From its origins as men's underwear to its complex role in modern fashion, the T-shirt is today one of the most universally worn items of clothing. Cheap, hygienic, and comfortable, the T-shirt has become an essential basic wardrobe item worn by people of all social classes and ages. Technically, the T-shirt evolved and proliferated at an astonishing rate, aided by the increased availability of American cotton and the invention of the circular knitting machine in the mid-nineteenth century. Its current shape and style developed during the 1930s and it became universally worn as an outer-garment after World War II. In 2004 over two billion were sold worldwide. Contemporary versions range from inexpensive multi-packaged units to haute couture editions to high-tech fiber versions used in sports and health industries.
Shirts of T-shaped construction were worn as early as the medieval times to protect the body from chafing by heavy, metal armor. Civilians adopted the shirt as a protective and hygienic barrier between the body and costly garments. Made of cotton or linen, the shirt was more easily washable than silk or woolen outer garments with complex ornamentation. These shirts were made with long tails that wrapped around the body serving as underpants. The shirt was still always worn with a waistcoat or vest and jacket over the shirt. Wearing a clean, laundered shirt showed off a gentleman's wealth and gentility. Shirts changed very little in shape from their introduction in medieval times through the mid-nineteenth century. They were loose fitting, made of a woven fabric, and constructed with rectangular pieces that formed a T shape.
In the late nineteenth century when health-oriented concerns became prevalent, doctors and physicians advised wearing warm undershirts to protect from colds and rheumatism. Dr. Jaeger lauded the healthful benefits of wearing knitted underwear made of wool and manufactured his own line of knit undershirts. The circular knitting machine patented in 1863 made it possible to mass-produce knit jersey undershirts and hosiery for wide distribution. This technology created a greater range of types and refinement in undergarments. Its closer fit looked more like the modern T-shirt than earlier loose-fitting, woven shirts.
Sailors in the nineteenth century wore white flannel undershirts under their woolen pullovers. These shirts were worn alone on deck for work that required freedom of movement. The white cotton knit T-shirt was adopted as official underwear for the U.S. Navy in 1913. Fast drying, quick, and easy to put on, sailors responded positively to the new garment. The U.S. Army adopted it in 1942, in its classic form. Nicknamed skivvies, each soldier's name was stenciled on. In 1944 the army colored the shirt khaki to camouflage with the extreme tropical environment of the South Pacific. The vast media coverage of World War II popularized the T-shirt as a symbol of victorious, modern America and glorified it as a masculine, military icon. Returning soldiers retained the style after the war because of its comfort, practicality, and image. A Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog slogan in the 1940s took advantage of the heroic image that had developed during the war, "You needn't be a soldier to have your own personal T-shirt." Since that time it has been used in every war and has been appropriated by paramilitary factions. Like the trench coat it has also become an integral part of civilian dress from street fashion to haute couture.
Fruit of the Loom was the manufacturer who began marketing T-shirts on a large scale in the 1910s, first supplying the U.S. Navy and then universities with white T-shirts. The company manages its own cotton fields and yarn production. Each shirt undergoes 60 inspections before it is packaged. From the rebels of the 1950s to preppies who paired them with pearl necklaces in the 1980s, the company remained a number one producer of T-shirts through the 1990s and is still a competitive brand. The P. H. Hanes Knitting Company, founded in 1901, introduced a new style of men's two-piece under-wear. They have been a major supplier of T-shirts to the military and to the Olympics in addition to vast civilian distribution.
T-shirts for Sport
An increase in sports and leisure activities gave rise to new forms of clothing in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Close-fitting knitted woolen swimsuits made in the tank-shaped style of undershirts accustomed the eye to seeing more skin and one's body shape in a public place. By the 1930s T-shirts were standard sporting wear at colleges and universities. The earliest shirts printed with school logos served as uniforms for school sport teams. These sport uniforms encouraged a new casualness in dress among the middle classes that was important to the T-shirt's general acceptance. The cotton T-shirt has remained a mainstay of sports activities because it is absorbent, quick-drying, and allows free range of movement. The T-shirts' role in sports has moved beyond team identification and practical function; it is crucial to the marketing, promotion, and profitability of the sports industry.
In post-World War II years, the T-shirt was primarily worn for athletics, informally at home, or by blue-collar workers for physical labor. Marlon Brando's portrayal of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), wearing a visibly sweaty T-shirt clinging to his musculature, captured an erotic power of the shirt. The strong associations of masculinity developed earlier in patriotic form in military images, now had an amplified sexual expression. The silver-screen images of Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones (1953) and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) embodied the spirit of American youth in the 1950s. The impact of these movies was profoundly influential on society in solidifying a language and image of rebellion. Through these movies the white T-shirt, blue jeans, and black leather motorcycle jacket became the uniform of nonconformists searching for meaning in conservative postwar consumerist society. Other important musicals, films, and television programs from West Side Story (1961) to Happy Days (1974) to American Graffiti (1973) repeated and confirmed the rebellious meanings. Young people recognized this style as a new American fashion. Administrators prohibited wearing the T-shirt to school in an era when most people still wore shirts with collars. Not only was it rejected because of its informality, but the knit quality of the T-shirt is more clinging than a shirt or blouse. The Underwear Institute declared in 1961 that the T-shirt had become a dual-purpose garment that was acceptable as both outer-wear and underwear. In the early 1960s, a female image was promoted in the pivotal French film, Breathless (1960). Jean Seberg was featured as a young American selling the Herald Tribune, wearing a white T-shirt silk-screened with the newspaper logo that showed off her curvaceous figure and at the same time embodied a new, youthful androgynous style of seduction and feminine power. This film did much to introduce the style into female fashion. The erotic aspect of the T-shirt has been exploited in wet T-shirt contests that not only make use of the clinging quality of the fabric, but also its semi-transparency when wet.
