Most of us have at least one or two t-shirts in our wardrobe. They’re easy to wear, easy to wash, and generally very versatile garments. Informal and understated, practical yet still stylish, there’s no pretention with a t-shirt. Plus, they’re inexpensive and the unfussiness of them feels somehow modern and classless. In some ways, they’re the epitome of contemporary apparel, an embodiment of our current approach to clothing. Yet in truth, the t-shirt, or some form of it, has been around for a long time. The modern history of the t-shirt dates back to the 1800s, but its origins can be seen in some of our earliest forms of clothing..
Ancient Ancestors of the Tee.
There are numerous historical examples of simple T shaped tops. That’s not to say these ancient ancestors are actually t-shirts, but it’s not difficult to detect similarities. The modern tee has an echo of those bygone garments. Early Roman, Greek and Celtic tunics are good illustrations of the point. There are distinct differences to the t-shirt, yet they have a certain t-shirty vibe to them.
Fast forward several centuries to the Middle Ages and we see more forerunners of the modern tee. Again, garments comparable in styling to our present day t-shirts, and perhaps a little nearer in terms of usage. Medieval undershirts were worn under outer garments. They were what amounted to an extra layer worn against the skin and one that was more easily laundered than those worn over it. When you think about it, these ideas sound very familiar.
History of the T-Shirt – 19th Century.
Jump ahead another few hundred years and we’re closing in on something that has a direct relationship with the t-shirts of today. The short sleeved top that we know and love had a forefather with legs! The union suit, probably better known as long johns in the UK, was a one piece under garment. When it morphed into a two-piece set, the top half had a distinctly t-shirt flavour to it. An item that was still underwear, but moving ever closer to something which would be acceptable as an outer garment.
History of the T-Shirt – 20th Century.
This is where the t-shirt as we know it really begins to emerge. What is now probably the most popular outer garment in the world begins an unstoppable rise. The bachelor undershirt makes an appearance in 1904. An innovation aimed at men without sewing skills, it had no buttons and could be simply pulled over the head. This was attractive because there was no need for the fiddly chore of replacing buttons. In 1913, the US Navy made this garment part of their standard uniform issue.
In 1938, Sears launched their ‘GOB’ style shirt which was sold as both an undershirt and outer shirt. By the way, ‘gob’ was US military slang for sailor. This garment was white, had a crew neck, and was marketed as being suitable for camping, sport and work. And it was affordable, into the bargain. None of which is a million miles away from how we currently view the tee.
As an aside, it’s said that Scott Fitzgerald was the first to actually put the term ‘t-shirt’ into print. It appears in his 1920 novel, This Side of Paradise.
History of the T-Shirt – Fifties and Sixties.
The Fifties and Sixties were periods of great social change. It’s also the point at which the t-shirt edges toward becoming a fashion staple. Much of this increasing demand is associated with popular culture. Iconic figures were wearing t-shirts in films and on stage. Think of Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire and the picture that springs to mind is of a strikingly handsome man in a tight white tee. James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause usually conjures the image of a fine young chap in a casual jacket and t-shirt.
This connection with the glitz and glamour of the entertainment world has another significant effect. The tee is no longer just a comfortable and practical piece of attire. It’s started to gain that most invaluable of characteristics – the t-shirt is becoming sexy. And although initially worn by men, the sex appeal is further fuelled when the tee starts to cross the gender divide and become a piece of attire favoured by women.
This is also the era where the promotional t-shirt starts to make an impression on public consciousness. The nature of the garment, alongside developments in screen printing, make for an irresistible combination. Marketing men are never slow to see an opportunity for advertising and that’s precisely what the t-shirt represents. It’s a low-cost base item and, at the same time, a perfect blank canvas. This is arguably one of most important moments in history of the t-shirt. All of a sudden, the possibilities for the humble tee have multiplied by an almost unquantifiable number. Being able to inexpensively decorate an already inexpensive item is an incredibly spicy cocktail. As it transpires, one with the potential to make money and sustain business well into the future.
The Seventies Onwards.
Although promo tees had been around for a while, the 1970s feel like the dawn of something special. The age of the printed t-shirt had arrived. It’s perhaps no coincidence that Fifth Column were born in the Seventies. Whilst that’s obviously a big deal for us, it’s also a pretty good indication of what was happening at the time. The adaptability and popularity of the t-shirt spawned a whole new industry. It was feasible to make a living from decorating them.
