A Short History Of The T-Shirt

The t-shirt has evolved into one of the most popular garments in the world. But the shirt is a fairly new addition to our collective wardrobe and has only been an acceptable piece of outerwear for the last fifty years. While it has existed in a recognizable form since the early 20th century, it was almost universally considered to be underwear--and would have been scandalous to wear in public. We're so happy those days are over!

It is thought that the form evolved from a kind of all-in-one underwear made from red flannel known as the “union suit” which was popular with workers in the 19th century. The union suit was patented in 1868 in New York and was based on a similar kind of underwear that had been popular with Victorian women.

In 1904, the Cooper Underwear Company ran a magazine ad announcing a new product for bachelors. In the ad, a virile gentleman sports a handlebar mustache, smokes a cigar and wears a “bachelor undershirt” stretchy enough to be pulled over the head. “No safety pins — no buttons — no needle — no thread,” ran the slogan--aimed at men with no wives and no sewing skills.

Shortly thereafter, the US Navy (which employed many a young bachelor with limited sewing skills!) officially incorporated the buttonless white undershirt into its uniform. Soon, thousands of men became acquainted with the exquisite comfort of the soft cotton pullover.

The garment received a big push in 1920, thanks partly to author F. Scott Fitzgerald. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Mr. Fitzgerald was the first to use the word “t-shirt” in print; it appears in his novel This Side of Paradise, in a list of must-have items that a character needs while attending boarding school.

And, in fact, the next tweak on the design did come from a university, with the invention of the “crew-neck t-shirt.” These were created in 1932 by Jockey International Inc. at the bequest of our own University of Southern California, which wanted a lightweight, absorbent garment that its football players could wear underneath their jerseys to prevent their pads from rubbing and chafing. The resulting t-shirt was a huge hit with the team and it wasn’t long before other students eagerly adopted them as well.

By the time of World War II, the “modern” t-shirt had become commonplace in high schools and universities across the United States, but was still commonly worn by adults only as an undershirt. This began to change when soldiers returning home began incorporating them into their daily casual wardrobe, much in the same way they’d done during the war.

The popularity of the t-shirt surged in 1951 thanks to Marlon Brando and his role as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. The movie featured Brando wearing a tight fitting bicep-caressing t-shirt. Brando’s smoldering performance in both the movie and the play caused a nationwide spike in sales of t-shirts, proving to the world that the t-shirt could be a sexy stand-alone garment. You go, Marlon!

In the late 1960's, t-shirts became a means of self-expression and wearable art, as well as an instrument of protest. Psychedelic artists and activists pioneered political, and pop-culture art shirts featuring images of human rights activists, political cartoons, rock and roll stars, and other cultural icons.

More recently, the rise of online retail has caused a proliferation of new t-shirt and art ideas and trends. While brick-and-mortar stores have sold conventional shirts for decades, new concepts and trends marketed to niche audiences are being pioneered by forward-thinking artists and designers.

Social activism groups such as The Women’s March on Washington and The Amplifier Foundation are offering shirts and other images as protest but also as a way to help establish a broad resistance-based community identity. The Internet has enabled this proliferation of designs and new imagery to gain access to a world-wide audience.

Sanctuary Citizen is excited to be part of this movement!