The Definitive History of the T-Shirt
Today the modern T-shirt has spawned a vast textile and fashion industry, worth over two-billion dollars to the world’s retail trade. The unlikely birth of the t-shirt was a rather unspectacular event, however this humble piece of attire was set to change the styles and fashions of cultures for generations to come. Eventually the T-Shirt would be used as a political tool for protest and in certain times and places in history, a symbol of revolution and change.
At the very beginning the t-shirt was little more than a piece of underwear, an extremely utilitarian one at that. In the late 19th century the union suit, (also colloquially known as long johns), was in its hey day, worn across America and northern parts of Europe. Popular throughout class and generation, this modest knitted one-piece covered the whole body, from the neck to the wrists and ankles Comme des Garcons . The designs pièce de résistance featured a drop flap in the back for ease of use in the old outhouse. As cotton became more and more widely available, underwear manufacturers seized the moment to create an alternative to this mainstay and rather cumbersome design. Knitted material is difficult to cut and sew seams and thus with cotton a radical shift towards mass-made fashion could begin.
In Europe times were changing, as the Americans continued to sweat and itch, a simple “T-shaped” template was cut twice from a piece of cotton cloth and the two pieces faced and stitched together in a lowly European workhouse. It was half a pair of long johns, but it soon took on a life of its own. As the Industrial Revolution reached its inevitable conclusion, Henry T. Ford created the world’s first production line, the ideas of functionalism, efficiency, and utilitarian style entered the mainstream consciousness of societies across the world, and Europe in particular. Many began to question the Puritanism of the past, Victorian buttoned-down ideas of modesty were starting to give way to scantier and scantier swimsuits, ankle-bearing skirts, and short-sleeved shirts. As World War One loomed upon the horizon, the t-shirt was about to be conscripted to the army.
Historical researchers define the first recorded incident of the introduction of the T-shirt to the United States occurred during World War One when US soldiers remarked upon the light cotton undershirts European soldiers were issued as standard uniform. American soldiers were fuming, their government were still issuing woolen uniforms, this wasn’t fashion, it was practically a tactical military disadvantage. How could a sniper keep still and aim his rifle with beads of sweat pouring in his eyes, and an itch that just wouldn’t go away? The US army may not have reacted as quickly as their troops would have liked, but the highly practical and light t-shirt would soon make its way back to the mainstream American consumer.
Due to their highly recognizable shape, and want for a better name, the word “T-shirt” was coined, and as the word found its place in the cultural lexicon, people across the world began to adopt the new and more comfortable alternative to the union shirt. A handful of American experts claim that the name was coined in 1932 when Howard Jones commissioned “Jockey” to design a new sweat absorbing shirt for the USC Trojans football team. However the US army contests the origins of the word come from army training shirts, being the military it was not long before practicality ensured the abbreviation. There is one alternative theory, little known and rather graphic in its interpretation. Essentially the idea that shortened-length arms were described as akin to the shape of an amputees torso, a common sight in the bloodier battles of the past, though this speculation cannot be verified, the idea has a gory ring of truth about it. During World War II the T-shirt was finally issued as standard underwear for all ranks in both the U.S. Army and the Navy. Although the T-shirt was intended as underwear, soldiers performing strenuous battle games or construction work, and especially those based in warmer climes would often wear an uncovered T-shirt. On July the 13th, 1942, the cover story for Life magazine features a photo of a soldier wearing a T-shirt with the text “Air Corps Gunnery School”.
In the first few years after World War Two, the European fashion for wearing T-shirts as an outer garment, inspired mainly by new US army uniforms, spread to the civilian population of America. In 1948 the New York Times reported a new and unique marketing tool for that year’s campaign for New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey. It was the first recorded “slogan T-Shirt”, the message read “Dew It for Dewey”, closely repeated by the more famous “I Like Ike” T-shirts in Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidential campaign.