The Surprisingly Recent Invention of the T-Shirt

The Surprisingly Recent Invention of the T-Shirt



Sailor Arnold R Fesser in 1944
Sailor Arnold R Fesser in 1944 The t-shirt is arguably the most popular outer garment
in the entire world. Coming in a range of styles, colors and sizes
there is quite literally a t-shirt for everyone. But where did this iconic garment come from
and how did it become so popular? Relatively speaking, the t-shirt is a fairly
new addition to our collective wardrobes and it has only been an acceptable piece of clothing
in its own right for around half a century. While the garment itself has existed in a
recognisable form (albeit with wider necks and shorter sleeves) since the early 20th
century, it was almost universally considered to be underwear and it was rarely, if ever
worn in public. So where did the t-shirt come from? It’s thought that it evolved from a kind
of all-in-one underwear made from red flannel known as the “union suit” which was popular
with workers in the 19th century. The union suit was patented in 1868 in New
York and was based on a similar kind of underwear that had been popular with Victorian women. While the Union Suit excelled at keeping men
warm, it was all but useless at keeping them cool in hot weather, unless that is, it was
cut in half, which many workers did. In so doing, they inadvertently created the
top half of what many would recognise today as “Long Johns”, a similar garment which
consisted of two pieces of long underwear. Men's-Union-SuitAlthough Long Johns themselves
have existed since the 17th century where they were similarly popular with workers and
the poor, they were most popular during the Victorian Era, along with Union Suits, where
they were advertised to women as a way to keep their waists trim, via having to wear
fewer layers around the waist, while still keeping warm. Unlike Union Suits which have since become
the literal butt of many a comedy gag (thanks to the fact they often feature a built-in
flap on the butt), Long Johns have never really waned in popularity since and have been keeping
people warm right up until the modern day. Sometime in the 19th century, the people making
these type of toasty undergarments began experimenting with fabrics that could stretch back into
shape to make the product more comfortable. This resulted in the creation of buttonless
undershirts made from wool and cotton that you could pull over your head without ruining
the collar. Though the exact date these so-called pullovers
were invented, by whom and when workers began wearing them isn’t known, we do know that
they absolutely weren’t considered something you could wear in your day-to-day life without
something over them. There were even laws on the books as early
as 1890 in places like Havana stating that it was illegal to wear these pullover tops
exposed in public. The fate of what would become the t-shirt
began to change in 1904, when the Cooper Underwear Company began marketing them to single men
as “bachelor undershirts” with a tagline that simply read: “No safety pins — no
buttons — no needle — no thread” The advertisement played up to the fact that
the “undershirt”, as it was then known, consisted of a single piece of fabric that
had no buttons, meaning it would be more durable than its buttoned counterpart, with less maintenance. Why is this important to the history of the
t-shirt? Because very shortly after this advertisement
ran (about a year), the US Navy, who employed many a young bachelor with limited sewing
skills, officially incorporated the button-less white undershirt into its uniform. According to the (1905) Uniform Regulations
of the United States Navy, a full transcript of which you can read here, the cotton undershirt
was exactly that- a shirt that had to be worn underneath the rest of the sailor’s uniform. That’s not to say there weren’t exceptions
though; according to the regulations, sailors were allowed to wear a light cotton undershirt
“of identical pattern” in warm weather at the discretion of their commanding officer
whilst sailors working the engine room were allowed to fashion themselves a makeshift
undershirt to make themselves more comfortable if they so desired. The undershirt came to the attention of the
US Army a few years later during WWI with the undershirts soon worn by tens of thousands
of army soldiers, many of whom took the fashion home with them. Shortly after WWI ended in 1920, the author
F.Scott Fitzgerald became the first known person to use the word “t-shirt” in print
when he included it in his novel, This Side of Paradise as one of the items the main character
takes with him to university. And, in fact, a very slight tweak on the design
of early t-shirts came about at university, the invention of the “crew-neck t-shirt”. These were made in 1932 by Jockey International
Inc at the bequest of the University of South California, who wanted a lightweight, absorbent
garment its football players could wear underneath their jerseys to prevent their pads from rubbing
and chafing. The resulting style t-shirt was a huge hit
with the team and it wasn’t long before students began popularly wearing them. By the time WWII started, the “modern”
t-shirt had become commonplace in high schools and universities across the states, though
it wasn’t yet ubiquitous and was still commonly worn by adults, at least, as an undershirt. (There were many exceptions, of course, particular
among laborers in hot environments, such as farmers.) The final push for mainstream acceptance of
the t-shirt as an outer garment started at the end of WWII, when soldiers returning home
began incorporating them into their casual wardrobe, much in the same way they’d done
during the war. The popularity of a t-shirt as an outer garment
further surged thanks to Marlon Brando and his role as Stanley Kowalski in A Street Car
Named Desire which featured Brando wearing a tight fitting (as most were at this point),
bicep caressing t-shirt. Brando’s smouldering performance in both
the play and 1951 movie caused a nationwide spike in sales of t-shirts, proving to the
world that the t-shirt could be a “sexy, stand-alone, outer-wear garment“. It didn’t take that long after for businesses
to realise the marketing potential of these mostly blank outer garments, with the likes
of Roy Rogers and Walt Disney among many others soon using them for this purpose, popularizing
the now ubiquitous practice of putting designs on t-shirts. And the rest, as they say, is history.

