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The t-shirt is a beloved wardrobe staple for many. It’s a versatile piece of clothing that can be dressed up or down, worn alone, or as a layering piece.
But have you ever wondered about the history of the t-shirt? In this blog post, we’ll journey through the decades and explore how the t-shirt has evolved into the beloved piece of apparel we know today.
T-shirt-like clothing can be traced back to medieval times, but the history of the modern t-shirt as we know it is a comparatively recent invention.
Initially, t-shirts served as undershirts, providing a protective layer beneath outer garments. The first t-shirts are believed to be created during the Spanish-American War of 1898.
The next milestone for the t-shirt came in 1913 when the US Navy adopted the white cotton-knit t-shirt as the official underwear to wear with their uniforms. Sailors needed a lightweight garment to wear as an undershirt, and the t-shirt fit the bill. Made of soft, breathable fabric, cotton t-shirts dried much faster than flannel shirts.
In the 20th century, the t-shirt underwent a remarkable transformation from a simple undergarment to a cultural and fashion icon. From an army-style shirt to a pop culture favorite, t-shirts set the stage for their continued significance in the modern-day world.
It wasn’t until 1920 that the term “t-shirt” was officially recognized. F. Scott Fitzgerald was the first to use the word “t-shirt” in print for his novel “This Side of Paradise.”
During the 1930s, t-shirts started to gain popularity. With the invention of central heating, lighter undergarments became increasingly desirable. The comfort offered by t-shirts, especially compared to heavier fabrics like flannel, made them a more appealing choice for everyday wear.
In 1938, the American retailer Sears began selling white cotton t-shirts for 24 cents, making t-shirts more readily available. For the first time, the t-shirt was advertised both as “an undershirt and an outershirt.” It was still primarily associated with the Navy and advertised as “Gob” style (slang for sailor).
In 1941, during World War II, Sears started to market t-shirts as army-style garments, with the slogan “You don’t need to be a soldier to have your own personal t-shirt.” The military clad in t-shirts was seen on the covers of magazines, associating the t-shirt with heroic masculinity and making t-shirt sales soar.
At this time, t-shirts were almost always solid white. So it’s surprising that the first known appearance of a t-shirt as an outershirt on screen was a bright green t-shirt with a printed graphic in “The Wizard of Oz,” 1939. It would take another 40 years for different t-shirt colors to gain mainstream popularity.
Cultural figures like Marlon Brando and James Dean popularized the laid-back, casual style of wearing t-shirts as stand-alone items. Their appearance in movies “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951) and “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955) helped shape the public’s perception of the t-shirt as a symbol of individuality and youthful rebellion.
As t-shirts gained popularity, manufacturers and brands began producing them on a larger scale. Companies like the P.H. Hanes Knitting Company and Fruit of the Loom played a significant role in marketing and distributing t-shirts to the masses.
The 1960s and 1970s were a transformative period in the history of the t-shirt, marked by the rise of the graphic tee. This era saw t-shirts evolve from plain white to bold, daring forms of cultural commentary.
This transformation was supported by introducing a multi-color garment screen printing machine in the ’60s which made it easier to reproduce graphic designs on t-shirts. The breakthrough lowered the cost of production and increased accessibility to t-shirt printing. It democratized the process and contributed to the t-shirt’s rise as a medium for expression.
Andy Warhol, Campbell’s Soup Can t-shirt, 1962. Source: Artsy
The t-shirt continued to be featured in iconic films of the period. But this time, graphic tees were center stage. For example, “The New York Herald Tribune” graphic t-shirt became an instant classic when Jean Seberg wore it in the 1960 film “Breathless.”
During the ’60s, college students, protestors, and creatives often donned graphic t-shirts to protest. In 1969, students demonstrating at Harvard wore t-shirts screen-printed with red fists and the word “strike” stenciled across.
Soon after, band tees emerged as a powerful symbol of identity and affiliation as fans proudly wore graphic t-shirts featuring their favorite bands. The Rolling Stones tongue logo and Pink Floyd’s prism design are just a few examples of iconic band graphics that graced band t-shirts and are still extremely popular today.
