In the beginning there was an undergarment. Then there was some time and then there was the T-shirt. The history of the T-shirt is best discussed with regard to events narrowed down to decades rather than years. The tee (the more modern abbreviation of T-shirt) is an item of clothing that most of us take for granted these days. But like all ubiquitous things in the world it has a humble beginning and a life story and a modern day ending.
According to historians the roots of the T-shirt are most definitely military. Whether it is the U.S. Navy, British Royal Navy, French Army or even American footsoldiers it is the addition of this item of clothing to uniforms around the First World War that the story begins.
Many sources claim many ideas but it would seem at some point that the U.S. Navy issued a crew necked, reasonably short sleeved, quite white garment to be worn underneath dress and other uniform shirts. There are some that claim this item has its roots in the 19th century, when the "union suit" (an all in one item of clothing worn underneath all other items of clothing) was cut just above the waist to produce two garments, one for the legs and one for the torso.
Wherever the original idea came from the name, taken from the shape, has become a part of the English language and a part of modern dress codes. The ability to date the use of the term "T-shirts" from published editions of the American English dictionary means we can start to narrow down some dates that are reliable with regard to this most useful of clothing items. So in the 1920s the T-shirt is listed in the AED and, from there on, the history of this humble piece of clothing is easier to trace.
Before the Second World War there were retailers advertising them to the public; such as Hanes and Fruit of the Loom. The 1940s and the Second World War saw the need for practical, easy to produce and cheap items of clothing for many military uniforms. So at this time almost all arms of the Armed Forces in the US had a standard issue T-shirt. Such that when servicemen returned after the war they brought with them the concept, and the desire to wear them in civilian life.
As with many things of the 20th century it was the impact of film that really pushed this garment onto the public's imagination. Marlon Brando and James Dean both wore the iconic white T-shirt in their most famous productions; "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Rebel without a Cause".
From white to print was an easy step for the 1960s. From tie-dye to political unrest and psychedelic imagery the T-shirt has seen many, many formats. As a marketing tool the fledgeling branded T-shirt appeared in the early 60s. The surfing community were amongst the first to pick up and run this new form of brand exposure. It is said that in 1961 Floyd Smith, a maker of surfboards from the West Coast of the USA, told the WaveRider's and surfers on his local beach to bring their white T-shirt to his surf shack where he would screenprint the surf board company logo onto it.
We are so used to this form of advertising, it seems so logical, that the concept that someone came up with this idea is almost too difficult to comprehend. But there was a time when T-shirts did not have logos, political messages or psychedelic images on them and then the next day they did, period.
In the world today, it has been estimated that, there are over 300 million T-shirts dedicated to the surfing community, produced around the world each year. It would seem that the T-shirt has surpassed its critical mass.
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