32 Replies to “The Surprisingly Recent Invention of the T-Shirt”

  1. The part about pullovers is interesting. T-shirts are still not considered elegant or business appropriate. But a dress shirt with a pullover (sweater, jumper… whatever you call them) on top is nowadays considered suitable for business casual and things like date nights.

  2. OH WHAT A COINCIDENCE! The sponsor and video topic are related! What are the chances! That’s like World of War sponsoring a ship video or a alcohol app sponsoring a video about alcohol.

  3. Pretty hilarious, my whole life the t-shirt was just a normal shirt to me and most others, when you said shirt you meant t-shirt. More traditional shirts are considered more specalist shirts now, often as smart shirts.

  4. Heeeyy, Mack Weldon ! I'm a good customer of Mack's. I have gotten a fairly good collection, mainly of their polo shirts. They're beautifully cut and fit perfectly and look great. The pique fabric is very elastic and very cool (temperature wise). And NO I wasnt paid to say this. Just try them yourself and you, too will be ravingabout them.

  5. I'm pretty sure Clark Gable was wearing a sleeveless (tank top) shirt in "It Happened One Night". He was shirtless (but with a sheet covering most of him) in "Gone with the Wind". In that case I guess people were so worried about him saying damn. they let the bare shoulders slide.

  6. You must also mention the contribution of Fred Lebow of the New York road runners club who created the tradition of giving out T-shirts at races to participants and staff of races beginning with the New York City Marathon’s first race on city streets in 1976. He created a shirt that had the logo and the word security and gave it the gangs in each neighborhood to secure the right to run on their turf by making them in charge of security for that part of the course. People started running races just for the shirt so they could show off their participation. In fact the tithe of his autobiography is “Anything for a T-shirt”

  7. I recall my father, who was a farmer, wearing white t-shirts all summer, weather on the tractor, or in town drinking in the local watering hole. To make them different from undershirts, however, he had my mother sow a pocket on each t for his smokes, and his pen; he was never without both. I, likewise wore t shirts in the summer back in the 50's and 60's, and when I joined the US Army, we were issued t-shirts as part of our utility uniform (1970). When I was ordered to war in Vietnam, I was issued olive drab t-shirts and boxer shorts. Both were appreciated greatly, and often, when back at base camp, we wore the t-shirts as outer wear especially when the temps shot up to over 100 degrees F and the humidity was around 90%. I do recall wearing white union suits when I was a boy, dad had the same, they were warm and very comfortable. Ours came in two types, one with the old drop flap, and the newer type had a button slit that would open up to allow quick relleaf, when necessary. Later they came out with a self closing slit that did away with the two small buttons that sort of irritated at times when you sat to long in your desk at school.

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