The History of The T-Shirt

A piece more influential and accessible than any other fashion item in existence. No other garment has come quite as far as the humble t-shirt. 

From its origins as a simple undergarment to its cult status as the uniform of the ‘everyman’, t-shirts are now heralds of tastes, billboards of self expression, pointers of protest and also clothing staples that everyone loves to wear. 

Here are some key points in the history of this quiet icon’s rise to power which shows no sign of wearing out.

THE UTILITY SHIRT (1913)

The first t-shirts came about when uniform companies created a worker’s garment much akin to long johns with buttons. Workers soon cut the items along its mid length and created a two-piece outfit which was later adapted to just being the one shirt. This shirt was later adopted as part of the US Navy’s uniform as a vested undergarment by 1913. 

Union Suit

(Advert showcasing the “Union Suit”)

 

MARLON BRANDO’S INFLUENCE (1950)

As time went on, the shirt was employed by the working classes as a means of protecting one’s modesty while also regulating body temperature. 

It wasn’t till Marlon Brando’s iconic portrayal of Stan in “A Streetcar Named Desire” that this working-man’s shirt became a popular fashion item circa mid-1950’s. High school kids were now wearing t-shirts as “outerwear” rather than underneath their “proper clothes,” thanks to champions like James Dean and the growing Greaser culture.    

1950 Greaser Fashion

(1950’s Greaser Fashion)

 

STYLE AND SUBCULTURE (1970)

It wasn’t until the late ‘60s and ‘70s that t-shirts became a fashion staple worldwide, but this time, evolving into canvasses for designs and unique branding. Bands were now printing their album art on garments and decorative motifs were becoming increasingly popular. 

The style of shirts worn also became an indication of the subculture the wearer belonged to. One style in particular popular amongst the Woodstock types was the tie-dyed t-shirt, often being decorated by the wearer themselves. Hippies opted to brightly colour their shirts, while the punk scene’s aesthetic of torn shirts held together by safety pins was a symbol of their particular niche.

Vivien Westwood

(Vivien Westwood, Designer and Unofficial Godmother of Punk, donning a torn shirt)

 

A SYMBOL OF SELF-EXPRESSION (1980)

Here, we saw the t-shirt become a means of personal expression with people showcasing their interests on their attire. This extended to their political affiliations and social stances. T-shirts covered in slogans became commonplace in the 80’s, one in particular being Katharine Hamnett’s “CHOOSE LIFE” t-shirt that aimed to curb the drug abuse and the suicide rate amongst youngsters in the UK. 

George Michael

(George Michael in Katherine Hamnett’s “Choose Life” Shirt)

 

T-SHIRTS OF TODAY (2020-)

Since its early inception, the T-shirt has continued to play a large role in the fashion industry and in overall personal self-expression. Celebrities and the public alike are using T-shirts as a means of everyday wear whilst still showcasing diverse artworks and messages on issues pertinent to them. 

Unlike a jacket or vest, the t-shirt will forever be used as a key declaratory piece that provokes engagement like no other garment. 

If you have something to say - whether it’s that you stand for sustainable fashion practices or the celebration of local artists from your community - my quirky, unisex tees can do the talking for you.

Annabel x