History of the Modern T-Shirt

Marlon Brando Dons T-Shirt in Public-A Street Car Named Desire

Before Brando T-Shirts Weren't Worn in Public

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.

1960’s: Pre-Mainstream

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.



Hanes and Champion Products are registered trademarks of Hanesbrands Inc.  and Sears, Roebuck, and Co. is a registered trademark of the Sears Holdings Corporation.


Filed under Fashion, Style, t-shirts

3 responses to “History of the Modern T-Shirt

  1. Pingback: The Age of the T-Shirt — Why T-Shirts are the Most Popular Garment in the U.S. | Total Hobbies

  2. Pingback: The Age of the T-Shirt — Why T-Shirts are the Most Popular Garment in the U.S. | Chic Wall

  3. Pingback: The Moment That Made Blue Jeans A Fashion Icon | Rock Bottom T-Shirts Blog

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