ENCYCLOPEDIA

    THE HISTORY OF THE T-SHIRT

    Where would we be without the humble T-shirt? The classic gender-free cotton cover-up only came to prominence in the free-thinking 1960s  - before then it was considered underwear – but the T-shirt’s sheer versatility means it wins a place in our capsule wardrobe.

    1889 U.S. Navy soldiers used to wear lightweight cotton shirts that dried easily. These shirts could also be worn as underwear to shield their clothing from sweat.

    1913 the U.S. navy approved of the T-shirt as part of its uniform. The Industrial Revolution paved the way for the technology that allowed the mass production of T-shirts and soon, T-shirts became part of the uniforms of soldiers, workers, and sailors. By 1920, the word T-shirt appeared in official U.S. dictionaries.

    1950 The widespread T-shirt trend was born in the 1950s, thanks to the movies. Marlon Brando, James Dean and Art Carney, all dressed in T-shirts and created the tough guy image that launched the T-shirt into mainstream popularity. In 1951, a chiseled Marlon Brando starred in the film A Streetcar Named Desire. His tough, coarse, working-class Stanley Kowalski, dressed in a white T-shirt, became an iconic image. The film earned Brando his first ever Oscar nomination. In 1953’s The Wild One, Brando played Johnny Strabler, a rebel on a Harley-Davidson; a white T-shirt under a black leather jacket became the standard look for young men during this era.

    1955 In 1955’s film Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean turned the image of a white T-shirt under a red jacket into a symbol of rebellion, turning the T-shirt into an icon. When the Baby Boomers came into adolescence after the war, feelings of a lack of national security appeared. This generation of “hippies” participated in anti-war movements as well as a sexual revolution. With the widespread rebellion challenging social norms, T-shirts became a forum for a rebellious attitude. From standard uniform to means of expression, T-shirts upended tradition within one generation. Young people dressed in T-shirts with in-your-face, lewd messages printed on them and wore torn jeans to criticize the U.S. government.

    1970 T-shirts became an instrument of worship towards pop-culture idols. A mirror of cultural development, T-shirts became synonymous with the music industry. T-shirts with portraits of pop singers gained popularity in the early 1970s. Live performances and album covers were regular design themes. T-shirts quickly became emblems of all areas of pop culture; music and movie stars and professional athletes autographed the T-shirts, increasing their value as collectibles. With the technical advancement of dyeing and printing techniques in the 1970s, T-shirts took on a greater commercial value. Rock-n-roll bands capitalized on this, and created fan memorabilia. Film studios printed posters and publicity stills on T-shirts. T-shirts with logos were given away as promotional items by innumerable companies. Even during presidential elections, supporters wore T-shirts with candidates’ slogans. The anti-war sentiments brought on by the Vietnam War were printed, and the shirts became the uniform of the protest march. This once humble garment became more vivid and mainstream.

     

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