AKA: tee, tee-shirt, T
How to say it: tee-shurt
- pullover style
- traditionally crew neck
- made from knit fabric
- set-in sleeves, can be short or long
- bound neckline with no collar
…of the style: The evolution of the t-shirt can be traced back to the Union Suits of the 19th century; an all-in-one underwear garment made from red flannel originally designed for women. Sometime after its introduction in 1868, the suit was cut in half, leaving the top half long, so that it could be tucked into the bottoms. The buttons down the front were also removed and the long-sleeved, pullover tops were adopted by miners and stevedores towards the end of the century.
Sometime after the Spanish-American War and before WWI, the t-shirt began to look more like the t-shirt of today. A white, short-sleeved, crew neck cotton shirt was issued to sailors in the US Navy sometime around 1913, it was meant to be worn as an undershirt but became commonplace for sailors and marines working in warmer climates to just wear their t-shirts, having discarded their heavier, woollen uniform jackets (this also protected the jackets from getting dirty as they were hard to clean). The US Army soon followed suit, and the t-shirt became standard issue for new recruits. By the 1930s the t-shirt had become the preferred clothing of the blue collar worker, was being worn by college football players under their uniforms to prevent chaffing, and was often worn by white collar workers under their shirts. It was very popular.
The style did experience a set back in 1934, when Clark Gable removed his shirt in It Happened One Night to reveal his bare chest – he wasn’t wearing an undershirt. Apparently American women quite liked the bare-chested look and t-shirt sales took a dive as men began to discard their undershirts in droves.
The style gained favour after WWII, when it was common to see veterans wearing their Army issued t-shirts as casual outerwear when they returned from duty, and in 1951 Marlon Brando‘s star power boosted the t-shirts popularity when he wore one in A Streetcar Named Desire. The film helped the style to make the jump from underwear to outerwear and by the end of 1951 the sales of t-shirts totalled $180 million. Apparently American teenagers really like the look. James Dean helped to maintain the popularity of the t-shirt when it became his uniform of sorts in Rebel without a Cause in 1955, as did Elvis Presley, who favoured the style in his early days.
By the 1950s printing slogans and brands on t-shirts had begun to happen, but it really hit its stride during the political upheaval of the 1960s. The t-shirt became a vehicle for self-expression, political protest and publicising social change, and featured images of Cesar Chavez, Anti-war slogans and polluted lungs to name a few. Towards the end to the 60s Don Price, an advertising man at RIT, began to market the RIT dye to members of the hippie movement so they can tie-dye their clothes. In 1969 he had hundreds of tie-dyed t-shirts made up and handed them to the performers at Woodstock to wear – this simple advertising ploy cemented the tie-dyed t-shirt as a part of the hippie uniform.
Towards the end of the 1970s the printed t-shirt gained momentum, and many now iconic t-shirt designs were born, like the Rolling Stones ‘lips and tongue’, the big yellow Smiley face and the I ❤️ NY. In the 1980s Frankie Said RELAX, and Don Johnson popularised the t-shirt-under-a-sports-coat look in Miami Vice and in the 1990s there was Hypercolor.
In the 21st century the t-shirt options are endless – fits range from long and loose, to short and tight, necklines come in all shapes and you can pretty much have anything your heart desires printed on the front (or back) of it. Designers, high-street retailers and tacky souvenir stores alike all offer t-shirt options and they come in every colour of the rainbow. Almost every commercial enterprise, from bands, to bars, to brands, to sports teams (real or fantasy), has a logo t-shirt to sell to their loyal customers and fans, and the affordability of custom printing has changed the face of bachelor parties, family gatherings, and pretty much every other social gathering, forever.
However you take it, the t-shirt certainly has an illustrious history.
…of the name: The style is called a t-shirt because when laid flat, the garment resembles the letter T.
- the Guinness World Record holder for the most t-shirts worn at once is Sanath Bandara from Sri Lanka. Bandara bypassed the previous record holder from South Korea by wearing 257 at once.
- the word t-shirt became an official English-Language word in the 1920s.
- the I ❤️ NY t-shirt was invented in 1977 by designer Milton Glaser. Glaser was hired by the New York Commerce Department to produce an eye-catching logo for the city. The logo spurred a resurgence of tourism in the Big Apple and the I ❤️ NY t-shirt is now the most imitated t-shirt design in history.
- in its Spring 2013 collection, French label Hermès debuted a t-shirt made from crocodile. The asking price for the piece was $91,500. True story.
- the Frankie says RELAX t-shirt was created by record label owner Paul Morely to flaunt the fact that the Frankie goes to Hollywood song ‘Relax’ went to number 1 despite being banned from BBC radio due to its explicitly sexual lyrics.
21st Century T-Shirts
Despite its traditionally basic design, the t-shirts available in the 21st century are wonderfully varied and there is one out there to fit every style, every trend and every price point.
Dion Lee, Kenzo
The Row, Maison Martin Margiela