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The Definitive History of the T-Shirt
Today, the modern T-shirt has created a huge textile and fashion industry worth over two billion dollars for the world’s retail trade. The unlikely birth of the T-shirt was an unprecedented event, however this humble piece of clothing was set to change the style and fashion of culture for generations to come. Eventually the t-shirt would be used as a political tool of protest and, at certain times and places in history, as a symbol of revolution and change.
At the very beginning the t-shirt was little more than a piece of underwear, an extremely utilitarian one. In the late 19th century, the union suit, (also known colloquially as long johns), was worn in America and northern Europe. Popular across classes and generations, this modest woven one-piece covered the entire body from the neck to the wrists and ankles. The design pièce de résistance has a drop flap on the back for ease of use in older outhouses. As cotton became more and more available, underwear manufacturers seized the moment to create alternatives to this mainstay and rather bulky design. Woven materials are difficult to cut and sew, and can lead to a radical shift to fashion made largely with cotton.
As times were changing in Europe, as Americans began to sweat and itch, a simple “T-shape” template was cut twice from a piece of cotton cloth and the two pieces were faced together in a lower European workhouse. It was half a pair of long johns, but it soon took on a life of its own. As the Industrial Revolution reached its inevitable conclusion, Henry T. Ford created the world’s first production line, bringing ideas of functionality, efficiency and utilitarian style into the mainstream of societies around the world, and particularly in Europe. As many began to question the Puritanism of the past, Victorian ideas of button-down modesty began to give way to fewer and fewer swimsuits, ankle skirts, and short-sleeve shirts. As World War I loomed on the horizon, t-shirts were being drafted into the military.
The first recorded instance of the introduction of the T-shirt to the United States by historical researchers occurred during World War I when American soldiers commented on the light cotton undershirt that European soldiers were given as the standard uniform. American soldiers wore smocks, their government still issuing woolen uniforms, this was not a fashion, it was practically a tactical military disadvantage. How can a sniper keep calm and aim his rifle without beads of sweat and itching in his eyes? The US military may not have reacted as quickly as its military would have liked, but the highly practical and lightweight t-shirt will soon return to mainstream American consumers.
Because of their highly recognizable shape, and for want of a better name, the term “t-shirt” was coined and as the word entered the cultural lexicon, people around the world began to adopt the new and more convenient option. Union shirt. A handful of American experts claim the name originated in 1932 when Howard Jones hired “Jocky” to design a new sweat-wicking shirt for the USC Trojans football team. However, the US Army counters that the term originates from army training shirts, as the military was not long in determining the abbreviation due to practicality. There is an alternative theory, the explanation of which is little known and rather graphic. The essentially short-length arms were described as having the shape of an amputee’s torso, a common sight in the bloody battles of the past, although this speculation cannot be verified, the idea has an eerie ring of truth. The T-shirt was eventually issued as standard underwear for all ranks in both the US Army and Navy during World War II. Although t-shirts are intended as underwear, soldiers engaged in rigorous war sports or construction work, and especially soldiers living in hot climates, often wear untucked t-shirts. On July 13, 1942, the cover story of Life magazine featured a photo of a soldier wearing a T-shirt that read “Air Corps Gunnery School”.
In the first few years after World War II, the European fashion for wearing T-shirts as outerwear, largely inspired by the new US Army uniform, spread to civilian America. In 1948, the New York Times named New York Governor Thomas E. Reportedly a new and unique marketing tool for Dewey’s campaign that year. This was the first recorded “slogan T-shirt”, reading “Due It for Dewey”, by Dwight D. It was closely replicated by the more famous “I Like Ike” T-shirts from Eisenhower’s presidential campaign.
In the early 1950s, enterprising companies in Miami, Florida began emblazoning t-shirts with Floridian resort names and even cartoon characters. The first recorded graphic T-shirt catalog was created by Tropix Togs, its creator and founder, Miami entrepreneur Sam Kantor. They were the original licensees of Walt Disney characters including Mickey Mouse and Davy Crockett. Other companies later expanded into the t-shirt printing business, including Sherry Manufacturing Company, also based in Miami.
Sherry started the business in 1948, owner and founder, Quinton Sandler, quickly caught on to the new T-shirt trend and quickly expanded the screen print scarf company into the largest screen print licensed apparel manufacturer in the United States. Soon more and more celebrities, including John Wayne and Marlon Brando, were seen sporting these new risque outfits on national TV. In 1955, James Dean gave the t-shirt street cred in the classic film “Rebel Without a Cause.” The T-shirt was rapidly evolving into a contemporary symbol of rebellious youth. The initial uproar and public outcry soon died down, and eventually even the American Bible Belt began to see the practicality of its design.
In the 60s people started dyeing and screenprinting the original cotton t-shirts which made them an even bigger commercial success. Advances in printing and dyeing allowed for more variety, and tank tops, muscle shirts, scoop necks, v-necks, and many other types of t-shirts came into fashion. During this period of cultural experimentation and upheaval, several independent t-shirt printers produced copies of the famous portrait of Ernesto “Che” Guevara “Guerillero Heroico, or Heroic Guerrilla” by Alberto “Corda” Díaz. It is said to be the most reproduced image in the history of photography, thanks mainly to the rise of the T-shirt.
