A History of the T-shirt

Know the history of the tee? How did the t-shirt get its start in the beginning of the twentieth century? How did the t-shirt become an American favorite? We’re now into the twenty-first century, and the t-shirt remains as popular as ever.

T-shirts of yesteryear were nothing like the t-shirts you know today. It was common knowledge that the first t-shirts, as you will learn, were clearly considered something to be worn underneath clothing. Certainly, the t-shirts of old were not part of a stand-alone industry, nor were they a mode of advertising.

Believe it or not, before the 20th century, there was no consensus that underwear should be included as an essential part of one’s wardrobe. Most late 19th century folks wore something like an extended shirt called the “Spiral Bustle.” Then in 1901 the predecessor to Hanes introduced for sale through catalog men’s underwear, a two-piece set.

The birth of the t-shirt appears to be accredited to the navy (and lots of sailors). No one seems to know for certain when the first t-shirt was made. As early as 1913 the U.S. Navy adopted a revolutionary new garment, a short-sleeved, crew-necked, white cotton undershirt. This garment was to be worn underneath a jumper. And what was the purpose of this undershirt? One must avoid scandalous sights, otherwise known as sailors’ chest hairs. The standard issue shirt had somewhat of the silhouette of a “T”, thus the name “t-shirt” was born.

It is also notable that during WWI while European soldiers were wearing cooler, comfy, lightweight, cotton undershirts in the humid, hot summer days, that American troops took notice. These duds were nothing like the American wool uniforms soldiers wore.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary listed “T-Shirt” as an official word in the American English language by the 1920’s. Around the late 1930’s that companies including Fruit of the Loom, Hanes and Sears & Roebuck began the marketing of the t-shirt.

As of W.W. II, the Army and 12 million Navy sailors had t-seasy rider,hirts as standard issue underwear. “Skivvies”, these new, inexpensive undergarments became known as. America saw, began to get comfortable with, and reveled secretly, daily news images of their wartime sons, wearing t-shirts (dressed barely, but with pants of course). Underwear was being worn as outerwear. Rules were flaunted about undergarments. Taboos were violated with this show of male sexuality.

Still, by and large, the t-shirt was an undergarment meant not to be seen. In 1934, however, Clark Gable shocked everyone, as he stripped off his dress shirt in the movie “It Happened One Night,” to reveal no t-shirt at all. Women swooned, and men as well. Still, the t-shirt kept itself under wraps, to be worn primarily underneath a work or proper dress Sports T shirt.

The idea continued to quickly catch on, and due to simple design, a few years later, with the leave of many sailors during the war, the popular civilian “union suit” was reduced to a “singlet” or “jersey.” In 1938, Sears introduced a t-shirt they called a “gob” shirt (named after sailors). A “gob” shirt cost 24 cents. The t-Shirt would become an empty canvas, which was allowing men to present themselves in an erotic sense and show their gender.

The t-shirt was becoming appropriate to wear as an undergarment or as an outer one. The Marines standard issue white t-shirt was replaced with sage green for camouflage purposes. In 1944, the Army surveyed enlisted men as to preference of sleeves or sleeveless. Most preferred sleeves, due to better appearance, absorption under arms, among other reasons.

The t-shirt would never be the same. Along with worldwide upheaval, WWII brought along as well the first printed t-shirts. On display at The Smithsonian Institute is the oldest printed shirt on record. This t-shirt is from Governor of New York Thomas E. Dewey’s 1948 presidential campaign and sports “Dew-It with Dewey”.

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