A Brief History of the T Shirt

The humble T shirt has come a long way, from being an unseen undergarment to being a political statement, a work of art, an advertising billboard, something to make you laugh, a fashion statement and even just something comfy to wear.

Like the shirt the T shirt started out as underwear. The shirt had been around for a long time as a garment worn by soldiers to protect their skin from the heavy and uncomfortable armour they wore, men of higher classes later followed this example and began to wear shirts as an undergarment to make their clothes more comfortable and to protect their expensive garments from direct contact with the skin to stop staining (there was no Right Guard in those days!). By the mid 19th century the shirt had moved up in the world from an undergarment to a fashionable garment for the middle class gentleman. Whilst the shirt had become an outergarment, the T shirt was to become an undergarment worn under a shirt, effectively making it an undergarment for an undergarment!

The precise birth of the T shirt as an item of clothing is difficult to pinpoint as undergarments became more popular in the 19 the century when one’s hygiene became important, especially to the upper and middle classes, as woollen underclothes were seen as a weapon against the various illnesses of the day. As the clothing industry entered the industrial revolution, production was modernised with the introduction of manufacturing and mass production techniques made undergarments cheap and easy to manufacture so it wasn’t just the rich middle classes who could benefit from undergarments as labourers began to wear them. The undergarments of the time tended to be ‘T shirt like’ but with a buttoned front. It may have been the Russell Manufacturing Company which was incorporated way back in 1902, who produced a ladies’ undershirt which could be the first real T shirt in production. Despite this the T shirt certainly had not ‘arrived’ at the time it wouldn’t have been called a ‘T shirt’ and certainly wouldn’t be worn out in open.

The T shirt was to be seen worn as an outergarment for the first time by the Navy, however which Navy was first to do this is up for debate. The US Navy before the turn of the 20 the century had introduced a lightweight collarless undergarment which was flexible enough to provide the freedom of movement the sailors needed and could be worn under a shirt to hide chest hairs. One more interesting theory is that T shirts were first worn as an outer garment started in the British Navy. At the time (late 19th Century) sailors wore sleeveless undergarments while at sea, a surprise inspection of the fleet by a member of the Royal Family, prompted the chief officer to order his men to sew on sleeves to hide their tattoos and underarm hair, effectively making the first T shirts!

Whilst we can’t be sure who made the first ever T shirt, it is sure that the Americans were the ones to popularise it as an item of clothing. During the First World War American soldiers noticed the European troops wearing comfortable and lightweight cotton undershirts in the hot summers which seemed so much cooler and comfortable than the wool uniforms they had. Soon the US Army and Navy issued them as part of the standard uniform.

Their use in WWII was the first time they were seen worn as an outergarment by most people. Images of soldiers toiling away under the hot sun in white T shirts were beamed back into people’s homes. However it wasn’t until the next decade that the T shirt had its day. It was the icons of the time who put the T shirt in its place. Despite the images from the war, the T shirt was still definitely an undergarment. With the 1950s being such a straight laced, conservative time it was not acceptable to show your underwear! Hollywood helped change the T shirt from a lowly undergarment to a symbol of rebellious youth. From Marlon Brando’s T shirt being ripped off by Vivian Leigh in the 1951 film “A Streetcar Named Desire” to James Dean in “Rebel without a cause.”

James Dean became instantly idolised after the film (and his death at the wheel of his Porsche 550 a few days before the film was released) by the millions of teenagers of the time who did not want to do what the same thing as their parents, they didn’t strive for the same suburban house with all the mod cons, they wanted freedom, and freedom from conformity. Dean with his now iconic white T shirt and red leather jacket similar to Brando’s white T shirt and black leather jacket in “The Wild Ones” had created a look for the young rebels, the T shirt was still regarded as an undergarment and so was instantly provocative and symbolised a rebellious spirit. This along with the new wave of Rock and Roll music gave people an identity they wanted.

