The T-Shirt: A Short History of an Icon

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The unpretentious T-shirt, an item of clothing now recognized and utilized globally, initially materialized as an intimate apparel meant solely for men. In the medieval era, 'T' shaped shirts fashioned from woven cotton or linen played the dual roles of a protective layer against outer garments and a sign of refined cleanliness. Their easy maintenance and the added hygienic barrier they provided were cherished, and the display of a freshly laundered shirt was often regarded as a symbol of a gentleman's prosperity.

The original concept of the shirt, being a large rectangular piece of cloth fashioned into a 'T' shape with extended shirt tails tucked in, underwent a substantial transformation in the 19th century. The shirt tails were omitted, and the body of the shirt was tailored to yield a more form-fitting outline. The 19th century was a period of considerable evolution for the T-shirt.

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Technological progress in knitting enabled the production of T-shirts on a large scale, in a more snug style, and with a wider array of materials such as calico, jersey, and wool. Health authorities commended the wool-knit, T-shaped undershirts for their protection against cold and various health issues, even advising women to adopt them as an alternative to corsets.

By the end of the 19th century, white flannel T-shirts became an essential component of British sailors' attire under their woolen uniforms. As the century concluded, the British Royal Navy sanctioned sailors to wear these undershirts while undertaking duties on deck.

 

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The practice of sporting T-shirts as casual wear swiftly spread among working-class men during their leisure time. In 1880, the US Navy introduced a loose-fitting flannel shirt with a square neck into its uniform, and by 1913, it had accepted a white, cotton-knit T-shirt as its official inner wear. The cotton version was more comfortable and dried faster than its flannel equivalent. In the early 20th century, the T-shirt industry saw tremendous growth.

The P.H. Hanes Knitting Company commenced their production of men's underwear in 1901, and Fruit of the Loom began marketing T-shirts extensively during the 1910s. By the 1930s, T-shirts became standard athletic wear for college students. In 1938, the American retailer, Sears, Roebuck and Company unveiled white cotton sailor shirts for sale.

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The advertisement astutely promoted it as a versatile item, appropriate as both a casual and sports outer shirt and as an undershirt. During World War II, the US Army and Navy issued white, short-sleeved, cotton T-shirts to their personnel. Images of soldiers at war in T-shirts propagated the association of the T-shirt with heroic masculinity.

By the time Hollywood's emerging method actors started donning white T-shirts to express their characters' defiant attitudes - such as Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun (1951), Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953), and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) - the T-shirt had formally transitioned from a mere undergarment to a standalone garment suitable for wear beyond the confines of the workplace. However, it would be nearly another six decades before the T-shirt would be accepted as suitable office attire.

The T-shirt's inherent allure, attributed to its body-conforming fit, initially captivated actresses and singers in the 1960s. By the 1970s, the T-shirt had truly become a unisex item of clothing. Jacqueline Bisset created a sensation among American cinema audiences in 1977 with her wet, see-through T-shirt in the movie The Deep. As the T-shirt transitioned from an undergarment to standalone outerwear, it evolved into a platform for exhibiting various message be they political, promotional, graphic, or humorous. The widespread adoption of silk-screen printing technology in the early 1960s simplified, accelerated, and reduced the cost of imprinting designs on shirts.

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By the 1970s, customers could purchase personalized, custom-made T-shirts. Enterprises quickly discerned the potential of T-shirts as a promotional instrument, as did bands and music management companies. The T-shirt's appeal to generations of musicians, authors, actors, and intellectuals can be traced back to its working-class roots and the rebellious act of wearing an undergarment as outerwear.

Pop stars, models, and rappers all embraced the T-shirt in the 1990s. While the T-shirt can democratize socio-economic standing - as inexpensive T-shirts are worn by individuals across diverse income brackets - it can also act as a conspicuous symbol of luxury in its designer iterations. Designer T-shirts have been marketed since the 1950s, and the garment has been reimagined by numerous designers since then, from Yves Saint Laurent and Dior in the 1970s, to Chanel, Lacoste, Calvin Klein, and Polo Ralph Lauren in the 1990s.

 

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Iconic figures such as Giorgio Armani, Helmet Lang, and Nicolas Ghesquière have incorporated the T-shirt as a key element in their personal style. Today, it’s nearly unthinkable to imagine a wardrobe without a T-shirt, a garment that has evolved significantly from its humble beginnings as a practical piece of clothing over a century ago.

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