic physique, the look turned him into the epitome of masculine style. By the time he was screaming Stella’s name from the street, he and his t-shirt had solidified their places in history. That year, t-shirt sales totaled more than $180 million. And to this day, guys are still trying to look like Brando in a white tee.
4. The graphic tee was born in 1942
Nearly three decades after the t-shirt was introduced as a U.S. Navy uniform requirement, the possibilities were infinitely expanded when the first printed tee was featured on the July 13, 1942 cover of LIFE. On that cover, 23-year-old Corporal Alexander Le Gerda was shown in a white Air Corps Gunnery School t-shirt. It was the first mainstream use of a printed shirt.
Depending on who you ask, the printed tees used in The Wizard of Oz could technically be created as the “first”. In 1939, collectible shirts were created in an effort to promote the film. But the true marketing potential of the t-shirt took off in the 50s when Miami-based company Tropix Togs bought the rights to Disney’s Mickey Mouse and started printing tourist shirts. Though LIFE may have been the first mover to feature printed tees, its Tropix Togs’ entrepreneurship that can be felt in gift shops to this day.
5. Someone once wore 257 shirts at one time
The Guinness Book of World Records is home to some of the most dubious achievements in history. T-shirts have a place in the ridiculous history books thanks to Sanath Bandara of Sri Lanka. In late 2011, Bandara successfully wore 257 t-shirts at one time during a public event at a Colombo public park. Believe it or not, he beat the previous record holder, Hwang Kwanghee of South Korea. Kwanghee had previously worn 252 shirts at once. While most of us are satisfied with one t-shirt, Bandara proved that you can never have too many.
6. T-shirts got political in the 60s
In 1967, artist and illustrator Warren Dayton started using t-shirts as a canvas for art and political messaging. He was widely known for his psychedelic poster prints, but his mark on the fashion world is one that’s still felt today. Some of his most popular work centered around images of polluted lungs, the Statue of Liberty and Cesár Chavez. Officially, he was a pioneer in wearable art. His developments garnered a feature in the Los Angeles Times. Today, wearable art has become so much than t-shirts. With everything from fitness trackers to avant garde jewelry, it has a whole new meaning. But its humble beginnings can be traced back to the decade of free love and the hippie movement.
7. The name is literal
T-shirts were actually named for their T-shape. Thanks to a boxy torso shape and the sleeves, the garment creates an actual T when placed on your body. Though we’ve just accepted it as the standard name, its origin, at least in terms of linguistics, is pretty simple. The word t-shirt was added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary back in 1920. The definition reads “a soft shirt with short sleeves and no collar”. Even its definition is simple, and that makes sense considering it’s among the most basic fashion items in history. Urban Dictionary offers a few variations including this gem, “Typical protective fabric covering of the fashionably lazy, so named for the T-shape it has when laid flat.” The site also describes it as a democratic piece of clothing, meaning any and every person can wear one. While the name may not be the most advanced, the t-shirt’s impact and legacy have clearly offered more complexity.
8. There isn’t a lot of info about t-shirts and women
While researching the history of t-shirts, it’s clear that the vast majority of the iconic moments revolve around men. After Brando, there was James Dean and the birth of rebel chic. Throughout history, and mostly still today, t-shirts were a masculine staple. Now, they’re common on both genders and often come in unisex styles, it’s hard to find a definitive moment when women started rocking t-shirts.
In a series of photographs assembled by Vogue, there’s a photo of Juliette Greco sporting a classic white tee with cuffed sleeves back in the 1950s. The French actress and singer was a huge proponent of Bohemian fashion, but in the photo, she proved that women could look chic in t-shirts and brought about an entirely different aesthetic.
Other iconic women in white tees include Brigitte Bardot in 1962’s A Very Private Affair and Pam Grier and Margaret Markov in 1972’s Black Mama, White Mama.
9. There’s a programmable t-shirt in the works
Throughout this list, we’ve talked about wearable art and the first printed tees on record. But now, it seems tech and t-shirts have combined to push the t-shirt world forward into a new frontier. Ballantine’s, a whiskey manufacturer, partnered with both Cute Circuit and Switch Embassy to create tshirtOS in 2014. The shirt was developed as part of the Stay True initiative, a marketing concept that encourages whiskey drinkers to stay true to their preferred blend.
TshirtOS boasts a flexible, washable LED screen that wearers can program with the message of their choice. Through use of a smartphone app, users can pick any saying, image, or animation that they desire. The concept of the shirt is to allow everyone in the world to express themselves in a truly original way that no one else can mimic. The shirt is packed with a flexible woven screen, 896 LED lights, and a 6-hour battery life. And soon, the company will introduce Twitter integration and message translation.
Ballantine’s tech collaboration may be the most high-profile in the industry, but there are a host of other companies jumping on the bandwagon. Broadcoast Wearables, an India-based tech startup, successfully funded the creation of another programmable LED shirt. The company raised $114,000 to bring its groundbreaking product to market. It seems that the next phase of t-shirts is a quest to bring it far beyond its humble, basic beginnings.
10. A shirtless Clark Gable may have caused a drop in sales
Before Brando and Dean made the white cotton t-shirt a necessity, Clark Gable may have argued that going shirtless was a better alternative. In a scene from the 1934 film It Happened One Night, Gable removed his dress shirt to reveal his bare chest to co-star Claudette Colbert. At the time, the scene was considered racy and highly influential. Many men felt that, if Gable didn’t have to wear an undershirt, they didn’t need to either. Conflicting reports state that the underwear industry was paralyzed by the popular scene with a 75% drop in sales, but to date, there’s no real proof. It’s the stuff of urban legend. Besides, today there are tons of shirtless dudes in movies and on our TV screens, but t-shirts still generate almost $400 million in revenue each year.
At UrbanCrews, we combine the history of graphic tee statements, wearable art, and innovation to create in-demand streetwear styles that complement any look and feel just as essential as the basic white tee did back in the 50s. For those who want bold designs, we’ve got you covered with shirts like our Vintage Faded American Flag T-shirt, Roll of Money Crewneck T-shirt, and Get Fly Weed Crewneck T-shirt. In addition to our plethora of graphic tees, we also offer several varieties of longlines. Riff on the basic white tee with our Basic Round Neck Longline T-shirt or go bigger and bolder with our Faux Leather Trim Longline T-shirt and the USA Flag Conquer Longline T-shirt.
Looking back on the history of t-shirts, the present, and the future, it’s clear that they’re an essential and important part of men’s fashion. It’s incredible to think that a garment that all of us own and depend on has barely been around for a hundred years. Its rise in popularity and necessity is a testament to its value. The t-shirt isn’t a trend-based item. Regardless of the variation in design and length, it will always be around.
What’s even more exciting is where it’s heading. On the surface, it may have seemed like t-shirts couldn’t go any further-the extent of innovation peaked after artists started transforming tees into pieces of wearable art. But then there was tie-dye designing. Then, as we’ve adopted at UrbanCrews, everything from leather and metallic accents to distressing and rips have taken t-shirts into new style territory.
What’s next for the t-shirt? Well, sure the programmable t-shirt is a cool novelty, but like all things in fashion, everything comes around for another spin. In 2013, One Direction was celebrated for several of its members rocking white tees as part of their on-stage style. Amidst all of the attempts to revolutionize the way we wear them, maybe the classic white t-shirt is on its way back to prominence. Style icons like Justin Theroux have shown us that a basic white tee never goes out of style. And with more than a hundred years of dominance under its belt, it seems that we have yet to see the best of the t-shirt.