Back then we weren’t Fifth Column as such, just a bunch of friends who printed t-shirts by hand and sold them outside gigs in London. Yes, we earned some cash, but the reason it turned into our business was because we loved it. And people loved what we did, there was a market for our work. A market that stretched beyond bands and their fans. T-shirts were great and t-shirts with artwork printed on them were even better.
The t-shirt, this innocuously simple garment, was capable of transcending both its basic functionality and fashion. They were more than cheap and cheerful tops. T-shirts could carry a message, express the beliefs and emotional sentiments of the wearer. It might be a political or philosophical statement. Maybe something fun and frivolous, a silly slogan or crazy cartoon. In reality, it went beyond that. The t-shirt could be a work of art. Providing you had a gifted designer and talented screen printer, the possibilities seemed almost limitless.
There are numerous examples of this switch to print, the transition from plain garment to decorated statement piece. In the 1970s, avant-garde fashion designers became a significant part of the equation. Seditionaries t-shirts, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, took t-shirts to new places. The Sex Pistols Destroy t-shirt was a wonderful melange of musical fandom, experimental street fashion and cultural movement. The tee was perfect for rebellious social underground groups like punk.
When Sid Vicious wore the Seditionaries ‘Cambridge Rapist’ t-shirt on stage it was about more than music and marketing. The intention was to shock and disturb the establishment. A deliberate and direct assault on assumed good taste. Your outrageous t-shirt was as much part of your identity as the Belisha beacon coloured spike hairstyle or tartan bondage trousers. It’s a subject that needs to be viewed in the context of the age. Nothing was out of bounds. In Britain, being politically correct hadn’t really registered with most folk. People were too busy recovering from power cuts and coping with social upheaval to worry about the nuances of rebellion. The youth of the age simply felt the need to rebel.
We could write thousands of words about the punk revolution, maybe we will, but it’s an article in itself and not for now.
Needless to say, the printed tee developed in later decades. It went from strength to strength and moved into the mainstream. Do you recall those best-sellers from the Eighties? Choose Life t-shirts Or Frankie Says Relax? Just text that resonated and was preferable to the plain white shirt.
By the Nineties, anything and everything was appearing on t-shirts. Printing them had become a recognised business in itself. It was an element in the economy that contributed to overall prosperity. They were an essential part of major commercial enterprises, a meaningful line on the balance sheet. The t-shirt, this inherently basic garment, was employing people and putting bread on the table.
The Future History of the T-Shirt.
Let’s face it, they’re not going away. They’ve become imbedded in the very fabric of our culture. A standard bit of leisure wear, perfect as part of a work uniform, and ideal for sport and activity. T-shirts are somehow indefinable. Age, race and orientation make no difference. They retain an air of defiance in the face of overwhelming control and yet big brands adore them. Nowadays, you’re probably just as likely to see one with a corporate logo as you are with a subversive message. It’s perhaps the most telling indication of their near universal appeal.
How t-shirts are manufactured and the raw materials from which they’re made are becoming increasingly important issues. Fair treatment of the farmers who grow those raw materials and the factory workers who make the products can no longer be ignored. Similarly, how the crops are grown is something with ramifications far greater than this basic piece of apparel.
Organic cotton and recycled content, things which started out as niche ecology concerns, are now commonly seen as the only sensible options. And our recent obsession with fast fashion is slowly beginning to fade. More and more people have come back round to expecting longevity from their clothes and that includes t-shirts. In many ways, this goes hand in hand with the shift to sustainable and ethically acceptable methods of production. That said, and given our infatuation with change, it can’t be long before entirely new fabrics and experimental weaves come onto the market.
Wearables, wearable technology, are gaining a foothold and it’s unlikely that the t-shirt will escape their attention. It’s inevitable that the progress of smart clothes will include tees. UV resistant garments and clothing with inbuilt sensors and digital detectors are now available. Furthermore, the pace of innovation and scientific development only seems to be accelerating.
It’s reported that t-shirts and sweatshirts have already been made that can render the wearer invisible to surveillance cameras. This stuff is apparently printed with patterning that fools the algorithms used by the cameras. A somewhat sci-fi concept become reality. It’s hard to say if it’s a pointer to the future or merely one of the many quirks thrown up by techno experimentation.
We’ll end this piece on the history of the t-shirt with a nod to the virtual. Digital clothing is one of the hottest tech trends in 2021. Apparel that will never actually be physically worn, it’s pixels rather than poly-cotton. Imagine that, on your next Insta post you could be wearing something that doesn’t exist in the real world. It’s interesting, but not something we find completely convincing. There’s nothing quite like the feel of an organic cotton t-shirt against the skin.