The History of the T-Shirt

The History of the T-Shirt

It’s difficult to imagine life without t-shirts for so many of us. The number sold each year is measured in the billions. For example, the average Swede buys 9 t-shirts a year.

How many T-shirts do you own? Do you own more T-shirts than pairs of underwear? We’re going to hazard a guess and say yes to this second question. 

Why are we comparing t-shirts to underwear instead of button-up shirts? Well, it’s because many people will tell you that the t-shirt started life as an undergarment before coming to the forefront. The story is a bit more complicated. Intrigued? Let’s start from the beginning.

Tunics

Tunics are arguably the precursor garment to the t-shirt. These have been worn in ancient times from the Indus Valley civilisation, a Bronze age civilisation from around 3300 BC to 1300 BC. The wearing of such a tunic has evolved into wearing what’s now known as a kurta in the Indian subcontinent. The kurta is usually long sleeved but also comes in short sleeved variants and in both cases is often embellished with delicate embroidery, bead-work or intricate thread work. Now, this is not usually an undergarment but is in fact the centrepiece of one’s outfit. It’s why we think the story of the t-shirt is more complicated.

Tunics, however, are not limited to the Indian subcontinent but were also found in Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece. In Roman society, you could determine the wearer’s status from the length of their tunic, the presence or lack of stripes, as well as their width and ornamentation. 

It should not be surprising to learn that the tunic has been a relevant garment through Medieval as well as modern times. For example, it remains part of the uniform of the clergy in Western religious culture in addition to its ongoing mainstream usage in South Asia. Despite this, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who would argue that t-shirts are derived from tunics despite the similarities. Let’s explore why. 

Origins and Early Use

The t-shirt’s origins can be traced back to the early 19th century. Initially, it was an adaptation of the one-piece "union suit" underwear worn in the U.S. and Europe. This undergarment led to the wearer getting hot and stuffy, leading to the innovation of separating the top from the bottom. By the late 19th century, the U.S. Navy began issuing lightweight, crew-necked, short sleeved, white cotton undershirts to be worn under uniforms. These were easily washable, inexpensive, and practical for daily wear in a variety of climates.

The term “t-shirt” comes from the T-shape formed by the body and sleeves of the shirt. It was first added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary in the 1920s, which is when we can consider it to have reached mainstream usage. However, it remained largely an undergarment, rarely seen in public until significant cultural shifts occurred.

Rise to Popularity

The transition of the t-shirt from an undergarment to mainstream clothing is largely attributed to its adoption by the U.S. military during World War II. Soldiers and sailors often wore their t-shirts in tropical climates as a lightweight and comfortable option. Following the war, veterans continued to wear t-shirts with trousers at home, which helped to normalise the garment in everyday life.

The 1950s marked a turning point for the t-shirt as a symbol of rebellion and youth culture, largely thanks to Hollywood. Icons like Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) showcased t-shirts as standalone outerwear that was both stylish and defiant. Their appearances in snug, plain white t-shirts conveyed a rugged masculinity, propelling the t-shirt into the fashion mainstream away from its undergarment origins.

Technological Advancements and the T-shirt

The mid-20th century introduced new technologies and materials that transformed the production and design of t-shirts. Screen printing became more accessible and economical, enabling printed t-shirts to surge in popularity. This period also saw the introduction of synthetic fibres to enhance durability (although with time, we’ve come to learn the trade-off is significant for our ecosystems and the climate).

The 1960s and 1970s further established the t-shirt as a medium for personal and political expression. It was during these decades that the t-shirt really found its voice. Bands began selling branded t-shirts as merchandise, while political activists used them to spread messages and unite communities. The simple t-shirt had become a powerful tool for communication and a canvas for artistic expression.

Global Expansion and Diversification

As the fashion industry globalised, so too did the t-shirt. It became a universal piece of clothing, transcending age, gender, and class. High fashion designers began incorporating t-shirts into their collections, further elevating the garment’s status and versatility. The 1980s and 1990s saw the rise of logomania, with major brands like Nike, Adidas, Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger turning the t-shirt into a status symbol.

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the t-shirt continued to evolve with trends and technology. Digital printing advancements allowed for even more detailed designs and on-demand production, which aligned with the growing online retail market. This era also saw a rise in sustainable fashion, with eco-friendly materials and ethical production methods becoming increasingly important.

The Modern T-shirt

Today, the t-shirt remains a fundamental part of global fashion, worn by millions every day. Its role extends beyond fashion, serving as a personal billboard for self-expression and affiliation. The versatility and simplicity of the t-shirt have allowed it to endure through changing trends, making it as relevant today as it was a century ago.

From its humble beginnings as a piece of underwear to its status as a global icon, the t-shirt has had a profound impact on both fashion and culture. It exemplifies how a simple garment can adapt and evolve, reflecting and shaping the society around it. Whether it’s a plain white tee or a canvas for a political statement, the t-shirt continues to be a key player in the world of fashion, embodying comfort, simplicity, and expression.

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