On the one hand the modern t-shirt’s history is full of detours and roadblocks. Yet on the other hand it’s a story of triumph. While there are a number of stories explaining the t-shirt’s evolution there are several events that tie these stories together. Today we’re going to look at how the t-shirt went from obscurity to mainstream.
Early 1900s: Militaries Adopt the T-Shirt
The t-shirt began as an undergarment. During World War I the US naval soldiers in Britain observed members of the British Royal Navy wearing cotton under garments (the original forerunner to modern t-shirts). This comfortable shirt caught on really fast within the US Army and Navy. It wasn’t long before the military was issuing large numbers of “quarter sleeve undershirts “ to GI’s. By the 1920’s the word “t-shirt” was so popular that the Merriam Webster Dictionary made the term official.
1930’s-1940’s: T-Shirt Introduced to the General Public
Hanes and the Sears, Roebuck, and Co. began offering t-shirts to the public in the early 1930’s. In 1933 Champion Products sold their first printed t-shirt to a sports shop in Ann Arbor, MI with a University of Michigan logo on it. But in 1934 Clark Gable’s role in “It Happened One Night” threatened to cripple the t-shirt industry (there was a scene in this movie where he removed his dress shirt and did not have on a t-shirt underneath his shirt). National t-shirt sales declined drastically from that point until the early 1950’s.
1950’s: Selling the American Public on T-Shirts
It would take actor Marlon Brando’s 1951 appearance in the film “A Street Car Named Desire”, where he wore a t-shirt as an outer garment, to reverse the damage that had been done years before. From this time forward the t-shirt became accepted by US civilian men. This time also marked the turning point when consumers stopped seeing the t-shirt as underwear and began accepting them as outwear.
As the hot rod craze hit the US in the 1960’s consumer demand for printed t-shirts bearing hot rod inspired designs surged. By the mid 1960’s another trend, tie-dyeing, had come into full swing. This time span also saw the creation of the first ringer t-shirt.
1970’s: T-Shirt Critical Mass
During the 1970’s the t-shirt industry began snowballing. First, in 1975 promoters of the movie, “Jaws” printed 200,000 Jaws branded t-shirts. Then later that year titanium oxide was added to plastisol so that t-shirt printers could create opaque transfers and print them onto t-shirts of any color. In 1977 a number of Farrah Fawcett t-shirts were printed and sold in the millions of dollars.
1980’s: T-Shirts Represent Expression
In the 1980’s big name music artists and well known designers joined the fray- creating the most sought after t-shirts until that time. During this same period the “statement t-shirt” was born.
Since the 1980’s the t-shirt industry has never looked back.
- T-Shirt History: From Underwear to Outerwear written by Mark Dixon
- Everything you wanted to know about t-shirts in 1000 words by Coty Gonzales
- A Lively History of Summer’s Favorite – T shirt by Lands End
- Lingo T-Shirts’ s The History of T-Shirts: Underwear Becomes Fashion Statement
- A Definitive Guide for T-Shirts by Custom Ink