When the heck was the t-shirt invented? I can picture some guy named John T-shirt sitting in middle earth beside a roaring fire ripping the sleeves angrily off a long-sleeved shirt, realizing he’s just stumbled on possibly the most important garment in human history.
That might be a stretch, but we’re actually not totally off base here. T-shirt type garments like tunics have been worn since ancient times, so some iteration of the modern wardrobe basic has been around since, well, clothing. There were probably a bunch of tunic-peddlers hanging out outside the pyramids selling swag like King Tut bobbleheads too. Probably not, but a girl can dream.
Fast forward to the late 19th century North America, when laborers would wear a onesie-like garment under their work clothes (no not the onesies with the unicorn heads, but that would have probably earned some promotions). Wearing these button-up onesies was warm, but maybe a little too warm for a hard worker in agreeable summer weather. Workers began cutting the undergarments in half and tucking the top into the bottom to be a little cooler.
This trend spread and a company called the Cooper Underwear Company caught on and in 1904 started marketing the design as an undershirt. Part of Cooper’s plan to appeal to bachelors and hopeless sewers was to highlight that their undershirts had no buttons, and therefore no buttons to replace when torn off amidst the treachery of daily living in the beginning of the 20th century. This marketing push helped the t-shirt make it to the Marines and the Army by about 1913, who had their soldiers wear them under their uniforms. This helped get t-shirts on a huge amount of men and women as they were standard issue, giving all these lucky people the chance to get on board with the comfort and convenience of the t-shirt.
For a long time, the t-shirt in its modern shape was still seen as an undergarment, so flashing one in public was scandalous indeed. Although showing off that you hadn’t lost any buttons because your shirt never had any, was sure to win you points with the ladies.
Speaking of winning points with the ladies, studs in the 1950’s like James Dean and Marlon Brando would rock white t-shirts with jeans, helping to invigorate the masses into accepting the t-shirt in everyday wear. If a couple beefcakes like them can’t get you in a t-shirt, I don’t know what will. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
To top off the cool points that t-shirts get, apparently the first person to use the term “t-shirt” in print was F. Scott Fitzgerald. Surely it was a term used before in speech, especially among the youths to whom he was referring when he used the term in his 1920 novel “This Side of Paradise”; but he wrote it first so he wins. It was no secret that Mr. Fitzgerald was on the cutting-edge of American social culture, especially in the 20’s and 30’s, so it seems apropos for him to have had a role in coining the term.
So far, we’ve been talking about plain white t-shirts, which are most certainly a beloved fashion staple. However, as we know, t-shirts have evolved to appear in every color imaginable, with any design that can be fathomed in the mind of every artist, activist, corporatist and rebellious youth across the land.
Surely if everyone was walking around in only white shirts we would either be bored to tears or part of a post apocalyptic utopian society. Since we’re not, we can express ourselves every day of the week in every way we can think by what’s on our shirt.
In 1939 in the Wizard of Oz, workers from the Emerald City wore green shirts with the word “Oz” on them. This may have been the first time a graphic t-shirt was featured in film.
Since the 1940’s teenagers were decorating their own plain white t’s with sew-on patches, but it wasn’t until the 60’s that graphic t-shirts really took off. Bands began to sell them as merchandise and a distinct shift in social culture towards the more individual and expressive had all types of people and ideologies donning their beliefs on their t-shirt. Tie-dye, although found in other parts of the world (like Jamaica, Japan, India to name a few) for hundreds of years, was popularized in North America by the hippie movement of the 60’s.
Corporations also caught on around this time and began featuring their logos and characters for people to sport as everyday wear. This included companies like Coca-Cola and Disney, who put you guessed it, Mickey Mouse on a graphic t-shirt (as if we don’t see that guy enough).
In 1968 Winterland Productions was founded by music producer Bill Graham and considered to be the first graphic t-shirt company. The company produced concert t-shirts using a screen printing, and printed merch from small town talent all the way to Jimi Hendrix. Soon enough, band shirts were (and still are) a staple of concerts, allowing fans to rep their musical tastes and support their favorite artists.
From the 60’s, the 70’s and 80’s only served to bolster the popularity of graphic t-shirts as production became more common and self-expression in this way became more mainstream. Sports teams, clubs, groups, bands, products; virtually everything can be and is represented on a t-shirt.
A person, when wearing a graphic t-shirt, says something not only about their own fashion but their style and personality. Expressing oneself is empowering and fun. With so many diverse people on this wild rock we call planet Earth, we should take advantage of the opportunity to differentiate ourselves through style. When we love something and we show it by wearing it on our clothing, we also represent our chosen family who share our loves and interests with unabating devotion.
Seems to me like graphic t’s will always be around, and we have ourselves to thank for keeping the trend alive throughout over a hundred years with our creativity and self-expression.
So, a toast to us, who made going out in your underwear cool.