The History of the T-Shirt
While some say that the inception of the t-shirt should be credited to the British Royal Navy or possibly even the French Army, there is no doubt that the t-shirt, as we know it today, started on American soil – well, on American ships and submarines out at sea. In 1913, the United States Navy issued a white, crew-neck, breathable, cotton shirt to replace the hot and stuffy, wool uniform undershirts that were currently being worn. The cotton short-sleeved shirt, which was shaped like a T, was quick-drying and allowed for ease of movement. As a teenager in high school, I was in choir. One of the songs that we sang for one event was “There is Nothing Like a Dame”, from South Pacific. The entire night the choir had been singing in its mandatory uniform – black dresses for women, tuxedos for men. When it came time to sing this song, however, the men changed into jeans, khaki pants, cargo shorts, and plain, white t-shirts. The only required part of the outfit was the white t-shirt. I never really understood why. But I will never forget all of us up on the stage wearing our white t-shirts. If you aren’t familiar with South Pacific, it is a musical that takes place on a U.S. Navy base, during World War II. At the time I was not aware of the historical significance of the Navy and the t-shirt, but now it makes more sense.
The importance of the t-shirt for military purposes was that sailors and soldiers often worked in hot, tropical locations. It was not uncommon for these men to remove their uniform shirts to work, thus only soiling the t-shirt. This idea caught on so quickly that all branches of the armed forces quickly adopted the cotton t-shirts as part of their uniform. In fact, by the Great Depression, the t-shirt was worn by most industrial and agricultural workers. As soldiers came home from war, especially after World War II, it was not infrequent to see these veterans wearing their regulation camouflage pants with only a white t-shirt to go with it. In a way, sporting only a t-shirt was a statement. It symbolized: “Hey! I was in the armed forces. I am cool.” If the t-shirt was not cool enough already (being sported by war heroes), Hollywood sealed the deal. It is important to realize that up to this point – the mid to late 1950′s – the t-shirt was an undergarment. It was the equivalent of boxers or briefs, but for the upper half of your body.
The History of the T-Shirt & Hollywood
Three Hollywood rebels, Marlon Brando, in A Streetcar Named Desire; James Dean, in Rebel Without a Cause; and Elvis Presley, in almost every movie, played their part and greatly impacted the popularity of the t-shirt. These iconic men were revered as gods. Every man aspired to be a badass like James Dean or sing like Elvis Presley. And every woman wanted her man to look like Marlon Brando. Needless to say, because of these Hollywood hotties, the trend of wearing only a t-shirt was destined to rise.
Once it became the social norm to wear t-shirts as one’s only shirt, the type of shirts made available expanded, vastly. A-shirts, muscle shirts, tank tops, and scoop neck shirts were just a few of the variations that derived from the t-shirt. As the percentage of the population wearing white t-shirts grew, there came a need to individualize, to provide unique shirts. Several companies emerged, especially in the Miami, Florida, region, to fill this need. T-shirts, much like bumper stickers, became a medium for commercial advertising and played a large role as wearable representation of one of America’s First Amendment rights, freedom of speech. (Check out the History of the Bumper Sticker! for more on that.) They had t-shirts for everyone: groovy, psychedelic tie-dyed t-shirts, for hippies; bold, political t-shirts for protesters; and dancing teddy bear, Grateful Dead shirts for Deadheads.
As the decades progressed, so did t-shirts. With millions of t-shirts manufactured last year alone, these are one of the few things that both billionaires and the poor have in common. Young or old, rich or poor, male or female, black or white, everyone owns at least one t-shirt. The t-shirts industry is a growing enterprise and has already proven it can stand the test of time and I foresee that t-shirts are here to stay!Google+