The 1960s also saw the creation of the “ringer t-shirt” which became a fashion staple for youth and rock-n-rollers. The decade also saw the rise of tie-dyeing and screen-printing on basic T-shirts. In 1959, “Plastisol”, a more durable and stretchable ink, was invented, allowing more variety in T-shirt designs. As textile technology improved, new t-shirt styles were soon introduced, including tank tops, A-shirts (known as “wife beaters”), muscle shirts, scoop necks, and of course, V-necks.
The psychedelic era saw more and more iconic t-shirts designed and produced, including more homegrown experiments. A tide of tie-dyed t-shirts appeared in the burgeoning music festival scenes of Western Europe and America. It was practically a required dress code in West Coast hippie culture in the late 60s. The band t-shirt became another extremely popular type of t-shirt, cheaply printed and sold at live gigs and concerts of the day, a tradition that continues to this day, band t-shirts are as popular as ever, however their prices have skyrocketed. is .
In 1975 Vivienne Westwood made her mark at the “Sex” boutique at 430 King’s Road, London with her new punk-style t-shirt, with her infamous “God Save the Queen” design. Punk introduced an explosion of independent fashion designers, and especially T-shirt designers. To this day many modern designs pay homage to the “grunge-look” of this rebellious and chaotic period of Western culture.
The influx of corporate funding in the 1980s changed the entire face of the T-shirt market. Slogan T-shirts were becoming popular again, “Choose Life” was produced to promote George Michael’s “Wham” band’s debut album, while “Frankie Says” helped push a highly controversial string of singles for Liverpool to the top of the UK charts. Band based on “Frankie Goes to Hollywood”. Bands, football teams, political parties, advertising agencies, business convention organizers, in fact anyone after cheap advertising began to commission and sell large numbers of t-shirts. A noble exception at the time was the “Feed the World” t-shirt, created to raise funds and awareness for the original and groundbreaking Band Aid charity event.
T-shirt production and printing technology improved greatly in the 80s and 90s, including early forms of DTG (Direct to Garment Transfer) printing, increasing volume and availability. While in financial circles, global stock markets took notice as the American T-shirt was classified as a commodity item in the apparel industry.
Branded corporate labels soon made their mark on the industry. A whole new generation of t-shirt designs swept the market, promoting conformity and loyalty to a brand name like Nike rather than an expression of individuality. This rather inspiring tradition continues today, for example with the now iconic “Vintage 82” t-shirt from “Next”. Within a few years of the first printing, cheap copies and black market knock-offs allowed the design to flood the market until the world was flooded. There are many similar designs that have the same limited cultural shelf-life.
Recently the inspiring movement towards re-politicizing the T-shirt has enabled pressure groups and charities to get their message across to a wider audience. Over a million people marched through London wearing anti-war, anti-Bush and anti-Blair t-shirts in an anti-Iraq rally. Another example, reminiscent of earlier Band Aid events, was the 2005 Make Poverty History campaign that received global media coverage. Soon Vivienne Westwood re-emerged in the t-shirt world with her new slogan t-shirt “I’m not a terrorist, please don’t arrest me”. Kathryn Hamnett, another famous British fashion designer is famous for her protest T-shirts, including work to highlight the Third World debt and the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Then again, Catherine was recently quoted as saying that political slogan shirts give consumers a “feeling of participating in democratic action,” when in fact they’ve only bought a bit of clothing. This is probably true, however they still attract huge media attention for any just cause.
Over the years the style, image and contribution to a free society that the t-shirt provides has been embraced, the t-shirt has now become an essential companion to any fashionable wardrobe, no matter where in the world. Yet more technological advancements in the industry have led to more choices in styles and cuts. Knee-length oversized t-shirts are popular in hip hop and skater fashion. Seasons change, however, with the women’s market adopting a more tight-fitting “cropped” t-shirt style, cut short enough to reveal the midsection. The rise of the “hoodie” or hoodie long sleeve t-shirt cannot be ignored, it is also becoming an essential addition to any street fashionista’s collection.
Recently there has been a huge consumer backlash against the branded conformity of the corporate and licensed t-shirt market. As the consumer is finally realizing a little bit of individuality, people today are no longer content with the idea of ”brand loyalty”. People want to reflect their own personality, political beliefs, style or sense of humor. Some DIY designs themselves with the help of a wide selection of online t-shirt printing services, including “cafe press” and “threadless” to name just two. But many people don’t have the time or inclination to design their own artwork and hence the rise of the freelance t-shirt designer. Reminiscent of the 1960s but with worldwide appeal, artists, graphic designers, and scholars in the fashion world are beginning to take notice. The greatest asset of the modern t-shirt is its originality, a quality that will always be in demand, now and in the future.
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