Popularization and the Message Shirt
Since the late 1960s and 1970s, the T-shirt has evolved and proliferated at a rapid rate. Decorative techniques used to create expressive statements on T-shirts became popular from the 1960s onward. Graphic designs, novelty patterns, and written words lionize rock 'n' roll bands, promote products and places, and express political and community-minded causes. Rapidly made and inexpensive, imprinted T-shirts can respond quickly to popular and political events. The first political use was in 1948 when the Republican candidate Thomas Dewey distributed T-shirts that read "Dew it with Dewey." The graphics for one of the most printed and widely copied designs, "I Love New York," was created in 1976 by graphic artist Milton Glaser.
Technological advancements in inks used for silk-screen printing in the early 1960s made this ancient technique easy, inexpensive, and fast. Underground artists who were decorating surfboards and skateboards on a cottage-industry level were some of the first to put designs on T-shirts. The shirts were an inexpensive canvas for expression. The hot iron transfer technique introduced in 1963 was even easier and faster to use. The fast-heat pressure-press widely available in the 1970s gave consumers the ability to choose the color of the shirt and its image or wording, and have it custom prepared in the store within minutes. In a 1976 Time magazine article, a Gimbels department store executive claimed that the Manhattan store sold over 1,000 imprinted shirts a week. Current digital processes allow for the printing of complex images with a professional appearance. Flocking, bubble coating, and embroidery are all used to create textured designs. With these two techniques the design area is coated with glue and then dusted with fibers that are attracted by electro-static means that affix them perpendicularly to the surface of the fabric leaving a velvety surface. Embroidered designs, whether done mechanically or manually, can be enhanced with beads, sequins, feathers, and other materials.
Community-minded causes were print designs that were most popular in the 1960s and 1970s. Images and messages about the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, peace and love, and feminist movements were prevalent. "Make Love Not War" and "Save the Whales" were two of the most popular messages. British designer Katherine Hamnett created a revival in T-shirts bearing political written messages in 1984 when she wore an oversized T-shirt bearing the message "98% of people don't want Pershings" in a public meeting with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at the height of the Falklands War.
More than a passing fad, imprinted T-shirts have become an integral part of brand marketing, whether distributed as promotional gifts or to generate revenue. In 1939, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer used the T-shirt to promote one of the first color movies made in Hollywood, The Wizard of Oz. Budweiser started stamping its logo on shirts in 1965 but it was the following decade that the idea was spread to all types of brands, from Bic to Xerox. In the case of the Hard Rock Café, collecting logoed T-shirts from its locations around the world has become a significant portion of the draw to the restaurant.
In 1983 the New Yorker reported that the industry sold 32 million dozen items in 1982. Although there are fads for different styles and colors, the imprinted T-shirt is unique in that men, women, and children of all ages, shapes, and social standings universally wear it.
Pop artists Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, and Jenny Holzer pioneered the use of the T-shirt as a work of art. In the 1980s contemporary fashion's inclusion in museum exhibitions considered the many designer versions. Also in the 1980s, with the explosion of marketing of museums, masterworks of art were reproduced on T-shirts and sold in their gift stores.
High Fashion Adoption
High fashion adopted the T-shirt as early as 1948. A model appeared on the cover of Life magazine and ran a story that featured T-shirts by American designers Claire McCardell, Ceil Chapman, and Valentina. The article demonstrated how the sports shirt was now a street and evening style. The 1960s saw it go from street fashion to silk haute couture versions in the collections of such designers as Pierre Balmain and Christian Dior. From Woodstock to Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche to Vivienne Westwood, by the 1970s the T-shirt was part of all sectors of dress. Logoed shirts by Lacoste and Polo Ralph Lauren of the 1980s and 1990s were popular indicators of status. The black T-shirt became the uniform of the trendy and hip in the 1980s. Bruce Weber's photos of models wearing Calvin Klein's T-shirts became an icon of 1990s sexuality and minimalism. Designers such as Donna Karan, Giorgio Armani, Tom Ford, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Helmet Lang have worn the T-shirt as their own identifying uniform. Designer shirts are usually made from a high-quality cotton, have an elegant neckline, and well-cut and sewn sleeves. Japanese designers Issey Miyake and Yohji Yammamoto have led new ways of thinking about the T-shirt in their deconstructionist work through cutting, slashing, and knotting. Miyake's vision has ranged from his Janice Joplin and Jimi Hendrix T-shirt of the 1970s to his piece of cloth shirts by the yard of 1999. The T-shirt has been pivotal to the revolution in lifestyles and attitudes that formed the second half of the twentieth century and its impact on fashion continues.
See also Politics and Fashion; Sportswear; Underwear.
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Russell, Mary. "The Top on Top." Vogue (March 1983): 316-317.