We all have them in our closet and take them for granted. However, the invention – can we say that? – of the T-shirt isn’t that long ago. Learn about the origin of the T-shirt and how it became a wardrobe essential.
- The First Tees Weren’t Tees at All – The Origin of the T-shirt
- The first industrial-made T-shirts
- Workers and Mom’s Adopted the Undershirts in the 1920s
- Conquering mainstream after WWII
- The Plain T-shirt in post-war West-Germany
- The Modern Version
- Look of the Day
Disclosure: There are affiliate links in this post.
The first Tees Weren’t Tees at All – The Origin of the T-shirt
The first T-shirt versions were sort of DIY popping up as a trend among laborers. During the heat of summer, the typical undergarment – a one-piece union suit – was just plain unsuitable for thermal comfort of miners, industrial worker and dock workers. Thus, they cut the one-piece union suits into two pieces to make them separates. The upper part then looked like a capital T. The result of the cutting permitted improved ventilation. Moreover, the gaps between the pants and the “T” allowed for better transport of body heat and moisture (from sweat) away from their bodies.
The First Industrial-made T-shirts
As so often in Fashion History, the t-shirt has a military origin like the Army trench coat or the Navy heavy motten-made hooded duffel-coat. Between the Mexican-American War (1898) and 1913 around the time of the the Spanish-American War, the U.S. Navy started to provide t-shirts as standard undershirts. In the first four decades of 20th century, tees were a white jersey cotton shirt with crew-neck, short-sleeves worn under a uniform. This fabric is tough, cool and perfect for the dressing challenge for comfort on warm and hot days.
In hot Tropical weather, sailors, mariners and sub-mariners took of their uniform tops when just hanging out among themselves. Between the Great War and WWII, the U.S. Army adopted T-shirts as part of the uniforms for training during hot weather.
Workers and Mom’s Adopted the Undershirts in the 1920s
In the 1920s, the shirt became popular as an undershirt for workers in agriculture and industry. It looked more polished and was more comfortable the the DIY from a union suit. By the Great Depression, the T-shirt was the default underwear for workers.
The easy to clean fabric made tees a preferred choice for mom’s as everyday wear when their sons did chores or played outside.
Conquering Mainstream after WWII
After WWII, veterans wore t-shirts tucked into their uniform trousers as casual clothes. Fashion industry saw a new market – the teenager fashion.
Rebelish post-war babyboomer teenagers opposed to the mainstream 1950s culture. Rock’n Roll was their music, Elvis Presley, Bill Haley, Buddy Holly, just to mention a few. They wore leather motor-cycle jackets, motor-cycle boots, jeans and a white T-shirt.
Next Hollywood took up the trend dressing their main actors in a tee. Just think Marlon Brando in The Wild One or A Street Car Named Desire. These movies made the garment fashionable as mainstream general-purpose casual clothing in the early 1950’s. At that time, the garnment was worn tucked in.
As so often, when an It or well recognized group wore an item, others (not belonging to the group) felt lust to wear the item to identify with the group and seemingly belong to them.
In the late 60s, the item got shorter sides than front and back. The Flower Power people wore it untucked.
The Plain T-shirt in Post-war West-Germany
US soldiers stationed in Germany wore the undershirts under their uniform and plain with jeans on weekends. Inspired by Hollywood movies and the soldiers, young German men started to wear them. As time progressed, more and more men started wearing them. The Flower Power movement introduced the T-shirt also into the fashion of girls in their teen or tween years.
Of course, my sis and I wanted a T-shirt too. My late mom, who grew up during WWII, forbid us kids to wear T-shirts in the late 60s early 70s because they are American underwear! Note that German underwear was typically cut like a tank-shirt, but with wider cleavage and slimmer straps than a tank-shirt.
The Modern Version
About hundert years later, the former underwear has turned into a Must-have fashion staple – solo or as layering piece under sweaters, button-downs, blazers and jackets. Tucked in or not, or half-tuck. Interestingly, or should I say as always, the women’s version is much more expensive than the men’s version.
The white shirt is a great canvas. So the idea to print something on it wasn’t a far stretch. The graphic Tee was “born” early in the last century.
Saving tip: Check the men’s department for high quality crisp white T-shirts to save.
Don’t let the right outfit be a random thing. Wear the right look in every situation by looking up what to wear when in How to Dress for Success in Midlife. Buy my book now.
Look of the Day
I know, I should have added a white Tee outfit to this post. Full disclosure: The one I bought for this warm season is already recycled for cleaning purposes. It got spilled and I couldn’t get the spot out of the fabric.
Thus, I added the look I wore for Casual Friday last week. A simple all neutral look of cropped jeans, a black blouse, a scarf tied as a bow, heels and a trench coat as rain showers were in the forecast. Actually, it’s sort of one of the recipes for a summer-to-fall transitional look. The first leaves are already turning yellow. Some already fell off and the sandhill cranes, ducks and geese are already leaving.
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Deihl, Nancy (Editor), The Hidden History of American Fashion: Rediscovering 20th-century Women Designers.
Döbler, Hannsferdinand, 1972. Kultur und Sittengeschichte der Welt – Kleidung, Mode, Schmuck. Bertelsmann Verlag, München, Germany.
Mölders, Nicole, 2019. Outdoor Universal Thermal Comfort Index Climatology for Alaska, Atmosphere and Climate Sciences, DOI: 10.4236/acs.2019.94036
TASCHEN (Editor), 2015. Fashion History from the 18th to the 20th Century, Bibliotheca Universalis.
Young, Caroline, 2016. Style Tribes, Frances Lincoln Ltd.
Photos of me: G. Kramm
© 2013-2021 Nicole Mölders | All rights reserved
This Post Has One Comment
I love to read your intelligent and fun posts!! I didn’t know all this history of the t-shirt, Nicole, so thank you for sharing!! I do like the occasional graphic t-shirt!! Enjoy the rest of your week!
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