The T shirt was to be further linked to rock and roll in the 1960s and 70s bands realised they could make a huge amount of money selling t shirts with their name orPixelated Che image on, and further promoting their band (something fashion designer also took a liking to doing). Band T shirts have been one of the most popular ‘types’ of T shirts and today band T shirts are as popular as ever, but probably the most popular T shirt ever has to be the Che Guevara T shirt, ever since Alberto Korda took his famous snap of El Che the image has adorned millions of posters and T shirts across the world. No T shirt shop worth their salt could do without a Che T shirt.

But it wasn’t just the young rebels who saw the potential of the T shirt, the politicians were there from the start too. “Dew it with Dewey” was the slogan used on T shirts in Thomas E Dewey’s campaign for President in 1948, the following elections saw Eisenhower have more success with “I like Ike.” To this day T shirts are used for political statements, however usually as a protest rather than an endorsement of a politician or political party. Even without speaking your views you can tell the world what you think with a slogan T shirt, this coupled with television, protesters on the television have their message instantly conveyed to a wider audience. Protests over the Vietnam War saw thousands wearing T shirts with slogans such as “Make love….Not War” and just about every other controversial subject since has seen T shirts supporting or opposing it.

One recent example in this country was the protests over the invasion of Iraq , with over one million people turning up in London to protest with countless anti war, anti Bush and anti Blair T shirts. Another recent movement, The Make Poverty History campaign in 2005 gained much publicity and support with many people sporting Make Poverty History T shirts, however it wasn’t the T shirt that symbolised this movement, it was the white wristband. Wristbands have become hugely popular with various causes as they give the wearer a chance to get a message across instantly, however it’s not likely that they will replace the T shirt as a message board for your views as there is only a certain amount of colours you can make them!

The Make poverty history campaign focused on the G8, which was also the target of many anticapitalist protesters sporting T shirts with various slogans and parodies of big corporation’s logos. Such parodies are becoming more and more popular, not just amongst hardened anticapitalist protesters.

Perhaps the reason for this is because so many times we see T shirts being used as advertising boards for big business, as they are cheap to produce and people are often more than happy to wear them if they are given away for free. However this type of T shirt has one purpose… to make money, and one way to make more money is to spend less, so they are usually made with the cheapest low grade T shirts, you get what you pay for, plus you have to go around with the indignity of being a bill board.

However T shirts as a form of advertising were truly exploited by clothes manufacturers. In the 1980s showing off your wealth was all the rage, so fashion designers put their names and logos on their clothes, giving young yuppies an instant status symbol. The T shirt is naturally an ideal template for this and continues to be so today. This is perfect for designers as it creates free adverting for their brands whilst making them money from the sales of the shirts. One of the best examples of this was FCUK who rather brilliantly used their logo to make provocative T shirts which gave huge publicity for their brand which in turn helped sales of their T Shirts.

With the rise of cheap fashionable high street stores such as Next and Topshop selling huge numbers of T shirts you are lucky to walk down the street and not see someone with the same T shirt as you. Just think how many “Vintage 82″ T shirts (from Next) you have seen in your lifetime. This along with fashion branded T shirts have created a backlash as people are demanding something a bit different, and something you won’t see on someone else when you walk down the street. This has enabled many smaller T shirt shops to thrive as people seek out something with originality, less common, more daring and funnier. Your T shirt can tell people about yourself, it can represent your views and your personality, so you wouldn’t want the same one as everyone else.

With the increasing popularity of the internet as a shopping market, yet more independent T shirt retailers are springing up, and more people are turning to the individualistic T shirts they provide. These independent retailers can be much more daring and risqué as they don’t have to worry about their “corporate image” like the high street stores do. They may be able to make funny T shirts, but they can’t make funny T shirts that will offend people.

Perhaps the T shirt has gone back to its routes and become a symbol for rebellion and individualism with the ever more offensive T shirts on sale, or perhaps it is just an item of clothing that people wear because it’s comfy and simple and suits everyone