The humble T-shirt is arguably the most popular item of clothing in the world today, and most of us have a decent stack in our wardrobes or cupboards. But have you ever wondered where the T-shirt came from, or why it became so popular?
General consensus places the beginnings of the T-shirt with an item of underwear known in the US as the ‘Union-Suit’. A union-suit was a type of all-in one men’s underwear, patented in 1868, and very similar to a design popular with women at the time. Originally, these button-up, old-world-onesies were made from a red flannelling fabric; very good at keeping men warm in the cooler months but unbearably hot in the spring and summer. This discomfort prompted many men to shear the garment in half, making something not unlike the traditional ‘long-johns’ style of underwear that remains popular to this day.
Sometime toward the end of the 19th century, manufacturers of these garments began trying different methods and fabrics, eventually creating a type of under-shirt that could be simply pulled over the wearer’s head, thus doing away with any need for buttons. These new under-shirts were made from a more elastic material, allowing them to conform slightly better to a person’s shape and also rendering them more able to return to their desired proportions after stretching over someone’s head, without spoiling the collar.
The Cooper Underwear Co. started marketing these new items of under-clothing to young bachelors, using the popular tag-line: “No Safety Pins, No Buttons, No Needle, No Thread”. A prominent employer of many young men, many perhaps lacking in sewing skills, The United States Navy soon picked up on this durable and low-maintenance attire and added the simple white under-shirt to the standard Navy uniform.
Not surprisingly, after it’s success among the seafaring servicemen, it didn’t take long for the US Army to catch on, and during WWI the under-shirt was worn by tens of thousands of soldiers, and the convenient and comfortable attire returned home with them after the war.
After the addition of the rounded, crew-neck we all recognise today, one of the final adjustments to the modern-day T-shirt came in 1932, implemented by another US clothing manufacturer, Jockey International. This iteration was designed to be a better fitting garment, aimed at reducing the chafing experienced by football players from their padding. Worn underneath pads and team jerseys, the new T-shirts soon caught on with the rest of the non-football playing student body, and it didn’t take long for the T-shirt to become a more common site on campus.
The final blow the T-shirt would deal to popular fashion came, as it so often does, from the world of cinema.
Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire sees a smouldering Marlon Brando donning a tight fitting white T-shirt in his performance as Stanley Kowalski, the main male protagonist of the production. The appearance proved, in finality, that the T-shirt was capable and worthy as a standalone, and even sexy, outer garment.
Of course, as time went on, businesses realised the opportunity afforded by the T-shirt’s large, visually uninterrupted blank space, typically held at a prominent height for the viewing of others. And so we have the modern-day T-shirt, so typically adorned with favourite bands, brands and, of course, movies, superheroes and games!
Oh, and speaking of T-shirts, we have one or two on the site don’t y’know…