History of the T-Shirt

Although the T-shirt is a staple piece of outerwear today for both genders, it originally started out as an undergarment for men. Since then, it has undergone many transformations - from the tie-dyed, baggy tee to the tight fitting tank top. Additionally, the overall length, cut, fabric, and printing methods also continue to advance. Ironically, people now wear undergarments, like sports bras, underneath their T-shirts, despite the fact that it was once used for the same purpose. After one hundred years of evolution, the appearance of the shirt is still constantly changing.

Early Days

The first form that the T-shirt took was called a union suit. It originated out of New York, and it was a very basic one-piece garment that was white in color and buttoned up the front. Once the style of long underwear started to gain popularity, the P.H. Hanes Knitting Company soon followed suit and released their own version in 1902; it was a two-piece men's undergarment that looked similar to the union suit, but lacked its length. Eventually, in 1938, which was the same year that Nylon became popular, Sears finally introduced their own T-shirt called the "gob" shirt. It sold for 24 cents.

1950's - How the T-shirt Became Cool

Just like the Hanes Company saw potential in the union suit, Hollywood also quickly picked up on the emerging trend. For example, James Dean's role in "Rebel Without a Cause," and Marlon Brando's acting in "A Streetcar Named Desire," only fortified the T-shirt's growing following. In 1948, Governor Thomas E. Dewey's slogan was, "Dew-IT with Dewey," which was quickly printed on promotional T-shirts for the duration of the presidential campaign. The Smithsonian Institute still displays the 1948 campaign shirt, and it continues to hold the record as the oldest T-shirt with a printed slogan.

1960's - Tie-Dye and Slogans

During the 1960's, better known as the psychedelic generation, the T-shirt evolved yet again - especially when plastisol was invented. This was a revolutionary new type of ink that was perfect for the daily wear and tear that most T-shirts were expected to withstand; now the ink was durable enough to last alongside the fabric of the shirt. During this decade, bright colors and tie-dyed patterns were very popular, and clothing was often used as a catalyst for self expression. For instance, anti-war slogan opposing Vietnam were often featured on shirts, along with company logos and other types of pictures. In fact, even famous music legends, like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, used to wear shirts inked with slogans and tie-dyed patterns!

1970s and 80s - Pop Culture

During the 70's and 80's, custom T-shirts continued to grow in popularity. In turn, this meant that methods of mass production became necessary, along with new methods of printing, like litho-transfer. For instance, malls became a commonplace to have a custom T-shirt printed on the spot, and corporations, along with many rock bands, started to realize how powerful T-shirts were in terms of sales and branding. One of the most important innovations of this era was the wrinkle-free T-shirt, which was made out of a mix of polyester and cotton.

Present Day - The Internet and Customization

Today, T-shirts still remain an integral part of the fashion industry, where they are worn in many different styles, colors, and fabrics. People regularly have shirts custom made for adult and adolescent athletic teams, company use, self expression and as a branding tool. One of the most defining characteristics of the modern day T-shirt is that it can be printed almost instantly on demand. People can custom print any type of shirt they like, with almost any kind of image, slogan or color imaginable, as long as they have access to the Internet.

Most Popular T-Shirts

Three of the most popular T-shirts that have consistently sold well and retained their popularity include ones with Disney characters, the Coca-Cola logo, and album art from the Beatles. Despite having started off as an undergarment, society now enjoys them as both under and outer pieces of clothing. In fact, they're even layered occasionally to create a truly custom appearance for the wearer. People from many different generations wear them for casual and dress occasions, and they still continue to drastically evolve away from the one-piece long underwear that they originated from. One of the most startling examples is the tube top. However, like its 1960's cousin, the modern day T-shirt is still a channel for self-expression, artistic license and protesting political movements. To learn more about the history of the T-shirt, check out the following links:
  • Hane's Hosiery - Browse through a brief timeline that details the history of the Hanes Company.
  • The History of the T-shirt - Check out a college discussion of the T-shirt, including its origin and current trending designs.
  • Tie-Dye a T-Shirt - Learn to make custom shirts with these instructions on how to tie-dye a T-shirt from the state of Michigan.
  • 1948 Truman vs. Dewey - Read through an explanation of the 1948 presidential election.
  • Truman vs. Dewey - Check out this description of the unexpected outcome of the 1948 election for more insight into Governor Thomas Dewey, the man who coined the phrase that appears on the oldest printed T-shirt recorded.
  • The Sixties: Age of Aquarius - Read through this brief summary to get a better feel for the psychedelic era, when tie-dyed T-shirts became the rage.
  • Graduate School of Design - Check out the history of Harvard's Graduate School of Design, which played a part in the anti-Vietnam protest T-shirts.
  • Timeline of 1968 - Follow the timeline of 1968 to get a feel for some of the era's rallies and protests; don't forget to read the T-shirt slogan that police wore.
  • T-Shirts - Our t-shirt printing service. Check out our guides section for more articles like this.
  • Plastisol vs. Water Based Ink - Read a comparison between two textile printing methods.
  • Textile Production - Learn more about the history of textile printing.

Written by: , a staff writer at ooShirts.com