Whether they are plain white, screen-printed, or personalized, T-shirts are arguably the most popular piece of clothing in the world. There is no doubt that there are currently T-shirts on the market for every taste, yet they didn’t start out that way. Here is a brief history of everyone’s favorite garment:
1900 – 1910s
By 1904, the Cooper Underwear Company marketed pullovers to single men as “bachelor undershirts” with the slogan, “No safety pins – no buttons – no needle – no thread.” Soon after, around the time of the Spanish-American War, the United States Navy incorporated the button-less undershirt into its standard uniform for convenience.
After WWI ended in 1920, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise first incorporated the word “T-shirt” in print. Shortly after, the word became part of the American lexicon, and by the mid-1920s, it appeared in the Merriam Webster Dictionary.
In 1932, Jockey International, Inc. created a lightweight and absorbent piece of clothing at the request of the University of California for their football team. One of the earliest examples of printed tees can be found in the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz. At the Wash & Brushup Company, the three men attending to the Scarecrow are all wearing green tees with the word “Oz” printed on the fronts.
Like the Navy before them, the Army decided to adopt tees as part of their standard uniform during WWII. The first still photo of a printed tee is usually credited to the Air Corps Gunnery School tee that was featured on the cover of LIFE magazine on July 13, 1942.
In the early 1950s, a Florida company called Tropix Togs began decorating personalized T-shirts with resort names and fictional characters such as Mickey Mouse. In the 1951 film, A Streetcar Named Desire, Marlon Brando wore a tight-fitting tee that made ladies swoon. James Dean followed this up by sporting a similar style as the star of Rebel Without A Cause.
In the 1960s, screen-printed personalized T-shirts gained tremendous popularity as a means of self-expression, expressing political interests and protesting. In 1969, an advertising executive at Rit marketed his dye to the hippie movement as a way to turn white tees into “tie-dyed” psychedelic art.
Many notable shirts that have since cemented a place for themselves within pop culture were created in the 1970s, including the popular “I <3 NY" design.
By 1984, the television program Miami Vice popularized the iconic new-wave look of tees worn under pastel-colored Armani suits, complete with slip-on sockless loafers.
Young women in the 1990s wore cropped tees that were short enough to reveal their midriffs. Sometimes these tailored and tight-fitted “baby tees” were worn under baggy flannel shirts.
2000 – Today
These days, we have the advantage of screen-printing on demand. Via e-commerce, we can order personalized T-shirts in any color with any logo or design that we choose, and they can be made and delivered within a week.
It’s hard to believe that T-shirts have only been popular and acceptable to wear as an outer garment for 60 years. Because they are lightweight, durable, inexpensive, and great platforms for creativity, tees are sure to stick around for decades to come.