The history of the humble T-shirt


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Marlon Brando - 'The wild one' - 1953


Soft to the touch, easy to clean, pleasing in its plainness - the humble t-shirt forms the basis of our wardrobes. We dread to think how we'd get dressed daily without them. But for something that is relatively contemporary, it has a more rebellious and prolific history than you may expect....

The t-shirt, as we know it today, was originally developed as a men's undergarment in 1904 by the Cooper Underwear Company and branded as the ‘Bachelor Undershirt’ - a stretchy t-shaped top that could be pulled on over the head. Before the (frankly life-changing) birth of this product, men typically wore undershirts in the same style as traditional long johns, with little stretch and buttons at the neck to take them on and off (like ye olde onsie, minus the dinosaur shapes and fur). “No safety pins - no buttons - no needle - no thread,” explained the tag-line of the advertisements for this new product  - seizing the attention of young men without wives and without sewing skills. How very forward-thinking of them, eh?



Brigitte Bardot - recording "Has your wishes; Brigitte Bardot: the new year" - 1962


In 1913, the design was quickly adopted by the US Navy for its ease and practicality, and thousands of men became acquainted with the comfort of the cotton pullover. Labourers, like dockworkers, farmers and miners, also swiftly followed suit, opting for the cool and stretchy cotton over long johns. By World War II, the US military were issuing white cotton crew-necks as standard and on returning home, soldiers couldn’t shake their affection for their trusty tees and continued to weave them into their everyday wear. 

Until the '50s it was still considered unseemly to wear solely a t-shirt in public (we've come a long way) but then along came the heart-throbs of the big screen. Buoyed by Marlon Brando’s smouldering, tight t-shirt clad appearance in the film A Streetcar Named Desire and James Dean’s bad-boy role in A Rebel Without a Cause, the popularity of the t-shirt as a standalone outerwear garment skyrocketed.

Let's face it, the image of James Dean that immediately comes to mind is almost always that of a brooding young man in a white t-shirt, worn tucked into his jeans or peeking out from under a Harrington jacket. And we’d happily argue that there may still be no better way to wear a white tee to this day. 

Not only was the t-shirt as an outer-garment becoming acceptable, but it was also being associated with a movement of rebellion. Like many a typically male fashion item, women of the time picked up on the casual-cool quality of the t-shirt, including style icons like Pam Grier and Bridget Bardot. 


The Ramones - 1970


The next stage in the evolution of the t-shirt came about thanks to the infamous punk era of the ‘70s. Rising popularity in rock band logos, along with protests of the Vietnam War, solidified the slogan tee as a messaging platform for wearers to express themselves without uttering a word.

The rise of casual dress over the last few decades has seen the resurgence of many a throwback item. Bum bags, for example were reborn as high-fashion items when Chanel made the dads-on-holiday staple a best seller. Trainers have had a hugely fashionable makeover, donned with everything from suits to floral dresses. Even crocs have made it to the runways of Balenciaga and Christopher Kane. And in 2018, cycling shorts became the epitome of cool. Many trends rise for a time, then recede, then pop back up again later, but the ever-dependable t-shirt, however, has always remained a wardrobe mainstay.

It’s only natural then, that along with jeans of course, the classic white tee remains a key element of the quintessential, casual-cool uniform. With a century of finding its way from military to labour to beatnik to mainstream – this wardrobe staple is anything but basic.



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