The t-shirt’s role began to shift from being a countercultural statement to being embraced by mainstream culture. This era witnessed a fusion of different fashion influences, with everything from grunge to hip-hop having an impact on mainstream style.
Rappers like N.W.A and pop stars like the Backstreet Boys performed and showed up in t-shirts in the ’80s and ’90s. Rappers’ adoption of t-shirts played a vital role in mainstreaming streetwear and making it a global fashion phenomenon.
N.W.A sporting their renowned street style. Source: Singersoom
Grunge music, which emerged in the early ’90s with bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, brought a distinctive fashion sensibility. The oversized t-shirt became a central element of grunge style, often paired with distressed jeans and combat boots.
This look was a departure from the polished, tailored fashion of previous decades. Oversized t-shirts, typically featuring band logos, distressed graphics, or slogans, perfectly encapsulated the grunge ethos of rebellion.
The ’90s also witnessed the emergence of the “supermodel era,” with figures like Kate Moss becoming global fashion icons. T-shirts played a surprising role in high fashion, as models effortlessly paired them with jeans and designer accessories. Moss, in particular, was known for her minimalist style and the way she elevated the humble t-shirt to a chic and versatile wardrobe essential.
What’s more, this period saw businesses leverage the t-shirt as a marketing tool. With the help of branded t-shirts, iconic logos like the Nike swoosh or the minimalist Apple logo were proudly worn by millions of people, boosting brand popularity.
In the 21st century, the once humble t-shirt emerged as a modern-day essential. It’s a way to show who you are and what you care about. Let’s explore how the turn towards self-expression was shaped by the rise of custom shirts and the slogan tee.
The 2000s saw a new wave of graphic tees, with pop culture references and political statements making their way onto t-shirts.
The slogan t-shirt took on a new level of cultural significance, thanks to its popularity among celebrities and Hollywood stars. As they turned to the t-shirt for personal expression, catchphrases, and even social commentary, they inspired a generation of young people to do the same.
Some of the most iconic examples include Paris Hilton wearing a white t-shirt with “That’s Hot!” in block letters, Britney Spears in a pink t-shirt spelling out “I Am the American Dream,” and Anne Hathaway wearing a t-shirt saying “FedUp We need Freedom and Unity” for the Teen Choice Awards in 2004.
The fashion designer Henry Holland and his 2007 line of printed t-shirts is credited with further popularizing the concept of the slogan tee. He added a cheeky and playful twist to his t-shirts by referencing the fashion industry and calling his creations the “fashion groupie” t-shirts.
The 2010s marked a huge demand for personalized tees. Print-on-demand services like Printful made it easier than ever for people to create their own t-shirt designs. From iconic movie quotes to popular memes, graphic tees allowed individuals to show some love for their favorite cultural moments.
Whether designing shirts with personal artwork or repping niche interests, custom t-shirts allowed people to create garments that represented who they were, as a form of wearable self-expression.
Custom t-shirts also became a medium for advocacy, helping amplify important social and environmental messages. Activists, nonprofits, and fundraisers used t-shirts to convey powerful messages, promote solidarity, and raise funds for causes. The ability to print designs quickly and cheaply made it easier to mobilize support for important issues.
The t-shirt has come a long way since it was first introduced as an undershirt for the Navy. The history of the t-shirt shows how it has evolved with the times, reflecting cultural and political shifts.
Thanks to the recent developments in t-shirt printing technology, designers can create t-shirts with intricate patterns, images, and complex color gradients that were previously challenging to achieve. This has opened up new creative possibilities, allowing for more visually striking t-shirt designs.
In addition to the ever-changing t-shirt design trends, many look for t-shirts made from organic cotton or recycled materials. That reflects how ethically-made options have gained popularity as consumers pay more attention to sustainability.
At its core, the t-shirt remains a simple yet essential piece of clothing that we all know and love. So go ahead and express yourself with your favorite t-shirt today—whether it’s a classic white tee or a bold graphic design—and celebrate this beloved garment’s long, fascinating history.
Sandra is a freelance writer and educator with a background in art and communication. She holds an MA in Art Museum and Gallery Studies, and in her free time enjoys reading, museum visits, and outdoor adventures.
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