The History of the T-Shirt

 

We all love t-shirts. But how did they get here, why are they so popular and where are they headed? The powerful brains at ThriftCon headquarters assembled to answer these burning questions.

We are proud to present to you: The History of the T-Shirt.

Humble Beginnings (300-1200AD)

The story starts off in olden times, throwing it way back to 3rd century China. In China we see the first evidence handmade garments with ornate designs by way of woodblock printing. Blocks of wood were designed and carved, then dipped into inks and pressed onto garments. 

Fast forward several hundred year to the Song Dynasty (1000-1200 AD), the birth of screen printing. Screen printing (silk screen printing) is a form of stenciling that first appeared in China, then adapted by other surrounding areas including Japan. This process took several hundred more years to reach its way to Europe and North America.

The Industrial Revolution and The Union Suit (1820-1868)

The Industrial Revolution in Great Britain drew workers out of the farms and into the cities. Manufactured textiles turned clothing into something that was produced and consumed on a massive scale. People turned their backs on making clothes by hand. Clothing was slowly becoming less of a utility and more of a form of self expression, a concept previously reserved only for those of the ruling class. 

The introduction of manufacturing paved way for The Union Suit (1868). Working conditions in factories were far from satisfactory, often times too cold to bare without an extra layer of clothing. The Union Suit was a one-piece full body undergarment which kept factory workers warm in the dead of winter, without weighing them down. 

Men's Form Fitting Union Suit (1868)

While winters in the factories of Europe and the United States were too cold, summers were too hot. Workers began removing the bottom half of their Union Suits to cool themselves down. The titans of 19th century fashion gifted us yet another brilliant idea: to sell the suit as a top and a bottom. The underwear tops were buttonless and made of cotton or wool. 

Bachelor Undershirts (1904)

In 1904, Cooper underwear patented and began marketing cotton crew neck undershirts as "Bachelor Undershirts" in New York City. The catchy slogan “no safety pins, no buttons, no needle, no thread” attracted working bachelors who continued wearing the shirts as underwear. It's important to note that neither the Union Suit, nor the Bachelor Undershirt would ever be warn as stand alone garments. 

US Navy Official Uniform (1905)

The US Navy incorporated the Bachelor Undershirt into its official uniform for the Spanish-American War. The garment was perfect for the cadets because it was cheap, washable and required very little maintenance. Once again, the shirts had to be worn as underwear and could only be worn on its own with approval from a superior. 

World War I (1914-1918)

The navy’s undershirt shirt was passed along to the US army for WWI, because they were just so damn practical. The shirts could be worn on their own in casual, often dirty environments and kept the expensive uniforms from being destroyed. As soldiers and cadets made their way home from the wore, so did their undershirts. 

The T-Shirt is Official (1920)

F Scott Fitzgerald included the word “t-shirt” for the first time in print in his novel “This Side of Paradise” - the main character took it with him to college. This same year the word t-shirt was added to the Webster Dictionary.

The Great Depression (1929-1933)

During the Great depression the t-shirt became more popular because it was inexpensive and allowed people to work outdoors without being bare chested.

Jockey "Crew Neck T-Shirt" (1932)

A “crew neck t-shirt” was produced at the request of USC (Southern California). The t-shirts were produced by Jockey International INC, for football players to wear something absorbent underneath their uniforms.

World War II (1939-1945)

The t-shirt continued to be standard for all service members. Even more men came home from war with the t-shirt as a staple in their wardrobe, including in other countries.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

One of the first appearances of the t-shirt in film, men working are wearing green shirts while stuffing the scarecrow.

Life Magazine Screen Printed T-Shirt Cover (1940)

Screen printed tees began as early as the 1940s, the cover of life magazine featured an air corps gunnery school tee shirt. This is regarded as the first printed image of a screen printed t-shirt. 

A Streetcar Named Desire on (Broadway) (1947)

Marlin Brando wore a white tee shirt and Levi 501s. By virtue of this wardrobe choice, Brando was acting in his underwear. 

A Streetcar Named Desire (Film) (1951)

Marlin Brando wore a tee shirt and jeans in A Streetcar Named Desire. Although he did so in the play, because this was on the screen, which made it to many, many more horny eyes and became even sexier. This marked the time when the t-shirt becomes a stand alone garment and a global phenomenon.

Counterculture (1950-1970)

The t-shirt was the unofficial uniform of the global counterculture of the 50s, 60s and 70s. These styles ranged from bikers, to surfers, hippies and everything in between. 

The Multicolor Screen Press (1960)

The first rotary multi color garment screen printing machine was invented in 1960, originally used for BOWLING GARMENTS.

 

As the t-shirt and screen press grew in popularity as a means of expressing identity. The t-shirt is now a global phenomenon, reaching its way into every corner of every culture in the world. As we move forward, the t-shirt will follow. It will forever facilitate the undying need for self expression, comfort and affordability in fashion. From the countercultures of post-war America, to the early ages of streetwear and beyond, the t-shirt is an institution of individuality that is here to stay. 

Check out our full podcast on the history of the t-shirt. You can stream it on Spotify here, or search "Tee Time" wherever you get your podcasts.